RISING STAR

Impress your new employer by solving problems they didn’t know they had

When job-hunters head into interviews, it’s only natural that they would want to put their best foot forward. What they may fail to realize is that prospective employers are hiding weaknesses of their own.

For workers who want to make a big impression at their new jobs, however, this can actually be a good thing. As soon as you land at a new company, the best thing you can do for your career is identify the hidden, scary problems your employer is dealing with and start figuring out how you can help solve them. You quickly demonstrate your importance to the company by working on the important issues.

The catch is that you won’t hear about the really big problems right away. Nobody wants to freak out the newbie—or make them think they’ve just signed onto a sinking ship. In other words, if you want to separate the marketing language and corporate cheerleading from reality, you’re going to have to be proactive. Here’s what to look for.

What do the big problems look like?

The consulting firm I joined out of college had enjoyed years of fast growth prior to my arrival. But it struggled to build deep relationships with its clients. As a result, customers bailed on us in droves when the recession hit in 2008.

My next job, at a software startup, had a single, huge client that we didn’t always know how to manage. That skewed our priorities on everything from hiring to technology decisions.

While I was at both companies, I also large huge amounts of time analyzing our customers’ problems, which showed me that even the most successful businesses in the world have lots of issues they desperately want solved—if only they had more time.

Problems within a business come in many flavors, and it’s impossible to catalog all of them here. But there are a few categories of problems to start looking for right away:

Strategic uncertainty

Figuring out where your company is from a product-market fit standpoint is a good place to start. Simply put, does your company have a product or service that your customers truly need? How hard is it for your salespeople to sell it? Is your business model in the process of being disrupted by a competitor? I’ve worked for clients where every team had a different interpretation of the company’s strategy. I’ve lived through that firsthand too. It’s pretty hard for anyone to succeed in that scenario. So if that’s the case in your new company, push for greater clarity starting right now.

Customer satisfaction

However successful your new company is, there will be people out there who don’t like it. They may even tell you that your product “sucks.” I can say from experience that it’s a jarring experience. You don’t want to read too much into a few critical comments, but it is important to understand how your customers feel about the company. Figuring out how effective your company is at keeping customers happy is crucial to understanding where you can add value.

Scalability

Look closely at how your new company actually gets work done. Is it a well-oiled machine, or are people forced to take heroic measures just to keep the trains running on time? Are the underlying technologies or tools that teams use reaching their breaking point? Realizing that the way you’re working is unsustainable—and will only get harder as time goes on—can be rough. But what’s painful today is bound to get even more painful if the business keeps growing.

People issues

When you join a new company, everyone puts on a smile and welcomes you aboard. Sooner or later you’ll find out how people really feel. But why wait?

Invite a colleague or two out for a beer and ask people about their work and office morale. Perhaps more than anything else, make an effort to connect outside the office. Alcohol (in moderation) seems to help.

If that isn’t your style, pay attention to how your colleagues approach their jobs. Are they engaged, or are they just punching the clock? Do managers genuinely care about their teams’ professional development? Maybe most importantly, how well is the hiring process working? Do you see more top-level employees coming or going, and what’s lurking behind any retention issues?

Emotion is the enemy when you’re trying to learn about these kinds of sensitive topics. You may need to work double-time to convince people that you’re just trying to understand the situation, rather than place the blame on anybody. But sure to de-personalize whatever problems you find.

The company’s problems are your opportunities

Once you start really looking for the big problems, you may start seeing nothing but problems across the organization. Don’t panic. Remember, a truly perfect company wouldn’t have needed to hire you (or anyone) in the first place.

Moreover, a business can be extremely successful despite major weaknesses. Go check out the visitors log at the front desk of any Fortune 100 company’s office. You’ll see dozens, if not hundreds of consultants and contractors who are there to help the business solve various problems. Problems are opportunities for external consultants, and they can be opportunities for you too.

Whatever problems you uncover, the most important thing is to ask yourself how your role relates to these issues. How can you do your work in a way that helps alleviate some of the issues you’ve discovered? Are you in a position to directly affect any of these things simply by virtue of being a new person? Simply by being aware of these issues, you’re bound to find new ways you can improve the business directly or indirectly.

When you demonstrate a clear understanding of what matters most to the business, managers will start to trust your judgment. You’ll be one of the people who “gets it”—and managers can’t have enough of those.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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