New job? Get a head start now

February 17, 2012, 10:00 AM UTC

About 40% of executives who change jobs or get promoted fail in the first 18 months. One way to avoid that is to lay some crucial groundwork before your first day.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE — Dear Annie: I’m starting a new job in about two weeks as head of a somewhat troubled division at my current employer’s biggest competitor. It’s a larger role than I’ve had so far in my career, and I’m pretty excited about it, but it comes with some significant challenges, since the business I’ll be running has been hit hard by the recession and the European debt crisis, revenues and earnings are down, and morale is in the tank.

The CEO who hired me said everyone there is expecting me to “hit the ground running.” I’ve got some ideas about what needs to be done right away, which I talked about in interviews (and which presumably got me hired). But on the theory that there’s no such thing as too much information, I’d appreciate any thoughts from you and your readers about what works, and what doesn’t, in this kind of situation. –Parachuting In

Dear P.I.: It’s fortunate that you have two weeks before your official start date because, according to executive coach George Bradt, you’ll need every minute of that to get off to the strongest possible start. “The best way to build your team, take charge, and get great results fast is to create time by starting earlier than anyone thought you would,” he says. “This one idea can make or break a new leader’s transition.”

Bradt is basing that partly on his own decades of experience as a senior manager at Unilever (UN), Procter & Gamble (PG), and Coca-Cola (KO), and partly on his work with 600 job-changing managers since 2002 as principal of PrimeGenesis, the executive coaching firm he started in 2002. Bradt is also co-author of a new book you might want to check out, The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan (Third Edition).

His mission is to lower the failure rate among executives newly hired or promoted into big jobs, which research shows has stood at about 40% for at least 15 years now.

“New leaders who miss the opportunity to get a head start, before their official start date, often find out later that organizational or market momentum was working against them even before they showed up for their first full day at the office,” Bradt says. Gulp. Borrowing a term from the product-development world, Bradt calls the time before you’re officially on board the “fuzzy front end.” Here are four ways to make the most of it:

1. Meet with critical stakeholders as soon as possible. “Identify the people in the company who can have the most impact on your success in the new job,” Bradt advises. “These include your direct reports, critical support people, peers, potential allies, and even the person who wanted your job but didn’t get it.” Call or visit each of these folks, even just for a quick chat or a cup of coffee. It sounds simple but, Bradt says, “It always makes a huge difference. It’s a game changer.”

2. Have a plan for listening and gathering information. “Different stakeholders will have different views of the same situation,” Bradt notes. Asking for their perceptions and suggestions “is not a search for the One Truth. Rather, it’s an exercise in understanding people’s views, both on what’s going well and what’s not and why, so that you can work effectively with each of them. Come into these conversations with an open mind and actively listen.”

While you’re at this, try to find out about what Bradt calls “shadow metrics” in the organization you’re joining, meaning key measures of how things are going that may not be evident at first glance: “What are the key measures of success along the way? How are they tracked, and how can you get access to them?”

3. Craft your message. How are you going to present your ideas — the ones you believe got you hired — on where the business needs to go from here? “Part of preparing to lead is thinking through the messages you want to send, right down to details like whether your office setup will be informal and open-door or more formal and structured,” Bradt says. People will be watching closely and talking to each other about you, he adds: “Everything communicates, and not always what you intended, so be careful.”

4. Start making a hundred-day plan. The knowledge you gather before you officially start “should help you begin to put things in context and decide what you want or need to do on your first day, during your first week, and in your first three months,” says Bradt. “It’s important not so much to learn everything there is to know before you show up, which would be impossible anyway, but to have a plan in place to learn more.”

Granted, this is a lot of work. “People tend to resist doing all this because there’s usually a time squeeze involved in changing jobs, where your old employer wants you to stay as long as possible, and your new one wants to rush your start date,” Bradt notes.

“It’s also very common to want to take at least a short vacation to rest and recharge between jobs,” he adds. But tempting as it might be to sit on a beach and unwind for a few days, if you really want to start strong, you just haven’t got time.

Talkback: What helped you most in starting a new management job? If you’ve ever had a new boss come in from outside the company, what did he or she do well at the start, and what do you wish had gone differently? Leave a comment below.