It’s Easy Once You Understand the System

I was in Washington, D.C., recently, complaining once again about how I find the city impossible to navigate. My friend Denise Evans of IBM said, “It’s easy once you understand the system,” and then drew me this great map on a napkin that taught me at last the secrets of the D.C. grid.

That got me thinking decisionsabout what happens to new employees when they enter our organizations, where finding your way around is “easy once you understand the system.” But what map do you draw for them on a napkin? Are we even conscious that there is a “system” or has it become so ingrained that we don’t even think it might need to be explained to someone new?

When someone is new to your company, they walk in on the first day not knowing how the company works. They don’t know where the power lies, how meetings get scheduled, who to trust, what the protocol is for e-mail. They don’t even know where to find the bathroom!

Research has shown that 40 percent of new executives fail in their first two years on the job. It costs a minimum of 30 percent of salary to hire a new executive. Average turnover costs are two to three times salary. That means having a new $150,000 per year executive fail will cost you at least $400,000. Some of that failure comes from having done a poor job hiring, some from poor performance, some of it— perhaps even most of it—may come from simply not understanding “the system.”

Teaching the Invisible

In large companies, there may be a formal onboarding program designed to give new employees the tools they need to technically master their jobs. In smaller firms, perhaps the new employee sits next to an experienced colleague until he or she learns the techniques. But how much attention is given to figuring out the company culture, its invisible infrastructure, and not just the skills? I once left a company where most communication was done via e-mail. E-mail responses came faster than instant messages. In the company I joined, my boss checked e-mail no more than once a day. By the end of the first week, we were both hugely frustrated: he thought I wasn’t responding to his requests and I couldn’t understand why he didn’t reply to my e-mails. We made different assumptions about the culture and communications and it took us several days—and lots of aggravation— before we realized we needed to draw something on a napkin to get our communication pattern to work for both of us.

Every organization has a culture, parts of which are easily taught and easily learned—the company’s values are on a poster in the break room, the travel policy is in the employee handbook—but there are many more parts that are unspoken, even invisible. (“Yeah, I know the poster says we value ‘collaboration’ but all the bonus plans are based on our individual results so that must be what they really want us to pay attention to.”) It’s up to the leader— of the department, division or company—to shine a light on these implicit aspects of the culture so they are more explicit for the new employee and to clear up misunderstandings.

As with navigating Washington, D.C., once you’ve learned the system, it’s pretty easy. But how well do we really know the systems that make our companies run? How consistent are we in briefing new employees on its idiosyncrasies? Taking enough time to do this well might just keep someone from going the wrong way on a one-way street.

Editors Note: This Article originally appeared in Enterprising Women


Margaretta Noonan
Margaretta Noonan
While still a senior executive at a global company, Margaretta Noonan started asking herself, “Am I All There?” After several years of exploring the topic of employee engagement – her own included; Margaretta co-founded ngage, a technology-enabled solution that creates a continuous connection between employees and managers about the issues that are critical to organizational success;. Margaretta spent 30 years in Human Resources and senior leadership with global Fortune 500 companies in the retail and professional services industries. Knowing that a company is only ever as strong as the talent inside it – in addition to ngage, Margaretta heads a woman-owned consulting business, noonanWorks (, dedicated to working at the intersection of employee engagement / customer engagement and financial results.

CHECK FOR TICKETS / JOIN OUR WAITING LIST! It's not a virtual event. It's not a conference. It's not a seminar, a meeting, or a symposium. It's not about attracting a big crowd. It's not about making a profit, but rather about making a real difference. LEARN MORE HERE



  1. Great points! Over the holiday, I was talking with my stepson who is on the fast track to a Director role at a big company. He was talking about moving into his current role, and how it took him a year to figure out some of the simple budget issues like how to capitalize something and get it approved. I asked him if it would have been helpful to have a better way to learn the nuances, and he said it would have saved him a year of frustration.

    We do a disservice to our leaders by throwing them into roles without preparation, either for the obvious or for the nuanced.