By Vishal Agarwal
In April of 2004, I moved 7000 miles around the world from Boston in the US to Nairobi, Kenya, to take a senior position at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Africa. I was not new to the firm; in fact, I had begun my career with the firm in 1993 in Washington DC. That international move was a pretty dramatic setup to become the new guy. In most instances, however, becoming the new man or woman happens much more subtly than that. It also happens to executives more frequently than we might realise. In fact, in any successful corporate career, an executive often has to start over in a new situation, complete with new people and new surroundings.
This common experience can happen when making a move to a new city, as I did, or when making a lateral move within the same company when an executive is transferred to a new role, albeit a more senior position. Of course, any time you join a new company you’re automatically the new person.
Being the new guy or woman involves a number of challenges for senior leaders. There’s a subculture that must be navigated and, in many ways, overcome. The executive has to start over.
As my career progressed and I grew wiser and more experienced, I understood that all large corporations have their own subcultures. Even the most experienced senior executive cannot escape the culture-within-a-culture phenomenon they’ll encounter whenever they become the new guy or woman.
If you’re an ambitious executive, you will eventually experience these challenges too. You’ll feel isolated from your new colleagues, rather than included. You’ll get frustrated trying to navigate the subculture-within-a-subculture. You’ll be an outsider—at least for a while.
Navigating the new guy syndrome
Here are some tips to help you through being the ‘new guy’:
• Don’t flash your resume and previous background at everyone
• Go on a listening tour
• Immerse yourself: lunch with them; listen to them; learn from them; understand them and the new office culture
• You have to pay your dues. You have to build relationships. You have to show a willingness to learn, collaborate, and share
• Monitor the internal twitter: Fix any misconceptions about you through your actions
• Find your compass: find a mentor within the organisation
• Keep your word and follow through on what you say you’re going to do
When you join an existing team, you’ll naturally be viewed with a heavy dose of skepticism until you earn their trust, which takes time. This is human nature. You’re seen as an outsider because you weren’t groomed or promoted from within. You don’t have shared experiences with the existing team. You haven’t lived in the trenches and fought the battles along with them. You’re an unknown quantity.
What makes this experience so uncomfortable is the contrast with your previous position. You used to be a key team member. Your colleagues looked up to you. They asked you for advice—both personally and professionally. You were a leader. You socialised with everyone and were invited to every party, lunch, dinner, and to drinks. You were tapped into the network. But, in this new role, you’re not even part of it.
It’s only natural that you’ll feel excluded. Why aren’t they including me? I’m the leader, why aren’t they coming to me with problems or solutions? Why wasn’t I invited to the bar after work?
It’s lonely. It’s uncomfortable. It’s like a trial by fire, and you have to either navigate it successfully or suffer the consequences.
But I promise you, it is possible to overcome being the new guy or woman. I did it, and so have many of my mentors, mentees, and friends.
Denial doesn’t work
The first step in learning to navigate your new-person status in the culture-within-a-culture is to recognise it for what it is. The first time you find yourself in this position, you’ll experience an uneasiness—you’ll feel like something is off. I was highly respected in my previous job, but I don’t feel that way here. What’s up?
After a short time, you’re likely to do what I did and question whether these feelings are valid. I’ve never been treated this way. Is it just my imagination? Is it the team? Is it me? Have I changed? Is it my fault? You might try to deny that your new colleagues are treating you differently than the other team members, or you may try to simply avoid discussing it or thinking about it.
But you need to face it. Those feelings you’re having are real.
Denial doesn’t work. Neither does inaction, repression, or avoidance. If you simply avoid dealing with the reality of what’s happening, then the problem will likely persist. The level of mistrust is real, and it influences how others interact with you.
But don’t take it personally. The mistrust is not because of anything you did. Your new team members still don’t know you or what a high-quality person you are. To them, you’re simply seen as an outsider who’s not yet part of the team. Trust takes time.
Being the new guy isn’t easy
I’ve observed, counseled, and mentored countless executives as they went through the same thing I described in this piece. They were hired and brought into an office in a senior role, only to be excluded from the group because they were new. Many of them overcame these challenges. Others did not.
Being the new guy or woman isn’t easy. In a way, you have to run through the gauntlet. It’s a rite of passage. It’s trial by fire, and not everyone makes it to the other side. But if you can make it through, you’ll be better for it. Not only that, but you’ll be one of the team.
Overcoming the new guy syndrome in a culture-within-a-culture takes hard work, self-awareness, action, and immersion. Take matters into your own hands. Don’t leave your reputation to chance. Monitor the internal Twitter feed in your office. Invest in learning about your team members, and endeavor to win them over with your actions.
You have to possess the endurance to go the distance. It took me almost a full year to overcome the new person syndrome and come out a winner on the other side. You must have the stomach for it—the steely determination to be the new guy or woman for a while. Eventually, you’ll win.
Vishal Agarwal is a senior leader, who has navigated corporate life for the past 24 years. This article draws from his debut bestseller #GiveToGet.