Leadership hack 020 – how to help new team members hit the ground running

Much has been written about how to build and maintain high-performing teams (see here and here).  What is less well covered is how to bring on new members into a high-performing team.

When someone new joins the team, you are probably thinking about the following:

  1. Getting them up to speed as quickly as possible
  2. Making the experience great so that they remain positive and motivated
  3. Minimising disruption to the rest of the team
  4. Start building a long-term relationship with the new team member

To bring new members up to speed you need to make it clear what is expected of them.  While you do not want to overwhelm them, a few areas to think about are:

  • Role.  Making their role is, will help them focus on getting that right first.
  • Responsibility also needs to be communicated.  For example, are they responsible for a specific product or technology, a P&L (profit and loss) or budget, and what metrics are important and will their performances be measured against?  You may also want to consider:
    • Being clear on how decisions are taken.  In a highly competitive or dynamic environment decision should be taken at the lowest possible level by people closest to the customer (Reed Hastings CEO of Netflix is an inspiration, see here for a great article).  If you are in a stable environment, where decisions are longer-term (and expensive) decisions should be made at the highest level.  Being clear on what leeway people have, what decisions they can take when they need to consult (and with who) (use a few short principles rather than complex RACI matrixes) – no one reads or remembers them)
  • How they should work.  While I personally try to leave this as much up to individuals as possible, you will need to provide some guidance.  Think about:
  • Delivery vs discovery.  How to balance getting done what needs to be done, with exploring new technology/approaches/features
  • Team norms.  Teams get a lot of their identity from their leader and team members.  Be open about what behaviours your teams find most important (you can read about team norms in my post here)
  • Mandatory meetings.  Everyone hates meetings, but as a leader, you have to balance speed and direction.  Meetings (in moderation) can be good for establishing a shared understanding, deconflicting work and aligning on what to do next.  Make it clear what regular meetings are and your expectations on attendance.
  • How you work as a leader.  Each leader has their own way of doing things, you are no different.  Be honest with people on what works for you (detail vs high-level, email vs in person, daily updates or less frequently)
  • How conflict is handled.  Some organisation avoid conflict at all costs, others thrive on conflict.  Being clear on how your team and organisation handle conflict can help your team members navigate the political landscape, and more importantly get stuff done
  • How things are improved.  In many companies, there are no clear ways to improve things.  In other companies, there can be stifling bureaucracy if you want to change anything.  The best companies usually ask their employees, have simple and open ways to evaluate ideas and implement changes quickly.  Be clear on company and team priorities and how ideas can get traction, as this will reduce a lot of frustration and wasted effort.
  • Performance reviews and compensation.  Ideally, what people are measured against should be tied directly to their role and responsibility.  Be explicit about the criteria, and set some goals around personal development
  • Written rules.  Making company rules clear ensures that a new team member is not going to endanger customers, employees or the company, and they are less likely to antagonise people outside the team
  • Un-written rules.  These are the most difficult.  In many companies, there is a difference between values espoused (what they say and what is written on websites and press releases) and values in use (what people actually do).  Talk about recent examples of behaviour that got people promoted or fired, or what executives spend most of their time doing, as this is likely paint the most accurate picture of how to get on in the organisation
  • Who are the people to know?  There will be a few key people in your organisation.  They may be the most skilled in critical areas, have in-depth knowledge of the industry/product/technology, be in a position of power or have a strong relationship network.  Help connect your new team member with the right people.

Being clear on what is expected will go a long way in reassuring and impressing a new team member.  Another common frustration for new team members is logistics.  Think like Apple – try and ensure their IT/desk/pass is ready to go as soon as they arrive.  Have anything they need to do (developer set up) written up on a good wiki or Confluence page.  Try getting them to add value on their first day, this may be committing code to production (engineers), run a basic analysis (analysts) or highlight pain points in a user journey (UX).

Any changes to a team will be disruptive.   A powerful way to minimise the disruption is to be open and honest about it.  Teams go through phases, one of these is ‘storming’ which can be tough but it is perfectly normal (Tuckman 1965) (see this post for more detail), being open and honest with the new team member and the rest of the team, will

Sydney Finkelstein suggests that what separates exceptional bosses from good bosses is that they invest in people and create the leaders of the future (see here for my review of his book ‘Superbosses’).  While building a relationship is a long-term endeavour, here are key points you may want to try to communicate early.

  1. As a leader, I am here to make you and the team successful.  This shows that you are invested in them, but also people are successful when the team is successful – no one wants to by the MVP [most valuable player] of the losing team.
  2. Direction is more important than speed.  While personal productivity is very important, and you want to help everyone do their best work, doing the right work is even more important.  You cannot win a race running in the wrong direction.  Therefore, there will need to be meetings and updates so that work can be coordinated and context and information shared (but it is very important that these are minimised)
  3. Personal growth.  The more competitive the industry, the more likely it is that everyone on the team will need to cross-skill and up-skill.  Encouraging a ‘growth mindset’ is essential in preparing people for the ambiguity and change of the future (see my post on growth mindset)
  4. While you are responsible for the solution, that does not mean you solve it by yourself.  Be clear that while you want them to ‘own’ their work ‘ownership’ does not mean you push everyone else away, and solve the problem in isolation.
  5. I am not perfect, and I need your feedback.  Humility is important, as while experience can be built up over time, the world is littered with leaders and companies that failed to adapt to a change in circumstances.   Feedback will help you get better (see my post here), build a strong relationship, allow team members to blow off steam while demonstrating that you are role modelling the behaviours you expect of others (no one likes a hypocrite)


I hope this helps!  Remember everything in life is:

  1. a negotiation
  2. context specific

so be flexible!

Let me know you’re thoughts.