August 29, 2018

First 100 Days: Initial Meetings with Your Staff

Your first day in a new leadership postion is often filled with activities you might not get much say about. There is usually a benefits sign up with HR and a company orientation meeting. Your boss may take you around to meet key people. You might have a meeting with your entire team. By then it could be late afternoon.

But after Day 1, you will start meeting with members of your staff to learn more about them and what they do.

You could certainly have them come in with nothing prepared and just have it be an open-ended, get-to-know, but I recommend a set of structured questions. This helps you surface important information but also sends clear signals about the kind of person you are and what you are going to focus on: Yes, one who cares about strategy and execution, but also one who listens, cares about the team as individuals with lives, and wants to help.

Here are some questions I recommend for an initial 1-1s with members of your team:

1) History: How long have you been here? Why did you join? What are your proudest accomplishments during this time?

2) Priorities: What is the big picture of what you are trying to achieve? What are your top priorities for the next 90-120 days?

3) Status: For the priorities, what are the key deliverables and due dates? What is the Red-Yellow-Green status of each priority?

4) Concerns: Any worries about your projects? Resources? Roadblocks? Your Department? The Function or Business? The Culture?

  • How can I help?

5) What are your personal strengths and development areas?

  • How can I help you grow?

6) What are your career aspirations?

  • How can I help you achieve them?

7) What are some important elements of your life outside of work you are willing to share?

It might seem like a laundry list of get to know questions, but there is a method-to-the-madness of both the questions and the ordering of them.

The opening and final few questions are all about your employee. You want to show an interest in them personally, their history and legacy, how they want to grow and develop, and what they aspire to. This indicates you are interested in them as a person and that you are not just focused on the work or what they can do for you or the company. You are also saying to them that you intend to be an ally and advocate for them and are there to help them succeed.

Questions Two & Three start the process of showing a laser focus on priorities that can be written on the back of a napkin and a focus on establishing review mechanisms to track status. You are going to have to establish a rhythm around this to be successful, it sends a strong message to signal that right out of the gate.

Question Four about current concerns is also a key question. You probably won't get much in your first meeting. They don't know you. They are trying to get a feel for you and they are unlikely to admit much about what they are really worried about. But again you are laying the groundwork. Surfacing concerns sooner rather than later lowers the chances of you and the organization getting blindsided. It helps you surface resource challenges and bottlenecks so you can move on them quickly. This question helps you surface intra/inter-team conflicts before positions get entrenched and become harder to unseat. And once you have your people willing to admit where they are stuck and need help, you will start to witness the team coalesce and pitch in and help each other out.

Question 7 is also really important, again to signal that you care about them as a person. It is last not because it is less important, but because once all of those other questions are discussed, they are likely to be more inclined to open up and share at least some important elements of their life outside of work. This will enable you to find ways you can relate to them beyond just shared mission and objectives.

As important as the questions you ask, how you respond may be even more important. At this point you are in intake mode. Listen, reflect, ask clarifying questions, and do everything possible to suspend judgment. As you listen you might have a knee-jerk reaction that their priorities seem unambitious or that their key projects seem tenuous, but you don't know enough to make any intelligent judgments in your first week. A complex legacy system of people, processes, culture, investment and technology is producing what you are being told.

Bottom-line: no matter what questions you end up asking, in these critical first few weeks, keep the powder dry on your conclusions and stay in inquiry mode until the initially inchoate image of current reality comes into more graphic relief.

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