Below is a summary of an interview with Michael Watkins on the Cheeky Scientist podcast. You can listen to the podcast here (skip to 00:57:16).
Isaiah: So why did you decide to write books about onboarding?
Michael Watkins: I was teaching at the Kennedy School of Government. I was very interested in organizational change-type work. I was teaching a particular class about a framework on change and some very experienced leader raised his hand and said to me, That’s all very well, Michael, but you’re assuming I know everything about the organization. And that was the impetus to start down the road of thinking about transitions, because the reality is that you’re taking a job and you’re kind of struggling your way up the learning curve. At the same time, you’re trying to begin to have an impact – begin to establish yourself. It’s hard, right? It’s challenging. It continues to motivate me even today, many years later, as I’m studying the subject.
Isaiah: I think a lot of our viewers would say that they’ve been academics their entire lives, and they’re trying to make the transition to industry. Of course, we see on our side, over and over again, that all they care about is getting the job. And I’m sure this is the same for any population. Then they get the job and they have no idea what to do. They’re excited, but then it’s a black box. Is this something that you work with people on?
Michael Watkins: Absolutely. Here’s the closest parallel to the kind of people you’re talking about. I do a lot of work with healthcare companies–like Johnson & Johnson–that have very serious R&D organizations, and they bring a lot of people from clinical and research organizations into this commercial environment. And then people really can struggle, right? Because the whole logic of the way those institutions works – it’s just completely different, right? It’s not that places like Johnson & Johnson don’t care about research – they care about it deeply. But they’re running a company, and there are commercial realities, right? They’re highly regulated. They care deeply about their reputation. And then there’s the reality of navigating these complex organizations, right? Academic organizations are as Byzantine as they can be politically, yet they’re pretty simple in some senses, right?
The most basic question to ask yourself in a new role is, “How can I create value here?” This is effectively a research question, right? So activate your research skills! Figure out what role you are going to play here that creates value, and keep asking yourself that same question. Don’t assume that what you’ve been told you’re there to do is actually what you’re there to do. There is a difference between recruiting and employment – recruiting is like romance, and employment is like marriage. During the recruiting process, we’re falling in love. I’ve got my best suit on, the organization is telling the best version of its story (why it wants you to come onboard and the exciting things you’re going to get to do). You promise that you’ll always do the dishes, and they assure you that they really like your mother. And then there’s the reality – you get into the environment, and it’s a little different. So don’t assume that everything you learned during that recruiting process is the full story. And it’s not that anyone’s lying. It’s just that everyone’s got their best suit on, you know?
You also want to get a read on the organization before you go in. It may not be a natural thing to do, but you should be asking yourself, “What’s the culture of this organization, and is that a culture I want to live in?” So you’ve got to do some triangulation. There are more online resources these days that can give you insight into the nature of the workplace culture you are thinking of joining. You can also try to find people who have worked for the organization before. That culture fit is just so critical – what you don’t want to do is get into that job and find out, I really hate this place.
Isaiah: What questions can you ask about culture, and how can you figure out those unspoken rules?
Michael Watkins: I think it helps, 1st of all, to recognize that organizations can have very different cultures. You may, for example, assume the normalcy of the culture you grew up in. The same is true of the organizations you’ve “grown up” in, and if you’ve developed your career in academic research environments, they have a certain culture. Yet the culture of most large industry organizations looks nothing like that at all.
The way status works in an industry organization, or the way things are rewarded in those organizations – these are typically very different from academia. You want to ask yourself things like, “What is valued here? What are the behavioral norms that operate in this place?” I’ll give you a simple example: When I was doing my doctorate at Harvard, I was somewhere between the engineering and economics and social science folks. And an economics graduate seminar is kind of like an armed conflict, right? I mean, you go in and you (so to speak) beat the crap out of each other. And then at the end, you smile and move on. Now, if you do that in an industry company, if you come in and you go, “What a stupid idea,” they will not respond well!