Something I’ve been thinking about recently is how best to adapt to newcomers on your team; particularly when they have authority over you (i.e. a new “boss” or manager), or when they’re moving the goalposts of your current working practices. If you’ve ever found yourself in this situation, it can be a struggle.
From previous interactions with more senior managers or the exec team, you may have a good understanding of the politics, their likes and dislikes, and a whole set of other contextual experiences that your new teammate(s) simply haven’t gotten access to yet. Because they haven’t had those experiences, and as a result don’t have the same context you do, they may be doing and asking you to do things in a way that seems incongruent with your current understanding of how things work.
Sometimes, that’s going to hurt. In the past, I’ve been asked to deliver things, or do things in a certain way, that I knew wasn’t going to work, because of my additional context. Despite arguing from this perspective, I’ve been informed they need to be done anyway. Sometimes, the outcome has surprised me, and there’s been a net improvement. Sometimes, the outcome has been exactly as I predicted, leading to a sense of wasted effort and the resulting feelings of negativity and “I told you so!” which accompany that.
Clearly going into these kinds of situations with a closed mind or fixed perspective that says something like “this is how it’s always worked in the past and this is how it’s always going to work in the future” is not going to lead to good outcomes over the course of time, or an ideal relationship with those new team members. You’ve got to keep an open mind. You’ve got to constantly be looking for the good, for the positive outcomes the team is seeking, whilst bringing your experience to bear in the most appropriate fashion.
I’ve found myself in a similar situation recently, hence I’ve been giving it some deep thought. I found the following ideas helpful while navigating through it.
Ensure clear lines of communication
Apparently I bias towards “brutal honesty” - or so a coach told me in the recent past. As you might imagine, that’s not always a good thing. But, as Popeye always used to say, “I yam what I yam!” If nothing else, honesty, even the somewhat brutal kind, helps to ensure that communication is, well…, honest. If sometimes a little uncomfortable! What those clear lines of communication actually look like for you, and your team, in the context of your organisation, and your ways of working, and depending on the specifics of your actual work style or relationship, are clearly going to vary somewhat. The important thing here is, that they’re there in the first place. That may require some work on your part to establish, but it’s important work, and you should prioritise it if you’re not already doing so.
Getting a handle on your new boss’s expectations is going to be critical. The sooner you can get this done the better. Seeking to understand their vision and objectives and how you fit into the new picture is going to set you up for success going forward. Of course, this assumes they want you to stay in the picture! Make it easier for them to put the pieces together by sharing your aspirations with them, and asking for guidance on how you can best align your efforts with the team’s objectives.
Once the communication lines are clear, you should think about asking for some feedback. Not everyone is very good at or likes doing this, and it may take some persistence, but it’s worth the ask. The last time I asked for feedback, I got some useful nuggets like:
“Be clear, direct and firm in your decisions, but be nice about it. There’s never a reason to be a jerk” - remember that brutal honesty thing?
“Learn how to genuinely soften your tone without being passive aggressive or condescending” - again, brutal - I’m working on it!
“Become more gracious at accepting processes/decisions that are not your preference” - oops!
And so on, and so forth. What’s the takeaway? Regularly asking for feedback from both your new manager and peers will definitely provide valuable insights into areas of improvement and may also highlight your strengths.
Roll with the punches
One of my favourite quotes of all time, ever, is Mike Tyson’s “Everyone thinks they have a plan until they get punched in the mouth!” (Stolen and paraphrased somewhat from Helmuth von Moltke’s “no plan survives contact with the enemy”).
Another favourite saying from one of my erstwhile colleagues with a somewhat unique sense of humour is “God laughs at your plans!” Indeed, he probably does.
What’s the point here? It’s that having a plan is probably a good thing, but sometimes your plans need to change and adapt. If you can’t or won’t adapt in the face of change, something’s liable to break, and it probably won’t be whatever the change is. It’ll be you.
Change, as they say, is inevitable; especially in the business world. Instead of resisting it, embrace it. This positive attitude will not only benefit you personally but will also be noticed by others, including your new manager. Be willing to adapt to new methods, technologies, or processes introduced by the new manager or team members. Being adaptable shows that you’re a team player and open to innovation.
Learning is my favourite thing, so this one comes easy to me. Again though, your mileage may vary depending on how you feel about continuous learning in the first place (is it a chore, or is it a source of joy?), and how you actually go about it.
I’ve expanded at length regarding how I go about continuous learning elsewhere (e.g. here), so I won’t go into a massive amount of detail here; suffice to say that I tend to prefer a JIT (Just In Time) approach to learning, where I’m digging out learning resources and utilising them as needed, with a view towards accomplishing specific activities.
Let’s say for example I need to do some deep data analysis. I’m not a “data analyst”, so this isn’t something I’m used to doing every day, and my skills are therefore lacking. What I need is some pointers to get me started, and a sense of what a good data analysis methodology (or recipe) might look like. In this kind of scenario, I’m going to spend a little time figuring out what the best source of these kinds of instructions are, and then I’m going to go and read-up a bit, or watch some videos, or do a few steps in a course. Just enough to get me started, so I can accomplish the specific task at hand, and so that I have something to refer back to if I start feeling lost.
There’s plenty of great resources out there for this kind of thing; my go-to tends to be Coursera, for good and reliable (i.e. authoritative) content.
An additional consideration for this point specifically, is if you’ve got a bunch of new people on your team, or a new manager; don’t be threatened by their knowledge or skills. Use them. The arrival of new and skilled team members is an opportunity to learn from them. Seek out their expertise, ask questions, and consider participating in workshops or courses to enhance your skills. Being proactive about your learning can set you apart.
Look after yourself
Above all, be kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up about your limitations, real or perceived. Show up each day, do your job, be nice to your co-workers, be as generous as you can be with your time, resources and knowledge. But acknowledge your limitations and your working hours. Use your vacation time. Keep up to speed with developments in your areas of specialist interest, but don’t forget to live your life, spend time with your family and pursue your own interests.
Amidst all the changes and the drive to advance, don’t forget to take care of yourself. A healthy work-life balance is essential for sustained career growth.
You could probably argue that the tips above are generally applicable to successful working, and I wouldn’t disagree. But I’ve sought to provide a specific slant and demonstrate how they might be applied to a specific situation: that of being a part of a growing team, and one in which the goalposts are being moved in directions you’re finding uncomfortable. I’ve found that when this happens, as it invariably does at points during a career, reflecting on the ideas above is helpful for me.
By way of a post-script, I found myself in exactly the situation I described at the beginning, just yesterday. I did a bunch of work on a deliverable, despite having flagged well in advance that it needed to be reviewed by a senior leader ahead of time. What I predicted would happen, happened (spoiler: major revisions), and as a result the deliverable will now be parked for the immediate future, and will in all likelihood need to be completely re-worked once it’s picked back up again.
Clearly this is a sub-optimal situation, and one that it would be easy to get negative about. But if I turn it around and look for the positive; I learned some things along the way, and I collaborated with the new team on those things successfully. I sought feedback and built clear communication channels. So on reflection, maybe it’s not so bad. I’m gonna go enjoy my weekend, and go into my next working week with a refreshed and positive attitude.
I hope you do too. See you in the next one!