You did it! Congratulations! After a lot of hard work you made into this position!!
So now… what?
If you are like me, you might want to feel you are good at your job as fast as you can. At the end of the day, we all want to feel confident and successful, right? I’ll assume that this is what brought you here.
The reality is that joining a new team as a leader is a process of on-boarding yourself into unknown territory, stepping completely out of your comfort zone and feeling exposed. Depending on your prior experience, self-awareness, skills and the environment itself, it can be quite difficult.
Now, since you made it here I’ll assume that you are willing to pay the personal cost and emotional stress this can bring at the expense of a greater good. In short: you and I know that no matter what, you’ll figure it out. You already did the hardest thing.
It reminds me of a rollercoaster on a theme park. Think about it. All the fear and indecisiveness you experience when you spot at a distance that scary and at times magnificent piece of metal carving imaginary routes in the air.
Well, you’re one step ahead. You were brave enough to commit to it and hopped on! Actually, you locked yourself into this commitment!
You know by now that no matter how nerve-racking it’s going to be, you are going to do it. And this is fundamental, because this isn’t about how to overcome the fear and indecisiveness anymore, but how to enjoy the ride. How to make this time pleasant and productive and make you feel like you rock again asap.
In the last 4 years at Booking.com I went through this process 6 times! Not bad, huh? Of course the hardest was the first time I was honored to lead a team, but the following times I was assigned to other teams I faced all sorts of challenges. And even though the challenges I faced on each one of those occasions were different, I learned that what makes a positive difference, regardless of your maturity or familiarity with the position, is what you decide to focus on.
Well, isn’t that something you should always aim for? Hell, yes! This time is not different and still I found myself and many other leaders making the mistake of wandering for long amidst the Fear of Failure, Uncertainty and Self-Doubt:
- What if people don’t like me…
- What if people find out that I’m not experienced/knowledgeable/good enough
- What if the team performs worse now that I’m their lead
- What if people notice I don’t feel confident
- What if I do it worse than the previous manager…
or… following the “checklist” and stretching out a little bit too much:
- Challenging team’s vision, scope, backlog, processes…
- Facilitating meetings
- Running into 1–1s, meetings with all stakeholders
- Working hard yourself, to prove you can add value
- Putting your “nose” into everything…
Focus. Focus. Focus!!!
Focusing on the right things is all you need to do in this first stage. Which translates to:
- Clear priorities
- Time-bound goals
Your priority number one is to understand this. Once you know, your work will be a hell of a lot easier and hopefully you’ll have a huge impact in your first months as a lead!
So, here is how you do it:
Understand why you are there
The first thing you need to know is the reason why you were assigned to that team in the first place. Start with understanding the context.
Team’s performance: If you land in a high performing team, it’s quite unlikely that someone put you there to shake things up. Instead they might have chosen you to bring stability. The risk is also lower. It’s the best option for someone growing in the leadership role. Now, if the team isn’t performing well… fasten your seatbelt! Somebody thought you are the right person to turn things around! So you better figure out what the problems are first: lack of productivity, business impact, issues with people, team dynamics, quality of work, culture? This would be my preference to be honest. In these environments you can have a positive impact in no time if you pull it off. And it also shows how much the organization trusts you! But remain grounded:)
Team composition: In most companies the leader of a team is also expected to be an individual contributor, so pay attention to what the team does and how the team’s composition fits those needs. Let’s say you are a copywriter while there’s none in the team. Was the previous leader a copywriter too? Well, kind of makes sense they put you there, right? You are definitely expected to bring a lot of value in the team as a copywriter plus bringing some leadership to the team to ensure it’s pretty self-steering. Now, if that’s not the case and your role is already redundant, pretty sure either they expect you to help the team as a leader more than a contributor or there’s a change in scope. Make sure you get insights on this!
Organizational context: many things fall into this category but I’d narrow it down to two: growth and seniority level in the area. A department that’s growing wants to keep momentum. It’s likely that people put in leadership positions are mainly achievers, known by their ability to get results. A department that’s shrinking though, might prefer leaders that are critical, able to make tough decisions and keep teams focused. Now, the seniority level in a given area is a very important factor. If you get promoted in an area where tenure is equal or higher than yours, where others show maturity in their roles and have a track record of successes, I recommend you to investigate further the reason why you were put in such position. Maybe nobody wanted the position (that’s a red flag, you better ensure this isn’t the case) or you just stood out. On the other hand, if the seniority level is rather low your focus should be on growing people and have your take on the organization’s growth. Figure out which one is your case.
The people who really know why the decision was made are probably your manager and whoever helped making this decision.
Let’s say that you are afraid of making changes too quickly and your manager and the company is precisely expecting you to make changes. You don’t want to realize this too late.
You NEED to understand what your manager’s expectations are. Those expectations can be wrong, but if you don’t know them, you can’t even challenge them!
You might say that they should be the ones to tell you, right? Well, that’s not necessary the case for at least the following three reasons:
- Natural talent emerges in difficult situations so your manager might prefer to be patient and observe what you do.
- Managers have their own biases. Telling you what to do might be the least smart action to take.
- A leader has to be proactive. Doing nothing allows managers to see your true character.
Here’s the handicap though. Because of the aforementioned reasons, getting the expectations they have on you might be difficult.
Of course you can always ask: What are your expectations for me joining this team?
Even if you get a good answer, you might miss a lot of insight that can help you understand what are the stakes here. I’d suggest you to look at it from a different perspective. After all…
Understanding your manager’s expectations is understanding what level of risk they’re willing to assume. Tweet this!
Every decision implies a risk. Think about it. Things can go wrong. So why would anybody make any change? You wouldn’t take risks unless you wanted something, a greater good worth aiming for.
You need to understand what is it that compensates the risk of this decision, which usually is an investment in one or more of the following areas:
- Productivity: velocity, tools, skillset, processes.
- Business Impact: decision-making, quality of the ideas, entrepreneurial spirit.
- People: leadership, people vs. processes, people performance, accountability and ownership, level of trust, team dynamics, ability to operate without supervision and control.
- Organization: people development and growth, culture at scale, resilience, stability, collaboration, organization’s renovation and succession.
Ask open questions so you can get insights into what their investment is based on:
- What’s the biggest opportunity that this team has?
- What’s the highest concern on this team?
- How is the team performing?
- What’s the performance of each team member?
- How the team performs when the leaders are away?
- How the team responds to stress?
- What’s the mission and the vision of this team?
- How aligned are the team’s goals with the ones from the organization?
- What’s the business impact of this team?
- What’s the role of this team in the organization? or Why should we care?
With these questions you can pretty much get a very good picture of what your manager is aiming for.
In theory, a promotion should be an acknowledgement of the individual as a leader and hence represent a low risk. With this assumption in mind, you should focus on what you can bring to the table. Always aim for the highest return of investment.
The final question always is, where can I add most value?
Which brings to…
Know your stakeholders
Each team, project and individual has stakeholders. People to report to, collaborate with, people that should be informed or even involved in the activity at hand.
Stakeholders have expectations too, deadlines to meet, functions to perform, goals to achieve!
Your stakeholders can represent an opportunity for you and your team, they expand your network and enable you to have greater impact when used effectively.
Key things to understand:
- Relationship: how successful is the relationship nowadays? What would make it better? What goals do you share? Are there key areas in which you need to strengthen the collaboration?
- Expectations: what do they need? How do they like to collaborate? What’s the best way to communicate? Who? When? What level of information they need?
- Roles and responsibilities: who does what? who’s accountable for the success of the project? Who owns that service? Who needs to be informed?
If you like to have it all written in a structured way, I recommend you to follow the RASCI model.
Get a grip on the people
Your people are your priority but not necessarily where most of your energy should go to. Your focus is determined by where you put your attention, which I recommend to be whatever brings the highest impact.
Here, again you should try to understand where is the biggest opportunity.
In the first days, I’d recommend to have informal conversations with your team and observe the team dynamics in meetings.
Observe, Ask and Listen. Practice genuine curiosity for everything. Check for:
- Roles in the team: who are the leaders? who are the followers? who usually talks? who brings the most value in team meetings? who does what?
- Values and inner motivation: what they like to do when they aren’t in the office? what do they enjoy the most doing at work? what are their aspirations?
- People performance: who’s underperforming? who are your top performers and why?
Check for things that are off. Like: one person overtaking conversations, people not caring about the discussion at hand or not listening to each other, lack of engagement, people behaving very different in meetings than out of them or among some people, absences and illness…
Do you have a list of points already? Time to talk with your manager.
Manage your manager
By now you should have a list of priorities and hopefully one element standing out over the others on one or more of the following aspects: productivity, business impact, people and organization.
It’s time to talk again with your manager and set expectations with them. Make sure they know about what you want to focus on and why. Most importantly, what are the consequences of the train of action you want to put in place.
This will give them confidence. Your stakeholders like to know what to expect and that they can rely on you.
For example, you might decide that the top priority is to reduce the team’s scope. That might piss off some people that were very invested in topics that might drop from the current scope, even if you involve them on the decision. You can tell your manager that this may happen but you still want to take that risk.
Your manager is there to support you. In many ways, their success is your success. Don’t underestimate the power of this relationship. Tweet this!
I made personally many mistakes in this area. I had the expectation that my manager should make the effort of knowing what I’m doing and care about my performance so I didn’t always bring the necessary visibility of what I was doing. This lead to a lot of frustration on both sides. It took me a while to realize what was happening.
Don’t miss this last step!
Stay positive and focused!
Last but not least, don’t forget to be positive. Smiling is contagious, positive energy inspires action.
Your skills might make you successful, but your presence will make you unforgettable. Tweet this!
Print out what you are going to focus on, write goals around it, make it measurable. Find a way to ensure that this gets prioritized.
A clear focus leads to a clear mind and a better-being. It will boost your confidence and it will help you be more effective. Before you notice, you’ll be rocking again and ready for a new challenge.
Enjoy the ride!