A Career Cold Start Algorithm

Several times in my career, I’ve joined a team whose work was already well under way, where I had a massive knowledge deficit, and didn’t have pre-existing relationships. None of those excuses relieved me from the pressure I felt to establish myself and contribute. Over time, I realized that the natural instinct to push for early impact leads many incoming leaders into challenging relationships as they expose their knowledge deficit and waste time. So, I developed an algorithm that has helped me ramp up quickly — and in several cases — have an impact in a relatively short period of time, while minimizing collateral damage.

The first step is to find someone on the team and ask for 30 minutes with them. In that meeting you have a simple agenda:

  • For the first 25 minutes: ask them to tell you everything they think you should know. Take copious notes. Only stop them to ask about things you don’t understand. Always stop them to ask about things you don’t understand.
  • For the next 3 minutes: ask about the biggest challenges the team has right now.
  • In the final 2 minutes: ask who else you should talk to. Write down every name they give you.

Repeat the above process for every name you're given. Don’t stop until there are no new names.

The sum of the answers from the first 25 mins will not give you a complete picture of the team's work. That will take months to develop. But they will give you a framework for integrating new information more quickly, which will speed up how fast you ramp. It will also heavily over index on the areas of work under active discussion, which will help you dive in productively to the most critical discussions immediately. The nature of what people choose to discuss is a very valuable signal about the problems the team face, as it may be about the work, the organization, or process. Finally, it will give you a sense of the language and terminology that can very often be a barrier to working smoothly with teams.

The answers from the second question give you a cheat sheet on how to impress the team with early positive impact. Some of the things you'll hear will take time to fix, such as “we need a bigger team” or “our infrastructure isn’t scaling.” Those are important and it will be good for the team to hear you internalize those challenges. But a surprising number of the issues you'll hear repeatedly will be things you can easily help with, like “we waste a bunch of time in meetings every week” or “we need a dedicated conference room.” I start with the latter as quickly as I can because those are the types of things teams often neglect to prioritize, in spite of a compounding negative impact on progress.

The third question will give you a valuable map of influence in the organization. The more often names show up and the context in which they show up tends to provide a very different map of the organization than the one in the org chart.

For all the value I just described, the greatest value in this process isn't in the answers — it is in the asking. Taking these meetings and listening shows proper respect for the team that's in place. It can be hard to remember, but while you may be insecure about taking a new role because you feel like you're at a disadvantage, the people you're speaking with may also be unsure about you taking that role and what it means for them. Demonstrating mutual respect builds the trust required to make progress.