This is a unique twist on the “new manager” situation when everybody is new to you and each other. You have not met each other yet. You are not sure how long this team will even exist. You didn’t get to choose the team. As you know, nobody on the team has ever worked together. You know that you have, let’s say, eight people, at least to start. Some are more experienced than others, of course.
None of this is out of the ordinary. It’s a start-up situation of one kind or another. Start-up company, department, workgroup, project team. We see this in professional services, primarily consulting, IT implementations, Hollywood (or elsewhere) movies, political campaigns, etc.
Here’s the challenge: Your team has a bunch of work to get done, very well, very fast, all day long, in pursuit of a mission, right now and for the duration of the project. It’s just that none of the team members have ever worked together. Beyond the team, there are many other internal customers and vendors you’ll all have to deal with, all very likely equally new to everybody. Maybe you have some standard operating procedures to guide you, but for the most part, your new team has not yet established any habits or norms of interaction. Most everything starts from scratch.
You are as new to the situation as the rest of the team and will have to create a rigorous orientation program for yourself, as any new team manager would come in from the outside. But in this case, you have the added challenge that everybody is unique to the work and each other.
Where do you start with a new team?
With a brand new team, you have no baggage. Nothing is broken. You have the chance to start things off right from the outset.
Here’s the first pitfall to avoid. “Everyone hit the ground running!” It sounds great at first. Self-starting high-performers want to dive in. When everyone hits the ground running without good coordination, the problem is that they often run off in their directions. Before long, people find they are tripping over each other, duplicating work in one area while leaving gaps in another, or unwittingly taking noncomplementary approaches to the shared work. On day one, you need to make sure every individual knows precisely where he or she fits in the team and where the team fits in the larger picture. You need to get everybody on the same page, on the same plan, and ready to march together in the same direction.
Managers in this situation always ask me, “Is there any way to accelerate the relationship-building and create connections quickly?”
Many try to find a shortcut by focusing on the personal, whether going out for drinks or dinner, shopping together at lunchtime, playing golf or tennis, or running together over the weekend. Maybe team members find they have in common their taste in movies, fitness, and family. Or they both have kids (or not), come from the same town, or have been to the same destination.
But it turns out that when new team members spend their initial bonding time focusing on what they have in common outside of work, they often fail to explore how they will or will not fit together at work. Those things we have in common outside of work often tell us little about how well we are likely to work together. Indeed, sometimes building connections around “off-duty” interests can make it harder to confront issues at work.
Another strategy is helping people connect through team-building exercises. Maybe the team builds a house together on day one to get to know each other. Or runs a relay race together. Or practice “trust falls,” where you fall back into each other’s arms. There is a place for this sort of off-site team-building activity, but it is often more of a distraction than anything else. Why take the long way around? At the outset, you need to get everybody focused on the shared work. Everybody needs to get to know each other in terms of each person at work.
On day one, as part of the first team meeting, after you’ve introduced yourself and the process by which you intend to lead the team, facilitate an introduction process that focuses on “Who I Am at Work”:
- Everyone needs to introduce him/herself: “This is who I am at work. This is my portfolio of experiences. This is what I can do. This is how I operate, and these are my work habits. This is the commitment I am willing to make to this team.” As the leader, you start. Introduce yourself first. Then give everyone a chance to introduce themself to the group.
- Introductions work a whole lot better if people have a chance to prepare in advance. So before you have everyone chime in at the table, stop and give each person an opportunity to conduct a brief self-assessment.
- Some organizations use elaborate self-assessment tools, and many individuals will have a sense of their own “profiles” if they’ve gone through that process. That suggests a good first question: “Have you ever participated in a self-profiling assessment? If so, what did you learn about yourself from that assessment that will help others work better with you?”
- What do people on the team need to know about how you work to help them work better with you? Here I must offer any self-assessing person the following caution: Be authentic. Don’t pretend to be something you are not. But also present your best self. Don’t let yourself off the hook. Hold yourself to a high standard. This is the perfect opportunity to say, “I struggle to remain organized, so please hold me to a high standard. Please tell me if I am undermining myself. Give me pointers if you have them. I will do my best.” This is not the opportunity to say, “I’m just not organized, so don’t expect me to be.”
- The best practice for the introduction session is to have everybody conduct their brief self-assessment. Then, if you have time, it’s very productive to have people pair off in twos (with one trio if you have an uneven number) and interview each other based on the self-assessments. Third, have each pair collaborate on introducing each other to the rest of the group.
For any new-new team, the first expedition should be intelligence gathering. The best way to end that first team meeting is with a list of unanswered questions. Make it a good list by brainstorming with everybody at the table: What don’t we need to know to make a more thoughtful plan for our work as a team? Some of those questions will naturally go to you as the team leader. The rest of the questions should be divided among the team members. Sharing preliminary answers to these questions should be the opening gambit of the second team meeting within a matter of hours or days. Of course, some questions will be unanswerable. Events will overtake some. Still, the second team meeting should be focused on: What have we been able to learn?