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Episode #1: Don’t make it different, make inclusive

As part of series on frankSTORIES, we interviewed Valentina Coco (Switzerland based, Finance and Business Analyst professional) on her career experiences transitioning and integrating different organizations and in different roles.

Besides her advise to proactively manage your onboarding yourself, not to have it imposed on you, and actively involve other, she also addressed her perspective on how today’s onboarding practices impact diversity in leadership positions.

Professionally educated as managerial engineer in Italy, Valentina started her career as business analysist in various roles within a Swiss FMCG multinational, later diversifying herself with chemical, engineering and supply chain industry experiences enriching her leadership expertise from business analytics to also supply chain and financial management.

In 2018, having worked for few years in the USA, she returned back to Switzerland, and recently started as Senior Business Controller with a global engineering and manufacturing firm.

About onboarding

Q: How have you experienced your onboarding in previous roles?

When onboarding in more junior roles, I had not read any of the books [i.e. ‘The first 90 days’, by Michael D Watkins] that prepared for doing things right. I did the job-interview, was offered the role, understood the role-expectations from the job-title given. Finally, I was provided a list of people to meet in the first period and accepted the tasks that were given to me.

During the job-interview itself, I had no clear idea on the needs of the organization, the priorities that I needed to support, the skills, knowledge or experience they were looking for to fill any gap in their organizations. When started, I did what needed to be done, how it was done before by myself or my predecessor and where required I filled my own knowledge gaps by just doing it – it was learning by doing.

After having been in the role for 6 to 12-months and having received first feedback on my performance, only then I had the courage to say that I missed something or that I felt things could be done differently. I learned it the hard way.

Q: What have you changed since those experiences?

In preparing for my last two or three positions I approached things in a more proactive way. During job-interviewing, I tried to create better self-awareness on the role and new context arriving in. I asked questions to my future manager about role expectations, on priorities during the first 30, 60, 90 day, how success looks like. Also, a better understanding on the perfect candidate helped me to identify my knowledge and experience gaps early on, directing my learning from that moment onwards.

If time allowed, I would start reading about the topics I missed knowledge on, founds connections in my network to to tell me more about the industry or the organization arriving to better, tried to understand stakeholders and their behaviors. If time lacking, I would prioritize this for during my onboarding.

Soon after the start I already discussed with my new manager my first reflections on the job-interviews, and my understanding of the role. I suggested a direction based on my strengths and weaknesses, I asked for recommendation with respect to the appropriate pace of transformation, change or adjustment during first 60, 90 days, 6 months. It was a dialogue.

Q: Can you share an example?

During my last job-interview, we discussed two technical expertise and stakeholder-management. I was grilled on my in-depth technical expertise in financial accounting and being senior controller, it was clear that I lacked critical knowledge. I responded that ‘if they were looking for a person that can reproduce financial theory from the book, I would not be the right person.’ I feared to be out of the race.

After they offered the role, my new manager called me and explained that such assessment was to understand better my stakeholder management approach, soft and process skills, not the technical facts. He also wanted me to know that he didn’t think any less of me for not knowing the formulas and stuff like that. This triggered a deeper conversation on stakeholder management. Fully aware this is one of my stronger sides, I invited him to share his perspective on what I may still lack to be really successful in the job. How to focus the right way on – also for him – critical stakeholders. How to make him successful, by hiring me.

Together we prepared an onboarding plan. I had my reading list ready and was able to invite networked people in the company for coffee as part of my pre-boarding period. In the early weeks of the onboarding, I was critical about the initial onboarding agenda and plans prepared for me, but I they were flexible in adjusting it so I could best educate myself about the new organisation and role-taking.

Reflecting on the past and decide what to carry forward helps you to fill your leadership basket. Projecting on the journey ahead helps you to develop the needed agility to deal with changing and new circumstances per your onboarding. See also our earlier article on Have your Mental Model ready!
Q: How do you stay authentic in your transitions?

I try to be authentic by using my personal learning curve to build credibility throughout the organization. Understand that I have a very strong opinion of how things should be done. I realize that I don’t know better than anybody else, but as I am in a role to improve the situation or a process – I can’t succeed in if I don’t understand it first myself.

So, how I approach my projects at work, is how I approach my own transition as well. I need to stay aware of the hierarchy the politics present in any organization. I do not want to jump in as the new manager that wants to change everything telling all is wrong. I want to give myself time to master myself what has been done until now, to understand the people and use that to define an improvement plan. Then again talk to people, gather support from stakeholders, before I propose it to my boss. Unless something critical, this can last for 2 to 3 months before I may act more fundamentally. So, by building relationships and learn from others I try to feed my personal learning that will equip me to recommend more fundamental steps

Q: What is your advice to others that are preparing for an upcoming transition?

My first advice: do the job-interview with a shift in mindset. Meaning, consider that you’re interviewing the company as much as they’re interviewing you.

It’s not about the money and the salary package only. You are interviewing them also to understand if they are fit to your strengths. As said before, ask questions about what they expect from you, what is needed, what is or is not working, what are the challenges the company faces, how is the culture. The only way to understand, is to ask questions, not to be questioned!

Especially the junior people would never ask. I never dared to ask until I got coached and use the opportunity to do an assessment of the role and the company as much as they were assessing me.

“The only way to understand, is to ask questions, not to be questioned!”

In an ideal world, I would advise people to start learning about the company (not the specific job) before even applying. Go talk to people that are working at the company, connect. Understand why you want to work there? What are they about? Is there a fit?  If that’s not possible, be sure to ask as much as possible instead during the interview process to understand. You want transparency on if you are a fir to them, as they are a fit to you!

My second advice: don’t be scared of speaking up and make a plan for onboarding. It’s a two-way street. Don’t take the onboarding sheet that people are giving you and just do it. If you don’t understand what’s for, or how it related to the longer-term plan or priorities, challenge it. You’re not challenging them that you don’t want to do it which I think holds people back sometimes. It is trying to make it work for yourself.

In my last role, I needed to do the financial closures already second month. Not knowing all the technical details, I had to set priority this in my early stages on onboarding or I would miss the deadline, on fail in delivering quality and on expectations. I did it through intensified dialogues with the people around me.

“It’s okay to say you’re not good at everything.”

Be honest with yourself. It’s okay to say you’re not good at everything. You don’t have to pretend as they will find out anyway if you’re not. It’s just going to create wrong expectations with your management. And they’ll come back and say: “why haven’t you done everything about it?”

About Diversity

Q: How are current recruitment and onboarding practices impacting diversity in leadership positions?

Based on my own experience and having coached many women in their professional development, in case you desire diversity in leadership – the difference can be made in the job-advertisement, during the job-interview but also during the onboarding.

The job advertisement

Presenting a long-list of job-requirements in explicit charismatic terms is assumed to be gender neutral. But they are not! The default for reading them is ‘for men’. Most women are assertive and don’t recognize themselves in such charismatic, strong words. There is evidence of specific words used in job-descriptions that put off women from applying.

Of course, women applying can be coached on to focus on being evaluated on their potential, not on career-achievements only. And, if you miss any quality or requested experience: develop it, educate yourself but avoid doubting yourself.

But, we also need to educate hiring organizations not to rely on the fact that women will suddenly start thinking like men and say ‘I can fix the last 30% so I will apply.’ More is needed.

The interview process

Let me first compliment men who commonly showcase a Can-Do attitude: I’m great, I’m awesome, I can learn this, I’ve done it once five years ago, I know how to do it. They want to see if the company is good-enough for them – culturally or financially. Typically, man are not afraid to ask the critical questions that will help them to do their due diligence on whether this opportunity is right of wrong for them.

When women being interviewed are challenged on technical skills, or previous experiences they ‘more factually’ answer with ‘no’ or ’not done before’. Men are more confident to say ‘sure’ if they knowing how to bridge any knowledge or experience gap.

Hiring organizations need to be more aware on this. As interviewer might think: ‘she does not know the answer’, ideally he (or she) should be aware that this causes many female applicants to refrain from asking further and deeper questioning on culture, politics as they do not want to be seen as a difficult candidate.

As a result, the candidate lacks insight if she is able to leverage her strengths to do what is needed to successfully deliver in the job; is there is a culture-fit or other conditions that make me and the hiring organization the best match possible.  Unfortunately, it stimulates women to only look at jobs where they technically fit for 80 to 90% assuming that with a 60% fit, they will not qualify anyway.

The onboarding

In some working cultures being perceived as difficult or critical in the early stage of employment endangers your job-continuity. Keeping a low profile in first 6-12 months, doing what is said (or common) is for many the safest onboarding strategy to avoid being ‘let-go’ without having to provide any real reasoning. Women easier accept to be later confronted with feedback on having failed to demonstrate their strengths or being offered coaching or guidance to repair that. It is the price to pay for ‘to prevent being perceived difficult’.

I think that during my career until now, I can count the number of men that hold back to prevent being seen as difficult on one hand only.

Q: Do you believe diversity requires a different onboarding approach for women?

Not necessarily as that would not express equality of opportunity and professionals, but it would be great to have some elements ‘design-in’ that are not default early-behavior by woman. Like ‘active feedback’. Where man – out of confidence and lack of fear – will ask and give feedback more naturally from the first day onwards, women will only do so if they are asked and a context where trust and confidence (not fear) is being created.

“Don’t make it different, make it inclusive!”

One could include in an onboarding checklist (online, app, etc.) reflective questions on feeling welcome, making progress. It is best to avoid language that emphasizes gaps or failures, but that stimulates thinking or prepares a conversation on improvement, activating strengths. Invite the women that by nature are less to speak out loud. Don’t make it different, make it inclusive!

About mistakes

Q: What do you consider your biggest mistake in previous job-transition?

Previously, I was ‘on-boarding’ in a new role in same organization. Being promoted and suddenly managing a team of 30 people I was able to leverage the insights from the manager I was succeeding. The practices, the people, the challenges. Only 3 months in the job, when being asked to come with a proposed new structure for the team I came quickly with the answers to my management. But upon communicating the direction to my team, a bomb exploded.

I had not really talked to my team members, collectively and individually. There was unhappiness due to having no understanding for the reshuffling of tasks, people collaborating. I was unaware of deeper mistrust, conflicts between individuals, strengths and weaknesses in the team. I had assumed a reality that demonstrated not to be true. We halted implementation, I started over with the team and validated my assumptions by visiting the people in their context, organizing workshops, allowing development discussions and leverage me being a woman as it seemed easier for people to openly talk to.

Q: Did you also fail in aligning to any company culture or values?

Earlier, I experienced a misunderstanding of the company culture where I copied a manager on progress and thoughts whereas this was considered ‘not-done’ in that organization. I came from an organization where the boss was copied on everything, so I continued that approach unconsciously at that time also impacting others listed on the commutation

Realizing quickly my mistake, I also realized that this could have been something the organization should have briefed me on when arriving. An apology was the first remedy to repair this ‘also embarrassing’ action.

We at Frank and the Navigator put importance to active sensing your context. While onboarding or even when in the job for longer we tell our clients: "never assume you know your context" and be sensitive to how your behaviour is perceived by other. See also our earlier article on Carefully designed Moments of Truth.

Concluding

Q: How do you reflect on your career transitions and self-development in this?

Where change management and agility are capabilities organizations need to anticipate changes in context, the competition or event internally, also professionals that pursue the leadership track need to develop similar skills and capabilities to manage their transitions effectively.

And it is hard because when this implies that you are not that great at something, But the reality is you need to learn how to do it better next time. And if you’re lucky, you’re never going to fail but if you do not learn and there is a moment of failure it is going to impact not just yourself, but also the organization.

There are enough coaches these days specialized to support any professionals at this day and age, but no professional will express him or herself: “I need to get better at my own change management.” And if you do but don’t want your employer to know this you will do it in your own time. For sure, it’s a skill you are always going to need it being a successful leader in transition.

Q: Do you have any final advise you would like to share with others?

As discussed already, to successfully transition in new roles, you will benefit having different levels of self-knowledge, reflection and awareness.

In the early stage of you career, you may see every opportunity to learn something new. You may not be aware of lacking relevant skills and experience, it drives you in embracing every opportunity to grow. Onboarding in a next role of job, you will benefit from a more active reflection on your knowledge gaps so you can define tactics to educate yourself. To create conditions for success based on better understanding of your strengths.

Once onboarding in management roles and especially (executive) leadership positions, you should know yourself in terms of your skills, experiences, strengths and weaknesses. Based on understanding the gap between what is needed to be successful and your current ‘leadership package’ you can define your active learning prior and during your onboarding.

Ensure you pro-actively drive your onboarding program, how is it benefiting you and the new organization, don’t have it done for you, invite your peers, team and colleagues around you as your arrival also impacting their engagement and moral.

In short, in all stages of your career development, develop your levels of self-awareness and pro-actively drive your onboarding to maximize your own potential and that of the people working with.

We at Frank and the Navigator believe that when taken a team’s approach in onboarding, one is able to set and calibrate ambitions, rediscover own organisation, reformulate success, identify, and pursue individual and collective full potential. See also our earlier article on Onboarding a new leader, is about rebounding together.

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