How to on-board yourself when you join a new team
Many startups don’t have a formal on-boarding process, yet you're expected to start contributing on your first week. Here's how to set yourself up for success.
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Most companies suck at on-boarding new team members. In this week’s newsletter, you’ll learn how to on-board yourself when you start a new role. This includes how to:
Take charge of the process.
Start developing a point of view.
Review information with an active stance.
Pick up on unspoken rules.
Gather what you need to make recommendations.
Identify the types of decisions you’ll make.
Assume you’ll lead the meeting.
I originally published a version of this essay on November 28, 2019 and I’ve expanded the post. Enjoy.
Read time: 9 minutes
Many startups don’t have a formal on-boarding process. It’s rare to get 3-4 weeks to simply absorb, learn the product, and talk to customers. You might have time for that at a bigger company, but at a startup, there’s no such luxury. If you wait to have information handed to you on a platter, it won’t happen.
Even if your company as a general purpose on-boarding process, it’s likely not designed to give you an edge compared to dozens of other new employees starting the same month, week, or day as you. So you should still review the principles below to help you stand out.
The reason you were hired is because your new team was stretched for bandwidth with their existing responsibilities. They probably couldn’t wait any longer to bring someone on, so you’ll be expected to contribute starting your first week. And if you on-board well, you can. You'll be able to show your value, start a new job with confidence, and make an immediate impact.
So how do you set yourself up for success?
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1. Take charge of the process.
No one is as invested in your success as you are. Everyone else is busy with their existing job, so embrace that you’ll need to take the reins. This is an opportunity to show you are proactive and self-directed—something every manager appreciates.
Most of my jobs never had an on-boarding process and simultaneously had high expectations for adding value in the first week. In many startups, this is the norm. And the more senior you get, the sooner you’ll be expected to start contributing. Ask yourself:
What info do you need to start contributing?
What do you need access to?
What kind of decisions does your manager want to be involved with?
What open questions do you have?
What’s an easy win in the first month?
Even if your company has an onboarding process, if you’re proactive, you’ll get up to speed faster and start adding value sooner. This reinforces your self-confidence, which allows you kick off a new role feeling strong, grounded, and in control.
2. Start developing a point of view.
Most new employees ask questions. But it's even more important to share hunches. You might think, But Wes, I’m still absorbing. I shouldn’t speak up yet!
Your fresh perspective is one of the most valuable things you bring. You only have “beginner’s mind” and an outsider’s perspective once, so don’t shy away from sharing what you’re noticing. You can always do a gut check and ask for context to validate your hypotheses.
Write down what you agree with and disagree with, or anything that provokes a strong reaction in you. For example, let’s say you’re doing a customer interview. A recap of the call isn’t that useful. A recap with your analysis, hunches, and forward-looking recommendation is much more valuable.
There’s a lot of dialogue about the importance of asking questions, but not enough conversation about the flip side: why you should form a point of view and make assertions despite working with imperfect information.
When you ask questions, there’s no risk. You can’t be wrong because there’s nothing to be wrong about yet. And it’s rare for a question to change everything—most questions don’t part the skies. Many great questions actually have interesting insights built into the question itself, but it’s simply phrased as a question. It’s the insight, not necessarily the question, that pushes the conversation forward.
Luckily, you don't get rewarded for asking questions. You get rewarded for creating forward progress. Sometimes you create progress by asking a question. But if you always stop there, you’re leaving value on the table.
Think about it: You work with smart people. If it were really so easy to ask one question to change everything, they would have thought of it themselves already. The problem you're working on is hairy, complicated, and nuanced. Your manager has asked themselves almost every question from different angles. So it's unlikely that your question will be a mic drop. That's why developing a point of view will set you apart from everyone else. There are thousands of ways to answer a question. What are you noticing and which path would you advocate for?
You might wonder, Do I have to be 100% certain before I make an assertion? No, you’re not claiming to have all the answers, as long as you should speak with accuracy about your level of conviction and preface that this is a hunch based on what you know so far. When you’re building something new, the work is messy and no one has the right answer.
The fact that no one has the right answer is precisely why assertions are so valuable. At startups, there’s little to no historical precedent about what to do—you don’t have a baseline from last quarter because you might have shifted your strategy, and you don’t have explicit sign posts to tell if you’re doing a good job. And when you’re building something new, you can’t simply copy what another brand is doing because you have different assets, levers, and constraints. Even if you did exactly what they did, you’d get different results.
But somehow, you have to move forward. Developing a point of view rooted in your instincts, data points, and logic helps you move projects forward.
3. Review information with an active stance.
Your new team will send you pages of documents, resources, and links. Instead of looking through the docs as “background info,” review with an active stance to paint a picture for yourself of what’s going on. The great thing about high-performing environments is regardless of who you are, the team expects you to drive projects forward with accountability. Ask yourself:
How will I use this information?
Is this a nice-to-know one-time piece of information, or will I be referring to this data on a weekly basis?
What questions are emerging? What patterns am I noticing?
Most new hires assume their first few weeks will focus on the basics, such as doing 1:1s with the team, learning about customers, the product, business, and industry trends. At startups, these are table stakes. Every team is assuming you’re learning the business and meeting folks. That is also the easiest part and it has no stakes. If you only do these things, your manager will likely wonder why you haven’t done more in the first few weeks. The sooner you show even a small win, the more you’ll confirm why it was a great decision to hire you.
There’s no time to set up meetings with cross-functional team members for the sake of it. If you do these meetings, you should go in thinking about how to make the best use of everyone’s time. Come prepared with specific questions and an idea of what you want to get out of the meeting.
If you’re on a remote team, you may want to socialize and simply get to know your new team members as people. It’s important to feel like you have friends at work. If so, I recommend doing those conversations on Friday afternoons when work tends to be calmer.
4. Pick up on unspoken rules.
The spoken rules are easy. The unspoken ones are harder, mainly because people who work in the company might not even know rules are rules because those approaches are normalized. Here are unspoken rules I’ve seen vary drastically from one organization to the next:
How does the team debate with one other? Some cultures have debates happening in public Slack channels and live group meetings. People at all levels debate with each other. In other cultures, the default is to be more indirect.
How territorial is the team? Some cultures are hierarchical and siloed. Some are not. This impacts how much you might need to backchannel or how much time you’ll need to spend getting buy-in from individuals who might block you.
How much praise and positive feedback do folks give? Some teams are more expressive and effusive saying “great job!” for every small thing, while others are reserved with praise. I once worked with a CEO/founder who told his team, “I expect perfection. If you’re perfect, don’t expect kudos. If you go beyond perfect, you can expect praise from me.” There’s no right or wrong—it simply is a team’s culture, and there are opposite cultures that are equally successful.
How does the team give and receive feedback? This includes how often feedback is given, the specificity and type of feedback, where it’s given, the way it’s given, and more. And there are are norms for the feedback receiver’s reactions too.
Knowing where your organization sits on various spectrums helps you understand “is it just me?” and whether you should take action, or if this is simply the way things are done around here.
5. Gather what you need to make recommendations.
There’s a difference between passive versus active observation. You should take time to absorb because you're learning the business as a new hire. At the same time, assume you’ll be asked to make recommendations in the near future. Ask yourself:
What are the biggest gaps and how can you fill them?
What should your team start, stop, or continue?
What do you want to prioritize given finite resources?
How do you want to lead in the next phase?
What’s the proposed sequence of what you want to do?
Remember: You won’t answer these questions in the first week. It’ll take time. Be patient with yourself. The goal is to start pondering these questions because it’ll help you get grounded sooner.
6. Identify the types of decisions you’ll make.
Knowing the type of decisions—and when you'll need to make them—helps focus your efforts. An upcoming decision means not all information is equal. You need to seek information that’s relevant to you, so you can prioritize your efforts. All of a sudden, information goes from being hypothetical, abstract, and “for context” to tangible, concrete, real, and time-bound.
You have to triage knowing you want to make a smart, well-informed decision you can stand behind. The first few weeks on the job are often characterized by information overload. Identifying the decisions you’re expected to make will help you mentally bucket which types of information are more important to keep top of mind.
7. Assume you’ll lead the meeting.
You behave differently when you’re a participant versus the meeting leader. If you were driving the meeting, how would you operate? This mindset puts you in an active stance. I’ve been told I’d be joining as a fly on the wall, but when the time came, my manager or client wanted me to lead the meeting.
Early in my career, this happened on my first week on the job at Bare Escentuals, the beauty brand owned by Shiseido. I was completely caught off guard. I had gotten hand-picked out of thousands of applicants and my new colleagues said, “Ah, so you’re the one the brand management team hired—they interviewed so many people before you!” I knew there were high expectations of me, but I thought, Surely this first week is going to be about observing. I’m 24 years old and ready to work really hard, but I don’t really know shit.
Fifteen minutes before the meeting, my manager calls me into her office. She says, “I can’t make it to the task force meeting anymore because I’m meeting with the CMO. The task force is 12 people from 7 cross-functional teams across the company for one of the most important launches in recent years. Folks from legal, compliance, finance, product development, sales, customer education, and supply chain will be there. I told you about that launch yesterday, remember? I was heading up the task force. Starting today, you’ll head it. It starts at the top of the hour, so you might want to start heading over. You can introduce yourself there and rely on the other task force members to see what to discuss for your first meeting. Let me know how it goes.”
This is how I learned that you may be asked to jump into the deep end of the pool from day one. And you may be asked to do so publicly, with leaders who don’t know you and aren’t sure if they like you, where you’re expected to lead them without positional authority the first time you meet them. It was a stressful lesson, but one I appreciated getting early on because it forever changed my posture when joining new teams.
It’s better to arrive more prepared rather than less. If you end up only needing to listen, you can do that. And if you’re unexpectedly asked to lead, you can rise to the occasion.
Your company may have a basic on-boarding process, but even if they don’t, you can still get what you need. If your organization doesn’t have an on-boarding process yet, you can document your on-boarding—and that’s the beginning of a process for the next hire. I’ve done this and it’s a great way to make a situation better than when you found it.
By the way, if you’re a manager who has a new team member joining, you should still try to be thoughtful about on-boarding—a new hire taking charge of their own on-boarding doesn’t let managers off the hook. Both new hire and manager should do their best to create a positive experience.
If you try these principles, I’d love to know how it goes in the comments.