I started a new job this week. I was pretty nervous. I don’t care how long you’ve done this for, the first week at a new job, with a new team, is always very exciting but also a bit unnerving. I’m not too proud to admit that even now, so many years into my career, I actually had trouble sleeping the night before my first day. A lot of it, I think, is about all the unknowns. Who are these people? What do they care about? How do they feel about a new person joining the team? Are they going to be into dumb jokes and endless conversations about dogs and Star Wars?
Much of the anxiousness likely stems from an overwhelming desire to do well, to make a good impression, to get off to a positive start. In some cases, like my own, you may have just left a team you’d built great relationships with, had successes together, established trust. And so, when you’re starting fresh, without the benefit of months and years of history with people or with a company, it can feel like a pretty daunting task. It certainly does for me. Here are some of the questions that have been running through my head this week:
How do I get started quickly and positively?
How do I make the team comfortable and optimistic?
How do I make good decisions when I’ve only just started?
How do I give the team the best chance of being successful?
What do I say to them so we can find a common purpose?
In situations like these I try to draw on the experiences I’ve had in the past. Good ones and bad ones. I’ve worked on some teams where a new manager joined and it was an epic fail. But I’ve also worked on some teams where a new leader came and made a massively positive impact in a short amount of time. When I think back on my experiences, five best practices rise to the top. These are things you can easily do in your first few weeks on the job, and will give you a great chance of starting strong and building a healthy, motivated, trusting team.
Whether you’re managing a team of 50 or 5, these practices will help you get off on the right foot and give you a chance to be the great manager you are so determined to be.
If you want to be successful leading a team, you need to start by building relationships and trust. You might be able to direct people without doing this, but you can’t really lead them. A good first step is to hold 1 on 1 meetings with every member of your team in the first month. So, if you have 50 staff, that means holding 50 meetings. That may sound like a lot, but in my experience it’s one of the most valuable investments you can make in building a team.
I’m cognizant of the fact that this may sound like a management truism – the importance of building relationships with your staff – but too often, especially with larger teams, I see managers building relationships with direct reports only. I’ve come into many organizations where the Director or VP barely even knows the team members below their direct reports. They don’t invest time in building relationships at all levels of the team. I think this is a mistake. The rationale is, more often than not, rooted in an intense desire to avoid being a micro manager. We want to give our leaders the autonomy to manage their teams as they see fit and so we keep their staff at an arm’s length. While I think this is well intentioned, there are two major problems with the underlying logic. First off, if you never really get to know the entire team on a personal level, it takes much longer to fully understand the true state of affairs. You’ll miss so much of the valuable insight that can be gained by seeking to understand the motivations and challenges and experiences of team members at all levels. You’ll only get information from one perspective. Secondly, if you ignore team members at the levels below your direct reports it’s much harder to build the bonds and trust that are required to lead a team through the tough times and big changes that will inevitably occur.
My recommendation when leading a new team, is to have 1-1s with every team member as quickly as possible. It’s a great way to accelerate your learning curve and to start building trust as a leader. On an ongoing basis, I recommend holding 1-1s on a quarterly basis with all employees and then on a weekly basis with your direct reports. That way you can give your managers the autonomy they deserve but also continue to build relationships with staff members below your direct reports.
It takes a few tries at managing a team before you really get the importance of a shared mission. I certainly paid it lip service for several years until I began to see firsthand how powerful it can be, and how negative things can get in its absence. Everything starts from a shared mission. Think of all the best teams you know – World Series champions, Super bowl winners, whatever team it was that delivered the iPod. You just know they had a clear, shared purpose … “win the world title”, “put a thousand songs in your pocket”. This is what galvanizes them, what creates a purpose larger than the individual needs of the team members. Now think of your team. Do you have the same kind of mission? Does everyone know what you’re trying to accomplish?
In my experience there is nothing more important than communicating what outcome you’re trying to achieve. And even more critical, to clearly articulate why this outcome is a worthwhile goal for the members of the team, the company and the world around them. If your team is not 100% clear on its purpose and 100% bought into its value, there is no amount of “management” that can compensate.
My recommendation for managers taking on a new team is to communicate what your shared mission is within the first couple of weeks. It can be a mission for this year, this quarter, or even a longer term purpose. The only things that really matter are that you communicate it, your team believes in it, and that you do it now.
Once you’ve established a mission, you need to set some mission metrics. There is no reason this needs to take longer than a week either. The temptation will be to deliberate on this one for weeks and months but that is a strong indication you don’t have a clear mission in the first place. For me, the team’s mission metrics are the only metrics I really care about. In theory you start at the company success metrics and they roll down to each department and team until ultimately each individual has metrics born from the company’s goals. I’m not opposed to that in principle but I am much more interested in metrics at the team level because I want everyone to define success in the same way. It can be confusing and even damaging for a team when one individual or group is celebrating success when another individual or group is seeing failure. I want everyone on the team sharing in success and failure equally, and for that reason I keep everyone focused on team-level mission metrics instead of individual measures of success.
My recommendation for managers taking on a new team is to spend time in the first week to map out the 3-5 mission metrics for your team. For example, if I’m managing a Marketing team and our mission is to build a world class demand generation engine, our mission metrics for the year might be 100,000 web site visits, 10,000 leads, $10 million in sales opportunities. And then from that point onward, all our discussions, reports and celebrations will be based on the achievement of these mission metrics.
Now that you know your team members, have a shared team mission and some metrics to define success, you need to manage the path to achieving it. One of the trickiest things I’ve found in managing teams is to sustain purposeful momentum towards an outcome. It’s usually pretty easy to get people excited about something new but a lot more challenging to sustain it over many months and years. Everyone starts off with the best of intentions but then things happen – distractions, changes, new people – inevitably something comes up that clouds or confuses the mission.
One of the best tools I use to keep everyone focused on the mission and mission metrics is the weekly team stand-up. It’s a 30-minute meeting with the entire team at the beginning of every week to reiterate the mission and reflect on the big wins from the previous week against the core mission metrics. I usually spend 10 minutes on wins from the previous week, 10 minutes on wins we’re striving for and 10 minutes on a general message to provide guidance or motivation to the team. The team stand-up should be the anchor point in the week – you should never skip one and team members should not feel ok missing one either. In my experience stand-ups are great even for very large teams.
My recommendation for managers taking on a new team is to book a recurring team stand-up within the first month and never miss one. If you’re going to be travelling, do it remotely. If you’re on vacation, have your second in command run it for you.
At the end of each week I like to send out a “weekly wins” email to my team and to my own manager. This is a way of reinforcing the importance of the team’s mission and metrics to create momentum. It’s also a great way to get your boss and other executives aware and supportive of what your team is doing.
Another positive outcome of sending weekly win emails is it creates a desire in team members to receive public recognition. When they see colleagues getting acknowledged for wins it gets them even more invested in doing things that will result in their own “wins”. That’s a great situation to be in as a manager. The most important piece of advice I can offer for structuring win emails is to make sure you only recognize wins that directly hit on the team mission and mission metrics. The temptation will be to call people out for all sorts of positive contributions, but I would caution you against that. If you want to keep your team focused on the mission at hand, you should only recognize wins that directly impact your agreed upon mission metrics.
My recommendation for managers of a new team is to start sending out weekly win emails to your team and manager as soon as you have your mission and mission metrics set. I usually try to find 3-5 wins each week and I do my best to share as much credit as I can so long as the wins directly advance our team’s mission.
Managing a new team always feels like its equal parts excitement and apprehension. It can feel daunting to start from scratch. I’m feeling it right now. You’ve just left a job where you had relationships and trust and a track record of success and now you need to start over. It can seem like a giant hill to climb. I hope these 5 practices will be helpful to you as you build something great with your new team.