This is the fourth article in my series written for the teacher stepping into a new role.  This series is designed to help you smoothly transition into your new role and start kicking goals quickly. If you are not a teacher, the process of transitioning to a new role is the same, so read on.

Last week I wrote about stepping outside your comfort zone. I walked you through a process to examine what aspects of your role and environment are outside your comfort zone so you can make a plan to actively push yourself forward in those areas.

This week I want to focus on the culture that surrounds your role. Regardless of whether you are still in the same organization or you have moved into a new one, there is a cultural difference and you need to have your eyes and ears open to it.  What do I mean by culture? Culture can be simply put as ‘the way things are done around here’. It’s a set of consistent patterns people follow for communicating, thinking and behaving. These are all grounded in the shared assumptions and values. The culture is also made up of the symbols, the shared language for example, the acronyms that are used, the way the school is organized, the approach to punctuality, how people dress and how the school recognizes and celebrates special events. These are just a few.

The culture you have come from is what you are accustomed to. The ways things are done, the processes, expectations, protocols and procedures you have been following and working within are not going to be the same in your new role and new organization and you need to find out what they are. You are effectively studying a new civilization and you need to become a ‘local’ in the new civilization. This involves learning; learning about the culture of your new environment. Some of this learning will come from watching how people work together, how things happen, the information flow that occurs amongst your colleagues, who does what and how things are done and so on. I strongly suggest you get yourself a note book to record these as the shifts in culture are often slight but impacting. If you get it wrong people will notice. An example of a cultural difference I noticed when I moved between roles was how people were recognized for their contribution. In one school, when staff submitted an article for the newsletter, the writer’s name was not to be included. In other schools, including the author’s name with their newsletter entry was common place. In another school, the annual school magazine never included mention about staff. You would never guess that staff even worked there.  In another school, staff were thanked with a thank you card, sometimes also with a small gift or trinket delivered to their desk or pigeon hole. These were always paid for by the person or group showing their appreciation with the cost never coming out of the department budget. In another school the names of staff who had helped in an activity or achieved some accolade were written up on a noticeboard in the staff room but this information was never shared with the students. The reasons for differences in culture such as this may be due to how the staff are regarded and valued by the school leaders, the collegiality across the staff, the financial situation of the school, it could be a number of things. Whatever is the case, how it is done in you school is something you need to find out and before you actually need to thank someone.

Learning about the culture of your new organization involves a ‘letting go’ of the old way to allow the new way to move in. It is important for you to look for the differences with your eyes and ears wide open. Some of this learning will also come from asking questions. It is important to ask questions. It is also vitally important that you NEVER ASSUME. Assuming is keeping you in your old space. Questioning is good when it is phrased in such a way to show your colleagues that you are keen to learn about your new organization and to assimilate into the new culture. We have all come across people who transition into a new school and constantly compare it with their old school, professing statements like …’oh at my old school(naming the school)…… we did it this way’ with an attitude that this is the only way it should be done. This is annoying because they have not given any thought or energy to the current school’s way of doing things and in making statements like this, it makes their new colleagues feel inferior. I’m sure, that was not their intention but that is so often how it is perceived and we know; ‘perception is reality’. To get around this, especially when the previous school did have the better way of operating in this case, would be to say something like, ‘I’ve seen it done like this and it worked fairly well’.

It is good to be prepared so cultural differences don’t appear out of the blue and hit you unawares. Plan two weeks ahead. Sit down with a colleague and walk through the calendar to find out how the upcoming events operate in your school. Find out what is expected of you, are there are special dress codes, for example, some schools require academic gowns to be worn on special occasions, in some they are hired, in others you need to have your own. There are schools who have carnival days where groups of staff get together and dress up in a theme. Are there any requirements for you to bring things from home to share, birthday groups, for example? Is there an anniversary approaching whereby students or staff may be emotionally unsettled that you should know about so you can prepare yourself? Much of the culture of an organization you cannot read about in a staff handbook or in policy and procedures. You need to watch and ask.

There will also be cultural aspects about your new role that you need to be aware of and learn about. These are aspects that are deeper set and far less visible. Such things are meeting protocols; how are meetings conducted and what is expected prior to each? What is expected of you within your various teams and what role do you play within each of these teams? How are decisions made? Who are the power brokers in each team who have a hot-line to leadership? What level of autonomy do you have in your role and is this the same for your colleagues at the same level as you? What unofficial meetings are happening between meetings and who do you need to be influencing? Some of this is also about politics but remember politics is part of the culture, it is also ‘how we do things around here’.

So your task is to learn about the culture of your new organization and new role. Keep a notebook to write things down. It is so easy to forget the nuances you will see and learn about, some may be slight, others pivotal. Remember to remove assumptions and forget about your old school, don’t even mention its name. Enjoy learning about your new civilization and becoming a local. Let the learning begin!

About the author: Janine Stratford is an Executive Coach working with school leaders. She provides leadership coaching developing greater clarity, consistency and confidence in leadership, direction and workplace relationships. Janine’s company is Coaching Focus.