Getting Up to Speed at a New Job

How to acclimate yourself? Pick the brains of your new co-workers and jump right into projects, experts advise

I'm a mid-career cost accountant (they call us "analysts" now) back-filling for a retiring, 10-year veteran in a complex plant -- a brewery. Technology is a major challenge. I must also apply substantial effort to learning the business and the industry. Are there any recommended steps for learning a new job besides the old adage of "work long hours"? I've developed my own transition plan, which focuses not only on learning the work but also on meeting the customers and becoming the point-person in their eyes. The incumbent retires in January, 2003.

-- J.G., Memphis, Tenn.

Many corporations brag about their fancy new-employee orientations and extensive job-training programs. But most career experts say this is primarily just talk. Companies typically prepare new workers in a much more stressful, if time-honored, way: Good old trial by fire. The fact that you've been proactive in taking steps to learn the ropes quickly wins kudos from our employment pros. "He has made a great start by making a project out of figuring out his new job," says Louise Kursmark, president of Best Impression Career Services, a resumé and career-guidance company in Cincinnati.

Contrary to your expectations, your transition plan, as you've dubbed it, may not require long hours if you're smart about it. The fact that your company is keeping the employee you're replacing while you're learning the job means that management probably holds this person in high esteem. So although it's probably an obvious point, he or she is the first person to ask for information.

"Learn as much as you can from the existing person," says Tom Welch, president of Stuart (Fla.) career-coaching service Career Dimensions and the author of Work Happy, Live Healthy, a career guide. "He or she is the absolute best source." The veteran surely will be able to tell you about the challenges the job presents -- changes, perhaps, that should have been made but that weren't for budget reasons. So get the lowdown. Of course, if it turns out instead that your soon-to-be predecessor was disliked for whatever reason, you'll have to take everything he or she says with a grain of salt.


  Either way, Kursmark suggests finding a mentor in the organization. It may be the employee who's retiring. Or it may end up being somebody else. What you should seek, however, is feedback on your effort to better understand your job, the business, and the industry. "You want guidance about where the company is going," says Kursmark. "For instance, you wouldn't want to spend all your time learning about one technology, only to find out that the company is going in a completely different direction."

Talking to your customers, as you've indicated, is also a great way to get up to speed. Welch recommends finding out what they like about the job your predecessor has done and how you can do it better. "By the time you get into the role, you can put your stamp on it and get involved in the changes," Welch says.

Your co-workers, too, will be great resources, says Wendy Enelow, president of Career Masters Institute in Lynchburg, Va. Make a point to meet them for lunch or coffee. It's key to get comments from them on current processes. "Employees often have great ideas that managers never think of," Enelow notes. Also solicit their advice on things that were tried in the past but failed. That way, you'll be less likely to repeat previous mistakes.


  Another way to dive in when you're starting out is to volunteer for a key project, says Kursmark. This will give you visibility -- you'll establish yourself immediately as a doer who isn't afraid to try new things. Another potential payoff: You'll meet people you can go to later for help or information.

"The important thing is to do things right off the bat that will put you in touch with people and business goals at the company," says Kursmark. While the incumbent is still there, get to know the place. You'll probably be too busy once you're fully in charge at your job.

As for learning the business and the industry, one of your best bets is to join industry-related associations, Enelow says. "Try to be as active as possible, whether it be through membership, training programs, or networking," she adds. Indeed, you'll probably gain the most insight from colleagues at other companies like yours. A casual check on the Internet turns up several brewers' associations.


  Schmoozing at such functions will probably be a more interesting way to learn your field than hitting the books at the local library or community college -- even though those are good places to go to as well. Contacts at other companies could serve you later in your career, of course, if it comes time to make a switch.

Last but not least, spend time getting to know your co-workers socially. Being well liked in the workplace can be as important as how well you do your job. Consider having beers with colleagues now and again -- but of course, at someplace other than the brewery.

Have a question about your career or workplace issues? E-mail us at, or write to Ask Careers, BusinessWeek Online, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, 46th Floor, New York, NY 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information. Only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

By Eric Wahlgren in New York

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