What’s the First Thing We Should Do as Leaders When We Start To Lead a Team?
Where should a leader spend their first thirty days with a team?
As a leader taking on the adventure of leading a new team, where should we start? You might be asked this question during an interview, or you’re curious yourself what the right thing to do is when you begin a journey with a team.
Regardless of why you’re interested in this question, it’s essential to start every new leadership journey on the right foot.
Failing to make a good impression within the first few interactions will create a burdensome hill to climb to regain lost momentum.
Alternatively, when we create successful first impressions, we can springboard as leaders with our teams. We can develop a sense of openness and an immediate connection with team members.
We establish a brand for who we are to help people understand how to approach and communicate with us.
Failing the first interactions with the team will set us back, slow us down, and dramatically decrease our chances to succeed in the long run. Nailing these initial interactions help everything else fall into place and set the team and us up for success.
Where should we start to increase the likelihood of success and a great first impression with the team?
Listen. Learn. Seek to understand! When we start a new journey with a team, it’s best to take time to discover all that we can. Leading with listening will help us engage with the team in a safe and approachable way. What specifically should we learn when we start leading a team?
1. We should learn about the team
Understanding who the team is from the beginning is essential because when we arrive on our first day, they ask themselves if we will make many changes.
They’ll ask if we will care what they think or understand why things are the way they are. When we lead by learning who the individuals are on the team, their strengths, opportunities, vision, ideas, and opinions, we gain two critical things.
First, we gain information with a more accurate understanding of the reality of the team. This information will help us know where to spend our energy and who needs it most.
It will also teach us a lot about the people on the team and give us clues for building them up by giving them opportunities to shine.
Here’s a leadership principle I was taught years ago by my mentors.
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Learning about the people on the team is the first step in demonstrating genuine care for them.
Second, we earn a more significant opportunity for trust. No, this will not earn you trust itself. I repeat. This tactic will merely help.
When we start our relationship off by listening and learning, we create a more approachable environment focused on the team member and the team, rather than on ourselves and our ideas as leaders.
We may have brilliant ideas, and we might see significant areas for growth, but if we don’t have trust with the team, it’s challenging to institute change. Listening and learning opens this door and increases the likelihood of earning trust.
2. Learn and lean into the processes that exist
Similar to learning about the team, when we seek to understand why the team follows specific processes and practices, we show the team that we don’t intend to make changes without first learning.
We can take this even further and lean into the processes that exist and live them with the team.
When we practice this, we get closer to the team by experiencing the process for ourselves. It will open the door to have informed discussions with the team about the processes.
Since we’ve demonstrated a willingness to try the current way of doing things, we have more credibility when proposing new ideas. The fastest way to lose trust within a team is to make uninformed changes that disrespect the team’s history.
3. Meet the stakeholders, learn their needs
All teams have stakeholders. Stakeholders might be business partners, peer teams, or clients themselves. As a team’s new leader, we need to spend a lot of time forming relationships with the team’s stakeholders for three reasons.
- The first reason to spend time with Stakeholders is that they are usually why your team exists in the first place. Your team is here to help solve their problems. You need to know who they are, and they should know you so that you can establish a communication line.
- The second reason to spend time with Stakeholders is so you can understand their needs. What are the core problems they have, and how well is your team doing at solving them? When we seek to understand this early in a new leadership role, we usually discover quick wins that the team can focus on to kick-start positive momentum in Stakeholders’ relationship.
- The third reason to spend time with Stakeholders is to find opportunities with the current process, communication, or perception they previously had. If you’re leading an established team, Stakeholders usually have great insight and ideas into what can be improved.
What would happen if we choose not to start by listening and learning?
It seems obvious that learning about the team, their processes, and who the stakeholders are is a smart place to start when starting a new leadership journey.
Too often, I see a new leader jump into a role and choose a different path. Instead, they might decide to institute immediate change. When this happens, you’ll see a few side-effects.
- The team will become very quiet and reserved, pulling away as a defense mechanism. These team members are scared because they don’t know what you will change next. They don’t know you, so they can’t know how to act or what to say. You might have the best intentions, but without a relationship established, this method creates a wall.
- The team might reject you. I recently observed a leader enter a new team, and one day two, the leader started to compare how they used to do things to try and communicate how to change something. This caused the team to lose trust and respect because the leader didn’t understand the history and made incorrect assumptions. If you start a relationship with negative trust, it’s almost impossible to regain. In this example, the leader did not recover and is no longer the leader of the team.
- The stakeholders will feel unsupported and frustrated. Imagine you are a business owner, and you know a new leader started that leads a team focused on helping your business or product grow. How would you feel if this new leader shows no intention of reaching out to understand your business? How would you feel if you found out the team is working on many recent changes that you didn’t get to contribute to? Reading this example, you might laugh at this possibility, but it happens far too often. If we do not engage our partners and seek to understand their needs, we risk creating the perception of “going rogue” and focusing on the wrong things. This approach is a quick way to lose trust with stakeholders and create a negative perception of you and the entire team.
Let’s recap, where should we start when leading a team?
When we start to lead a team, our mindset should be in listen and learn-mode for quite a while.
Our focus should be learning about the people on the team, their ideas, and where they want to grow to create approachable relationships focused on them, not us.
We should focus on understanding the team’s processes and lean into them by trying them out for ourselves so that when we have ideas for change, they’re informed opinions.
Lastly, we should focus on hearing our stakeholders out to ensure we know how to help the team make the best impact.
Leading with listening and learning is almost always the best place to start a leadership journey with a team.
Technologist, leader, writer, and I created BuildBetterTeams.org to help new tech leaders be better leaders and build awesome dev teams! #LeadershipLife