Succeed at a new job

New gig? Ask as many questions as you can.

Josée Dupuis was in her finance job at a Toronto-based distributor of electrical products for only five months before she called it quits. “In terms of the work and the projects that I could do, it was great,” she says. “But in terms of employee development, employee motivation and communication, it lacked severely.”

It's a situation that O. J. Kerr, a consultant at recruitment firm IQ Partners in Toronto, sees quite often. “It's the worst-case scenario when you realize a job isn't what you thought it was,” she says. Many people start a new position without having enough information about the firm and what is expected of them. “Most companies now have a 90-day probationary period,” says Kerr. “That 90 days is key to showing them you're worth their hire.” It's going to take a bit of work to make sure the position is right for you and to prove to your boss that you're right for the company. But it will pay off in the long run.

During the interview process, ask as many questions as you can about the job. It's a bit like dating, says Kerr. “You want to ask the tough questions, but you don't want to ask them too soon.” Asking your interviewer something like, “What is one thing you would change in this company?” is a great way to find out what the organization's weaknesses are. But, it's probably a good question to save until the later stages of the interview process. Debra Johnstone, a partner at human-resources consultancy Cenera in Calgary, says people definitely shouldn't be afraid to quiz a hiring manager. “If the question disqualifies them,” she notes, “then that's probably OK, because it wouldn't have been an organization they would be happy with.”

Once you've accepted a position, check in with your new boss before the first day to find out what kind of orientation you can expect, and when you'll be able to meet with him or her. Find out if there will be meetings set up with key people, or if you should arrange that yourself. Often, only the hiring manager has interviewed you and you've yet to meet the whole team. On the first day, don't sit around. “It could be as simple as popping into their office and saying, 'I'm new here, can you tell me a bit about what you're expecting from me?'” says Johnstone.

Take the first few days, when you're not yet bogged down, to find out as much as you can. Read the company literature, study its website, go for coffee with peers in another division or help out a co-worker on a project. “Once you start getting busy in your job, you're not going to have time,” Johnstone says.

Find out from your boss, either during the interview process or as soon as you start, what is expected of you, short term and beyond. Then, see if you have the resources you need. If you are lacking any knowledge, skills or technical resources, flag it right away. “There's nothing worse than stumbling and not delivering,” says Kerr.

Josée Dupuis is now five weeks into a new job as a category finance analyst at Maple Leaf Foods in Mississauga, Ont., and she's already taken three training courses. “The courses are there to better yourself, and the company encourages that,” she says. When you are new, you have an advantage ? you can admit what you don't know. “This is your opportunity to find that stuff out,” says Kerr. “The longer you're in a job, the fewer excuses you have.”

You also want to get a feel for the corporate culture. “Never go for lunch alone,” says Kerr, “even if you're an introvert.” You want to find out about the people you're working with and try to get along with them. But be careful. “Corporate culture and gossip can be seen as the same thing,” warns Kerr. “They're not.” People will inevitably try to give you all sorts of advice, which could involve talking negatively about co-workers. “Dismiss yourself from the conversation,” Johnstone suggests, “and say, 'I would really appreciate getting to know people myself.'”

Remember the most important person is your manager. “That's the person who is going to be evaluating you, and is responsible for any salary increases and bonuses,” says Kerr. Establish regular meeting updates with your boss to keep him informed of what you're working on, and to bring up any concerns. “Sometimes employees will take advantage of the new kid,” says Kerr. “There's nothing wrong with taking on greater responsibility if you can handle it, as long as your manager is aware where your resources are being spent.”

If things aren't going as well as you hoped, don't run. Bring up your concerns. Johnstone recommends “integration coaching,” a service her firm offers to people making a career transition. Your coach can act as an external sounding board to put things in perspective. “Don't just quit, because you might have the wrong impression,” she says. “You saw something good about this company and this job when you started.”

If you've talked to your manager and nothing can be changed, it might result in what Kerr calls a “career mulligan.” “Sometimes you need to make that tough decision and just walk away,” she says. “Just don't make the same mistake twice.” Do an extra-careful screening of any new positions you consider.