“Hey, you’re the new guy!” Marvelous. You’ve transformed from a useful, relevant, sought-after authority to a roadside attraction. Whoever you were before, whatever value you used to embody, whatever accomplishments you might have achieved, now amount to nothing more than marketing hype. Your new co-workers may be outwardly curious and pleasant, but inside they are skeptical and wary.
Look, most people are nice. They want you to succeed. But really, what have you done for them lately? Nothing. After a few weeks, your new-car smell will fade, people will stop treating you like a novelty, and they’ll expect results. You’ve got a lot to prove, yet you know nothing and nobody.
Depending on the job, it will be six to 12 months before you’re up-to-speed and can deliver as you have in the past. Meanwhile your productivity drops, your confidence wavers, and your reputation sinks. Marvelous. Yet, you took the new role to enhance your career. What the heck were you thinking? You were thinking that once you got acclimated, life would be better. How can you get acclimated and minimize the collateral damage to your well-being? There are concrete actions you can take.
At Microsoft, we should place more value on what new hires have done prior to their current assignments. By failing to appreciate people’s past achievements, we relearn lessons the hard way and discard accumulated talent. Given that the fully burdened cost of experienced engineers is well over $200K a year, that’s a pile of money we are composting.
Sure, people can’t just rest on their resumes—we need results for today’s challenges. However, it wouldn’t hurt to learn about people’s past experiences and consider their recommendations as a starting point. Everyone could use a head start.
Here’s a quick five-step guide to start you on the right path:
1. Get a grip on yourself. Understand who you are, what you bring to the team, and your initial and long-term limitations.
2. Build your support group. Get to know the key people on the team and value their support.
3. Extend the honeymoon. Take care of immediate concerns that will give you quick wins, instant credibility, and breathing room.
4. Learn the ropes. Understand the basic workings of the team and get yourself into the flow.
5. Start your quest. Pick a relevant and compelling project, and then dive into it, learning all its connections as you go.
We’ve got our plan—let’s put it in action.
You were hot stuff where you were before. Get over it and get over yourself. A little humility is good for you and will keep you out of trouble. On your new team you have little or no context, so pretending otherwise only makes you look stupid, insecure, or both. You are now resetting into “listening and learning mode.” It’s good for you.
Accept your initial limitations, and others will accept them as well. While you’re at it, reflect on your strengths and limitations in general. You’ve got a chance at a new start. It’s a great opportunity to highlight your advantages and mitigate your weaknesses. (“I can help with that, but please avoid giving me this other thing and having me travel.”) When everyone knows what you bring from the beginning, you’re far more likely to be set up for success.
“Tell people my weaknesses? Are you insane?!?” No, I’m sane, and you are stupid, insecure, and foolish to think otherwise. Everyone knows you are human—it’s not a secret. People’s real concern is that you’ll screw up the work they give you. They don’t know you well enough to account for your limitations. Telling folks about your strengths AND weaknesses upfront is reassuring, builds trust, and puts you on the fast track to desirable assignments you can ace.
One combined limitation and strength is your work-life balance. Maintaining this balance limits when and where you work, but strengthens your ability to reduce stress, provide perspective, and remain a long-term employee. Making your new team aware of your work-life balance boundaries upfront is easy and another key to being set up for success.
Getting to know the key people on your new team is critical to your success—relationships matter. Your manager will know who is who on the team, so start there. When you talk one-on-one with these key folks, including your manager, shut your own mouth and listen. (So critical to everything.) Ask questions. Take notes.
Find out about people’s roles so you know when to seek their support and on what topics. Understand their goals and problems so you can frame requests around their concerns. Take note of their partnerships inside and outside of the team, since these will be the next set of key people to engage. Finally, ascertain what you might be able to do in the near term and long term to help, which will provide the basis for extending your honeymoon and determining your first project.
If you are the manager of a new hire, you can help him or her acclimate by talking about your role, goals, problems, partnerships, and near- and long-term needs. Then give your new hire a list of key people to meet, and ask him or her to report back with notes. From the notes, you and your new hire can determine what near-term and long-term projects might make the most sense to tackle. You might also suggest one of the key people as a mentor for your new hire.
Like a new marriage, the first few weeks on a job provide new hires a honeymoon of extra patience, tolerance, and understanding. However, that afterglow fades. Soon folks start expecting you to be the angel they imagined they’d married. Since those are impossible expectations to meet, how can you extend the honeymoon? With quick wins.
By talking to the key people, you know the near-term ways you can help. Many will require little preparation. Taking care of immediate concerns will instantly give you credibility, appreciation, and breathing room.
Quick wins are critical to a strong start on any new team. Utilizing your past skills and knowledge is a great way to build your reputation and create the space you need to fully acclimate. Whether it’s introducing a process improvement or nice tool that your old team used, or just being a positive force behind a new initiative or project, you can make a difference quickly. Regardless of what you do, avoid dwelling on your old team—focus on improving your new one.
In my new role, the key people in the group, including my manager, all said, “Bring some stability and a sense of unity to your team.” My new team had just completed a round of reorgs. They needed to settle into a rhythm and feel like a team again. This scenario appealed to me when I applied for the role because I have skills and experience in reducing noise and improving teamwork. I defined team aliases and expectations and established regular one-on-ones (direct and skip-level), team meetings, and morale events. Easy, yet important.
Soon after joining a new team, you’ll want to subscribe to team aliases; connect to team SharePoint sites, issue tracking, and source control; and get recurring team meetings on your schedule. As you do, take careful note of the team dynamics and basic flow of work. This knowledge will be essential to getting results later, even if those results involve changing team dynamics.
Often teams have a Word® document, wiki, or OneNote® notebook that details the daily and weekly workings of the team. Reading and updating this information is a great way to learn the ropes of your new role.
After you take care of immediate group concerns, you’ll want to initiate a long-term project (a few months in duration). The conversations you’ve had with key people will provide some suggestions, but your own outsider observations and personal preferences are just as important to consider. To the extent that you have the freedom to choose, select a compelling project that will truly be appreciated by your management and peers, not to mention our customers.
Your first project should be compelling and motivating to you, because it will be tough. You must slog through learning every new tool, system, API, process, dependency, relationship, and spec. The more your assignment intrigues you, the more willingly you’ll leap over the hurdles. As you go, you’ll learn the connections between people, code, and tools that will make your next project far less daunting.
Asking plenty of questions is a key to success, regardless of how long you’ve been on a team. However, it’s particularly important as you withstand the attack of TLAs (three-letter acronyms), aliases, and team and project nicknames. Be sure to continue documenting the answers you find in your team wiki or OneNote notebook. Remember, everyone knows you are not the all-being—master of time, space, and all human knowledge. Even Doctor Who asks questions.
Congratulations on your new role. I sincerely wish you the best. Taking on a new challenge is fun and exciting. It’s reinvigorating to meet new people, learn new technology, and engage in a new business. To keep that positive energy flowing, you need a plan to make yourself productive as soon as possible.
Reflect on who you are and your strengths and weaknesses. Share that information as you build relationships. Engage the key players among your new team and its partners. Make them happy right away by helping to resolve their immediate concerns. Understand the basic workings of your new team and document them for the next new hire. Choose a relevant and compelling project that will connect you to all the minute details of your new group.
We hire great people, so you must be one of them. A little self-knowledge, a little honesty, a little listening, a little progress, a little learning, and a little perseverance can make for a lot of success.