When you transfer to a new division or start a job with a new employer, it’s natural to want to demonstrate mastery of your position from day one.
“You were hired to hit the ground running,” says Nora Klaver, a human resources consultant and author of Mayday: Asking for Help in Times of Need. “But you know that’s probably impossible, and you don’t want to look foolish.” The harsh reality of being new on the job in the 2000s: Many bosses make the irrational assumption that by merely breathing the air of the cubicle farm, you’ll absorb all the information you need.
Against that daunting background, how can you meet the challenge of getting the help that’s required to get up to speed on a new job? Approach the task the way a journalist would get the story -- by asking the five W’s.
If your company has effective training and orientation programs, why do you have to ask for further help? “The only way to become a savvy journalist or to succeed at your hedge-fund firm is to ask a lot of questions,” says Hannah Seligson, author of New Girl on the Job: Advice from the Trenches.
You also must demonstrate the rationale for your inquiries to the people whose time you take up. Your attitude and presentation are key; you must project confidence that your requests for information and guidance are reasonable and necessary.
Do ask about training, documentation and other resources you can use to educate yourself without taking up people’s time.
You can demonstrate your respect for other people’s time by being careful about what you ask. “When you ask, you want to be very specific and share what you already know,” says Barb Krantz Taylor, a consultant and psychologist with Bailey Consulting Group in Minneapolis.
But don’t confine your queries to the procedural; seek out what makes your new workplace tick. Says Seligson: “Ask a peer, ‘What are some things that you wish you’d known before you started working here?’ Try to get at the subtle culture issues. Is this an email culture or an IM culture?”
You will quickly build a reputation as a thoughtful worker if you carefully consider who in your organization is best-suited to answer your questions and otherwise render aid. “Create your own map of who does what in your organization,” a sort of annotated version of the standard org chart, says Klaver.
You’ll also need help in your initial efforts to jump-start your information-collection system. A key tactic is to pose this meta-question to your boss or other ranking manager: “Who else could I go to with this sort of question (so that I don’t have to take up your time)?”
Where (and How)?
Just as important as asking the right questions of the right person is choosing the optimal communications medium for your inquiries.
“Ask your coworkers and boss what typically goes out on email; you just want to know what the norms are,” says Taylor. She adds that email is never the most effective medium when a dialog is required.
When you ask a question of a superior, let them know that you’ll be happy to take their response in whatever form is easiest for them. If they choose to answer your detailed email with a brain dump to your voicemail, just be grateful for the information.
One way to alienate coworkers and superiors from the get-go is to ask too many questions too soon, before you need the answers and can absorb them.
Of course, you’ll still have plenty of legitimate questions in the early going, and that’s a good thing. “Ask early and often,” says Klaver. “If you ask often, people will see you as curious.”
As you move past the first stage of your tenure in a new position, consider giving back to your company’s next generation of newbies by volunteering to put together documentation of key information for new hires, whether it’s a company glossary, a guidebook or an intranet page that indexes internal resources.
Finally, if you ever get discouraged by any friction you create by asking for help, look at the big picture. “You have to remember that you’re asking questions not just for yourself, but to advance the goals of the organization,” says Klaver. “So you can be as forceful as you need to be.”