I had drinks recently with a friend who is five months into her new position at a Fortune 100 company. After a glass of wine and some real candor, she confided that she was anxious, apprehensive, and not sure if she made the right career move. I knew how she felt.
The two times I switched jobs at the CCO level, I came frighteningly close to leaving within 12 months of my appointment.
The first job had a compensation package loaded with stock options that vested in five years. I remember going for a morning jog after starting the new gig and thinking “OK, I just completed three weeks. That means I only have to survive four years, eleven months, and one week more, and then I'll get paid out.” It wasn't very comforting.
To begin with, I had to learn an entirely new industry. I went from 10 years in the motor business to the arcane world of insurance. I found myself in meetings with people arguing over basis points and surrender charges, and I was clueless.
My experience was not unique – I have friends who have gone from healthcare to entertainment, from media to biotech, and publishing to baseball. Early in my tenure at the insurance company, I took an afternoon off to attend the funeral of an elderly relative.
During the service, my father-in-law inappropriately leaned over to me and whispered: “Have you figured out what a variable annuity is yet?” He was certainly worried about me making it at the new job.
I also had to decipher the hieroglyphics of a new culture. I had mastered the corporate nuances at Nissan, a Japanese multinational where consensus was prized and direct conflict was abhorred.
I then joined a place where confrontation and open disagreements were not only tolerated, they were encouraged. A friend there offered me this advice: “If you're in a meeting with the boss and he says ‘whatever,' it means your idea is irrelevant. If he says ‘whatever' twice, it means you are irrelevant.”
And then there are internal politics that often come with new positions. In every job I have had, there were always factions fighting for control of the communications function.
Some believed it should reside in the operating units. Others felt it should be part of marketing, or report to HR, or the most ominous: report to legal.
At Nissan, one of the operating heads simply created his own communications department and I had to deal with it.
There is seldom agreement in any company as to which structure works best – but the one surety is that someone will want control of your group.
The biggest challenge often lies in the staff you inherit. In my case, and in the case of most senior people I know, there is usually at least one person in the department who believes that he or she should have the top job, and then actively works to undermine you. Usually, this disgruntled person also happens to be the most talented.
It is then your responsibility to coach, develop, or exit this person while at the same time fighting fires, and learning a new industry, culture, and company.
And so I told my apprehensive friend to be patient and that it takes a year or so before you find your sea legs. But somehow you do and pretty soon you are spouting off acronyms, using technical jargon, and having an impact. And before you know it, you are taking the new recruit to lunch and talking them off the ledge.
Don Spetner has served as CCO for Nissan North America, Sun-America, and Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.