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Joining a Pre-Existing Team as a Senior-Level Leader

Changing company

6 May, 2021

Vojtech Vondra, Senior Director of Engineering at Productboard, knows how exciting and intimidating it can be to join a team of colleagues as their new manager. These observations have helped him make the right impression, setting everybody involved up for success down the line.

Problem

When growing quickly into a manager with a start-up, one may find themselves moving quickly into a higher-level position. In this type of situation, you typically grow with your team. If this team was hired from scratch, everybody already knows you. Often, you were the first Engineer and were promoted upward from there, acting as the technical expert from the beginning. Everybody who comes after you in this scenario will usually recognize you as the authority, the one with all of the context.

If you switch to a new company and wish to continue on the same level that you occupied at the company that you were working for previously, as an Engineering Manager, Director, or whatever you happened to be doing, you join this new team and you have none of the crutches that you enjoyed before - knowing the stack, knowing the technology, and all of the technical decisions involved.

Part of approaching this new challenge is throwing these crutches away and beginning anew; if you switch to a new company, this will be done for you. You will have no choice.

Actions taken

There are two components in meeting this challenge.

First: your new team doesn’t know you. There is the element of getting to know this new group of people that are likely excited to meet you and perhaps even a little bit afraid of the unknown that you bring into the office. There will be curiosity on their part and your own as you try to gain an understanding of the culture of the group.

The second component will be the fact that you cannot really rely on your past knowledge to help you navigate this new terrain. There are plenty of resources and books on the topic of joining a new team to indulge in, but the reality of the situation will be paramount. It’s a whole different test. You need to figure out a few things: first of all, what have you actually been hired for? The onboarding process only gives you some of the picture.

In the beginning, it’s about getting an accurate picture of the office as quickly as possible. While you’re figuring things out, people are already watching you and sort of making up a story of who you are and what you’re going to be doing, what you’re aiming for and everything else: your body language, your tone of voice, what types of issues get you excited. For some, it becomes a period of extreme constraint where you want to be super open and super welcoming, to get people excited. You know that you really can’t give them anything in the short term just yet.

The way that you sort of build the foundation of that first impression will determine how malleable their opinions of you will be in just a few months. You won’t see the results immediately. You will either reap the benefits or you will suffer. These first impressions matter a lot. If you start out on the right foot from day one and establish an open and friendly beginning, your effort will prove to be tremendously helpful.

Lessons learned

  • You need to understand where the people are coming from; don’t make too many assumptions or jump the gun too early. Gain an understanding of the team set-up.
  • You want to be present and visible. You want to show up in a very welcoming and non-threatening way. You need to figure out how to put in this screen-time, even with very little to say in the beginning. Some people will be very cautious for a long time. Invest effort in building that trust with them.
  • It can be helpful to write down things that you notice because you will become used to them very quickly. This will help you to avoid inadvertently offending the status quo. You will be able to keep ahold of that initial outsider’s perspective.
  • If you are hired from the outside, the organization is usually looking for something that they cannot find on the inside. You’re expected to bring your unique experience to the table. Once settled in, you will need to choose your next steps and find areas of focus. What will your first big contribution be? An improvement in the way that your teams interface with one another? Perhaps the introduction of a career ladder or some improvement in the way that the company communicates internally? Start forming some concept of this first initiative early on; something simple and non-conflicting. This will be in addition to the intensive work that you do for your direct manager by default. You cannot forgo this part of the job.

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