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Joining and Successfully Leading a New Team

New Manager
Changing company

30 September, 2020

Karan Jain, Engineering Manager at Doordash, recalls his own experience of joining a new team and explains how a carefully planned approach helped him gain legitimacy and respect.

Problem

I had spent seven years in my previous company and I was widely considered a domain expert. I knew in and out of the system; I knew people and people knew me. Over time we developed bonds of trust that I nurtured with great care. As I moved to a new role, I encountered an entirely different setting. I was not that much versed in the domain and people didn’t know me well. I was anxious if and why they would listen to me and if I would be able to develop the trust I once had with my previous team.
 

Actions taken

One of my mentors recommended to me a book The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins that helped me handle the introductory period successfully and reach in a short period of time what Watkins labels “breakeven point”.
 

I divided my first three months into three phases:

  • Phase/month 1: Meeting new people and different stakeholders, gathering feedback on what is going well and what is not, understanding better the business and product, listening carefully to anyone who has something to say, and curbing any urges to take action.
  • Phase/month 2: Becoming gradually involved in product releases and development cycle, understanding more clearly processes as well as gaps and challenges that are hampering productivity, testing collected feedback, and understanding why things are the way they are. This is also the right time to understand the background and context more comprehensively but also to identify areas of early wins and position yourself.
  • Phase/month 3: Building team strategy, vision, and roadmap for the next two years aligning the team structurally to help accomplish the vision, focusing on accomplishing early wins that would help instill trust in stakeholders. One of the common mistakes people make is rushing into doing reorganization. I waited for six months to do it because I felt I didn't have enough data to build a new strategy.
     

I had also focused on stakeholder management and building trust and empathy with different stakeholders. Strong mutual dependency would make success possible only through intensive collaboration.
 

Also, I would socialize with other managers within and across the organization. I would engage in a variety of conversations learning about different perspectives on day-to-day challenges common across the organization or those unique to my team. This intensive exchange allowed me to figure out early wins and position myself as someone who is a vital enabler and problem solver.
 

Lessons learned

  • Don’t be an enforcer on your team, instead be their strongest advocate. Be a leader who inspires and supports their team, not the one who enforces its authority and merely prescribes what should be done.
  • Show your vulnerability to your team, share the mistakes that you have made in the past and their implications. Create an inclusive environment where people can try and fail without fear of recrimination or punishment.
  • People seek guidance and direction from leaders whom they trust. Be the leader to pave the way, show the light at the end of the tunnel and motivate along the way.
  • Don't rush into reorganization until you have sufficient data, solid insights, etc. Instead, listen carefully to different stakeholders to better understand the background and context. Collecting and processing all the information will take time and should precede any strategizing on how to solve a problem.
  • Something that worked in one place may not work in another place. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions, but every team requires a distinct approach.
  • Even though your new role may give you significantly more authority, practice influence without authority. It helps build long-term relationships and trust, and will consequently also impact the productivity and happiness of your team.

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