No Rest Between Jobs

How to make the best use of the time between a job offer and your first day on the job.

You’ve cleaned up your resume, worked your network, aced interviews and landed a job. Now it’s time to relax and recharge before you start the grind anew in a fresh job. Right?

Not when you’ve reached the senior ranks, career experts told Ladders.

The pace at which executives are expected to get with the corporate program leaves them little time to orient. Thus, the time between a job offer and your first day on the job is a window of opportunity to get a head start on making the job work for you. It’s also a chance to tie up loose ends with your old job or your job search, manage relationships, and prepare your professional network to migrate with you to the next position.

Far from a rest-and-recuperation cycle, this stretch could be the busiest time of your life, said James Thompson, vice president of business development for JMJ Phillip, a recruiting and research firm that specializes in manufacturing and information technology.

“Like it or not, most people, regardless of the position, are under evaluation for the first few months or even longer,” Thompson said. “You may have done research prior to the interviews, but you should still do as much preparation as you can prior to your start date. Everyone loves to see someone hit the ground running, and the higher you are up the ladder, the less hand-holding is going to be done.”

Carol Meerschaert said the three weeks were critical between her last day at her old job and her first day as the director of marketing and communications for the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association. She started the job Nov. 16 after nearly two years as assistant director of marketing for another national health care organization. “You want to hit the ground running and show you know your stuff,” she said.

During her three weeks between jobs, Meerschaert read everything she could get her hands on about her new organization and offered to assist in any way she could to ease her entry into the group. She even sat in on a two-hour conference call while in New York on vacation.

“I knew that a lot of people wanted this job, so to prove myself, I read the whole Web site,” she said. “This sounds boring, and it is, but I wanted to get as much information as I could. Also, it’s a marketing and communications position, so I wanted to see what their marketing and communications were — where my work would be cut out for me.”

Start right away

The time between a job offer and start date can make or break your early performance and reputation at a company, said recruiters and human-resource experts who have seen candidates thrive and fail early on the job.

Abby Kohut, president and staffing consultant of Staffing Symphony, advises the candidates she works with to research a company and its key players thoroughly before their first days on the job.

“You should be particularly interested in a company’s products, services, financials and culture,” Kohut said. “During the first few weeks (on the job), learning about the who, what, where, why and how is the main responsibility, so any head start you have will be helpful.”

That kind of due diligence makes new employees “much more productive in their first 100 days,” said Tony Deblauwe, the founder of HR4Change, a resource for personal and corporate development services.

Deblauwe recommended that new hires work with their managers and human- resources departments to obtain information such as org charts, talent inventories and marketing data on product strategies. This provides “a picture from the data of where they need to focus and use that information in the one-on-one meetings with key stakeholders that occur in the first 45 days,” he said. “They also figure out who to partner with to begin delegating tasks and identifying high-potential talent who are eager to move quickly.”

Meerschaert was particularly interested in learning as much as she could about the people with whom she would be working, especially since she would be working remotely. In addition to communicating with her soon-to-be colleagues by e-mail and phone, Meerschaert attended in-person networking events where she got the lowdown on the people with whom she would be working and to whom she’d report.

Spread the word

Social-networking sites are another valuable tool to help job seekers effectively bridge the gap between one job and another.

After formally resigning from her former previous position, Meerschaert immediately announced her new job on her LinkedIn status update, where she knew many members of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association would read the news. Meerschaert also used her Twitter account to announce her new role. “It showed the pride I had in landing this job,” she said.

Michael Hickins also used social- networking sites, including Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, to announce that he was taking on a new role, developing online products for The Wall Street Journal. Before that, Hickins had been blogging for organizations including InformationWeek and BNET.

Hickins said he wanted to take time off before he started his new position, but there was so much he wanted to accomplish between the job offer and the start of the new job that he took only a single weekend to relax.

One of the most important things for Hickins was to let the people with whom he’d been working know that his situation was changing and how much he appreciated their professional relationships.

“What I did the first few days (after I got the offer) was reach out to everyone who had been a source,” Hickins said. “I thanked each person for being a good source, for keeping me in the loop or what have you. I told them I had a great new job, that I was really happy and that I would share more details when I could.”

Hickins said this step was important so his clients had as much notice as possible that he was moving on to something different but also to make sure that doors would be open in the future.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” Hickins said. “I mean, (the offer from The Wall Street Journal) was as solid a job offer as you could get — I don’t have any doubts that it’s going to work out — but you never know. So I wanted to make sure that no one was offended because of me suddenly disappearing off the face of the planet and not doing them the courtesy of telling them what was going on.”

A kind and thoughtful resignation letter as soon as you accept a new position also maintains a bridge to past relationships, JMJ Phillip’s Thompson said. Even if your experience was less than pleasant, Thompson echoed Hickins’ “you never know” mantra: “You may have no plans to ever return to your previous employer regardless of the situation, but in five years, you never know when someone else has jumped ship (to another company) and may want to give you a call to bring you aboard with them.”

Passing the torch

There are other loose ends to tie, such as passing the torch of institutional knowledge and ensuring a smooth procedural transition.

Managing relationships and tying loose ends was equally important to Meerschaert as she prepared to exit her former job. She spent time letting the vendors she had been working with know she was leaving. She also worked diligently to ease the transition for her soon-to-be-former co-workers, especially since the manager there had recently left the organization and the department was shrinking.

Meerschaert and her former employer were aided by the fact that she had long operated under a philosophy she called her “hit-by-a-bus attitude.”

“Tomorrow, you could get hit by a bus,” she said. “Can somebody come in and do your job?” This mindset drove Meerschaert to keep exacting records of processes and procedures that she was able to pass on to co-workers to enable a smooth transition.

HR housekeeping

Before starting in their respective new jobs, both Hickins and Meerschaert tried to accomplish “HR housekeeping” tasks for the new company, such as filling out HR forms.

“The Wall Street Journal gave me the option of filling out a lot of the HR paperwork online ahead of time, and I did that so that when I got there I wouldn’t lose as much time during the first couple of days as you typically do doing all of that stuff,” Hickins said.

Kohut also recommended requesting that business cards and technology be ready for the first day and that meetings with key players be scheduled in your first few days on the job. “You may be permitted to come in several days before to set up your new office and to meet several members of your team,” she said. “This will make the actual first day so much easier.”

Prepare to feel stupid

The loss of a job is widely considered to be one of life’s most stressful events, but so is the start of a new job. Going from being the go-to person when questions need answering to being the person who needs to ask all of the questions is difficult, to say the least. It’s important to acknowledge this as you make your transition; that was the consensus of everyone who spoke to Ladders. “Do not expect to move mountains during your first week,” said Kohut.

Hickins went so far as to rehearse the emotions of that first day.

“I spent some time thinking about my past experiences with a new job, where the first couple of weeks are really hard emotionally,” he said. “I’d come home and feel like, ‘I really don’t know if I can do this — maybe it’s beyond me, maybe I got a job that’s too hard for me.’ I remembered that experience.”

Hickins said this process helped him set realistic expectations for himself so he “didn’t feel like a failure because I hadn’t solved all of the world’s problems on my first day of the job.”

Meerschaert agreed: “You just know that you’re going to go in and you’re going to feel stupid for a while because you don’t know what’s going on.”

Nevertheless, she said, it’s important to remember the skill, knowledge and acumen that got you the job in the first place.

In any case, a little modesty and humility will be appropriate at this time, Meerschaert said.

“You should tread lightly and make every attempt to fit into the team and blend in with the culture,” she said. “Everyone has their eyes on you, so while you should try to make a fast impact, many people and organizations find it difficult to accept change. The time will come for you to let your opinions be known, and you will sense when that is.”