October 23, 2014

7 Important Things to Do When You Join a New Team


What can you learn in six months on the job?

As I mentioned the other day, I've now been at Contactually for six months. That means it's official -- I can now quit without looking like a flake. JUST KIDDING, GUYS.

Still, while I'm not going anywhere, there's something about working somewhere for six months, isn't there? For most people, getting a new job is kind of like the opposite of being elected President. Instead of your first one hundred days being your best chance to enact sweeping, positive change, most jobs involve a pretty decent feeling-out period, especially if you're building a new team within an organization, or are the first person performing a new job. Sure, you'll try to get right to work, but every business, every market, and every product is a little different. It simply takes time to figure that stuff out, and it can be really frustrating at times if you're eager to make a difference (but hesitant to break anything important).

I've gone through this process a couple of times, and I think my time at Contactually has been as instructive as anywhere. So based on that experience, here are some new-employee goals that I think can help anybody acclimate, win over, and improve their new organization.

7 Important Things to do When You Join a New Team

#1 - Figure out what's working already

One of the hardest things to balance is the success a company has had without you, and the reasons they felt compelled to hire you. Let's start with the first one. Remember when Meg Whitman took over HP a few years ago, and she had to decide whether to give up on making printers and PCs? Everyone had an opinion, but it was ultimately up to her to decide whether that huge part of the business was a valuable revenue stream, or a low-margin albatross. When her predecessor first suggested dumping the consumer business, lots of people went crazy -- why would the biggest PC maker in the world stop making PCs??? Then, when Whitman took over and pulled an about face, everyone else was equally puzzled. Didn't she see the obvious downward trend of the market? In the end, she chose poorly, and today HP is finally spinning off their consumer division. But nobody ever said these decisions were easy.

Take it easy, Dwight.

You may not be the CEO of a billion dollar company, but it probably won't be long before your new company needs you to make a decision about or assessment of something they've been doing for a long time. Don't be arrogant here -- it's very likely that you don't know what you're talking about just yet, and you're some kind of turnaround artist at a sinking ship, your co-workers have been doing SOMETHING right without for a while. Keep an open mind, ask questions, and prepare yourself to be surprised.

#2 - Don't forget why you got hired!

On the other hand, it's important to remember that you got hired for a reason, and unless that reason involves nepotism or an elaborate web of lies, your new organization is counting on you to do more than simply fit in. People usually gets hired because something needs to change -- work needs to be redistributed, responsibility needs to be delegated, or expertise needs to be added to a regular decision making process. The fact that you got hired means your company WANTS you to do this; the trick is simply finding out where your skills are needed, and charging into the breach with your professional guns blazing.

For me, one thing that was made clear to me by my then-new Contactually buddies was that I had a pretty clear mandate to write, edit, or re-write just about anything I could find, and that this was welcomed by everyone on the team. This made everything way more efficient; instead of wondering if I was stepping on people's toes by offering to help them with various writing tasks, I could seek that out knowing it was helpful, and my colleagues could seek me out knowing I was there to help.

#3 - Establish good channels

If you're getting the sense that information and communication is a really important part of the new-job process so far, you're absolutely right. You have a ton of stuff to learn, and at the same time, a ton of usefulness to provide your team, and the biggest challenge for many people is finding a way to do both without being annoying and/or counter-productive. Efficient communication is key, and that means finding the right people to talk to. And unless you're in a very, very small organization, you're not going to have time to talk to every one of your colleagues on a regular basis.

"... who can help me update the website/talk to customers/fix a bug."

Personally, I think it's a lot more important to find people across the team who you can communicate with naturally and easily than it is to force connections with the "right" people. If you have trouble explaining your ideas to your boss, or someone in another department who you need support from, don't just bludgeon them with awkward conversation or endless emails. Talk to someone who DOES understand you. They can often help you refine your ideas, find other people you'll relate to, or even work as a middleman between you and the intended target of your plan. The important thing is not to close up, or silo yourself amongst your everyday coworkers; get feedback from your buddy in engineering, the other hockey fan in sales, or the marketing guy who used to be in support. People are smart, and the right ones can make you a lot smarter.

#4 - Get to routine 3.0

Whenever my wife and I move, I find that we never get the setup of any room quite right until the third attempt. That's because no matter how well-intentioned you are, or how well you know yourself and your stuff, it's impossible to really know how you're going to live in your new home until you do it for a while. You'll realize you need better access to that electrical socket, that it's too bright to watch TV that way, or that you have nowhere to exercise over time, but there's no real way to learn that other than diving in.

This was "Basement 3.0" in the house I lived in my senior year of college. It was glorious.

Joining a new organization is a lot like that, too. One of Contactually's company values used to be "move fast and break things", and while we've shifted away from that in some important ways (we can't afford to "break" our product anymore), it's still very true in an operational sense. In my case, I started working on a content strategy within days of joining the company, knowing full well that many of my ideas would prove impractical and impossible to execute. I just didn't know which ones yet. Despite that, the process remains incredibly valuable. The "mistakes" I made were all educational, and knowing that some were certain to come, I resisted to urge to beat myself up over them.

If someone waltzes into a new job and flawlessly executes everything, they're probably not being ambitious enough (or they're a genius, which means you should get some tips from them, instead of me). So keep iterating on your priorities and procedures. Give things a chance to succeed, learn from failure, and adapt the best you can. You'll get there, or at least you'll move in the right direction.

#5 - Make something easier for someone else

One great, extremely satisfying way to build connections and drive positive change is to function as "the calvary". Somewhere in your organization, someone is drowning from too much work, a responsibility they don't want, or a routine task they aren't good at, that comes easy to you. Find some people like this, and rescue them. It might seem obvious, but it won't be to them -- I remain shocked at how much everyone hates to write, for instance, or deal with "simple" HTML/CSS issues, while my co-workers can't believe how much I agonize over certain routine logistical tasks, dealing with credit cards, or scheduling things. There's a win-win in here for everyone, if you look for it.

#6 - Execute the 80/20 short-term, long-term plan

Here's pretty much everyone's Monday morning.

If your company is actually doing anything, it's very likely that within a few weeks, your day to day life will consist mostly of running around like a crazy person, putting out fires. This can be simultaneously distracting AND frustrating, but it's pretty normal. I'd love to tell you to ignore the fires, but in most cases, they're actually important to the day-to-day operation of your business, so that's not really an option. So then how do you actually make any real systemic improvements?

I shoot for an 80/20 "short term, long term" mix of problem solving. Yes, most of the time I too am running around trying to get through the day -- but I try very, very hard to find time to solve one little long-term issue, refine one process, or improve visibility into one thing every day or two. If you're busy (you know, with fires), time will be flying, and that means those little steps will add up before you know it. Just because big, long-term plans aren't something you can focus on all day, it doesn't mean you can't steadily move in that direction over time -- but you'll probably have to fight for it.

7. Own something

All of these factors -- legacy obligations, unique company resources and restrictions, and no track record of your own -- can make it really hard to be a true reflection of the interesting, useful human being you've been in the past. That's understandable, but it's always going to be hard to show everyone what you're capable of until you can pick up something of reasonable importance, own it, and make it work for your new organization.

Don't take this the wrong way; I'm not talking about some ladder-climbing, power-consolidating corporate exercise. It's just that as a new employee, you're often thrown into a lot of "helping out" scenarios, which are usually important, but often limiting and not good opportunities to reach your full potential. So when something new comes up that you're capable of doing a great job, step up and offer to take care of it. It's a great way to create new working relationships with people around your company, and safely excel at something without worrying about legacy rules and requirements you aren't familiar with yet.

Time flies when you're getting stuff done.

Unless you're working inside some kind of giant, corporate machine, you're probably going to have a ton of interesting stuff to do at your new job, and that means that your first six months are going to blow by. And while that's great in some ways, it also means that if you want to set up good habits and a strong foundation for doing awesome things, it's on you to get rolling right away. So get on it!