TWH#43: Building Context as a New Leader
How to get in on the right foot, and build trust from Day 1.
Before we get started with this week’s post I would like to ask you, dear reader, a short question. Thank you in advance for your input. 🙂
Joining an existing team as a new leader is not trivial. Whether you like it or not, all eyes will be on you. Everyone will be trying to figure you out, what your leadership will mean for them individually, and for the team as a whole. Being mindful of this is essential for successfully onboarding yourself. Because, remember:
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”— Andrew Grant
Thanks for reading The Weekly Hagakure! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Hold Your Horses!
Rule #1 is to not succumb to the temptation of trying to create value and proving your worth immediately. Whether you like the idea or not, no matter your level of experience and expertise, you are in a state of temporary incompetence.
Read that again.
A state of temporary incompetence is the worst time to make decisions and create change. There’s good news, though. No one is expecting you to come in and change their world—not in the first few weeks, anyway. Sure, everyone hopes for things to somehow get better, but not immediately. Don’t let your anxiety to prove your value take over. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
One thing we know about our brains is that uncertainty makes us feel on edge. We like to be able to predict what happens next. With a new leader coming in, everyone will be trying to make that prediction, whether consciously or subconsciously:
What will this new person mean for me?
To create predictability, let everyone know you intend to spend your first few weeks learning. They should expect you to reach out individually in order to get to know them. And they should also expect you to keep them in the loop about what you learn along the way.
The SCARF model—which I referenced before—is particularly helpful here. The last thing you want is folks to be in a state of threat. By treating everyone as de facto peers, explicitly stating your planned moves, and giving them a voice, you are positively addressing status, certainty and autonomy respectively—nudging them towads a state of reward rather than one of threat.
Remember, however, that actions speak way louder than words. More than saying what you will do, it’s how you show up in every conversation, in every call, in every meeting, that truly counts.
Go on a Listening Tour
When I started as a new VP Engineering in the past, I used to say my first few weeks were about playing detective, looking for clues to the mystery I found myself in. While I still like the sense of curiosity that elicits, in hindsight I realize that the analogy wasn’t the best—there’s no crime to solve, infidelity to expose, or (hopefully) missing person to find.
Instead, I encourage you to think of yourself at this stage as an archaeologist:
A person who studies human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artefacts and other physical remains.
Part of building trust from day 1 is showing a deep respect for what the team is today, irrespective of whatever challenges might be there. Understanding how they got here, what constraints they faced, and what wins they had in the past, is extremely valuable context.
Within the first few weeks, I want to understand the history and culture of the team, as well as the existing levels of clarity and competence. In the back of my mind, I have questions such as:
What is the identity of this team? What is its culture? How did it get to how it is today?
What’s working well? What are the biggest challenges and opportunities?
What is the mission? What does success look like? How do we track progress?
What is the level of skill and competence? Does the team have what it needs?
How does the work and communication flow? What are the delivery bottlenecks?
I then go on a listening tour. I find it helpful to ask every individual 1-on-1 the same set of questions.1 This way I can see if there’s a coherent story, and what patterns surface:
What’s been going well so far?
What’s been challenging or frustrating?
How often are things stalling or hanging on decisions external to the team?
How do you feel you've been learning on the job? Is there training you wish you had?
If you had a magic wand and could change one thing only, what would it be?
What do you hope I can help you with?
What would you most like to accomplish at this company?
Notice that every single one of these is an open, rather than closed, question. Open-ended questions facilitate exploration and discovery, while closed-ended questions can be useful for testing specific knowledge or measuring progress over time. In this instance, exploration and discovery is exactly what I'm looking for.2
While at it, remember to not limit yourself to your team only. Ask similar questions to Product, Design, and Data folks, as well as relevant external stakeholders. Regardless of whether you’re a first line engineering manager coming into a small team, or a VP Engineering coming into an entire organization, learning about how they currently interface with others will provide you even richer context—and continue building your trustworthiness as a new leader.3
Lastly, to complete the puzzle, it’s important to spend time looking at artifacts: roadmaps, documentation, strategies, tickets, dashboards, etc.
As the days go by and your conversations add up, your context will grow in quantity and quality. My experience has always been that the team is eager to hear your take on them. What do you think about the status quo? What are you excited or concerned about? What opportunities do you see?
Don’t leave them in limbo. One approach is to send out a weekly email to everyone with a recap of what you learned that week. Leverage each standup (if applicable) to share one insight you had from the day before. Creating these short feedback loops is key because it displays—and sets the tone for—true inclusivity.
After your listening tour is complete, it’s helpful to synthesize in a short document—ideally a 1-pager—everything you learned across people, processes, and technology. Tie it back to the big questions above you started with, highlighting the challenges and opportunities, and where you believe the focus should go next. This makes people feel like their contribution to your onboarding was relevant, and creates energy for the meaningful positive change to take place in the near future.
At this point, if you dilligently did all the legwork above, you should confidently be out of your state of temporary incompetence, your levels of confidence should be higher, and you developed a high degree of initial trust with your new team. You put yourself in the best possible position to start helping the team win, and to increase its capacity to win.
Now you have yet another opportunity to model a powerful leadership behavior: focus. You will have likely dug up a ton of challenges and opportunities, but not all of those are created equal—and attempting to do everything only guarantees you will get little done, while overwhelming everyone. No bueno.
Pick one, maximum two big issues, share with the team what those are and why you picked them, and get on with the work. Maintain the feedback loops you started creating by often playing back progress, ongoing challenges, and wins.
Intentionally creating and nurturing shared context is a never-ending job. Keep at it, because it’s essential for folks to retain their autonomy and make good decisions on a daily basis. And the more they do, the more the team wins. Because a rising tide does lift all boats.
When joining as a new leader, you are “temporarily incompent”.
Avoid trying to add value too early. Listen and learn first.
Create predictability. Reduce uncertainty by setting the right expectations ASAP.
Go on a listening tour. Involve your team along the way in your discovery.
Synthesize what you learn, and play it back.
Pick one or two challenges or opportunities for improvement, and get to work.
Before you go:
I’m helping my fellow coach Mounica Veggalam build a course for ambitious engineering leaders to develop and enhance their communication with peers, managers and direct reports. It’ll be full of practices, role-playing and templates to take away in order to level up your influence game.
If that sounds interesting, fill out this quick 1-min form to get on the waitlist. Mounica will be sending out early bird discounts and free bonus in-depth guides in the coming weeks. I also recommend checking out Mounica’s newsletter “Conversations for Career Transformation” for a taste of what’s to come in the course.
Andrew "Boz" Bosworth, CTO at Meta, has a very interesting approach to this which I would love to have tried myself.
Neuroscience research shows that open-ended questions tend to activate regions of the brain associated with problem-solving and higher-level cognition, such as the prefrontal cortex. Closed-ended questions, which have a specific and limited set of possible answers, tend to activate regions of the brain associated with memory recall and retrieval, such as the hippocampus.
This might become challenging depending on your scope and the size of the organization. For what it’s worth, when former CEO Jeff Weiner joined LinkedIn, he met with all 338 employees during his first few weeks, either 1-on-1 or in small groups. Putting in the legwork matters.