Imagine you’ve just been added to a team or a new project. Maybe you’re the new CMO, maybe you’re the new lead for a project team, or maybe you just join a new department as a subject matter expert.

The team you’ve joined has been working together for several weeks, months, or even years. They have an established rapport. They’ve been going through various stages of the project together.

What’s the first thing you do?

An Important Moment

So, what was your answer?

Whatever your answer sounded like, in my experience, the way people walk into rooms comes in two different flavors.

  • Those whose presence enhances the team
  • Those whose presence fractures the team

The difference between them is visible when you ask the question: who are they trying to make look good right now?

If the answer is the team, then they are likely going to integrate into the team, and their ideas, challenges, and contributions will be recognized, appreciated, and rewarded. This person is joining the team and has set the proper conditions to enhance the team.

If the answer is themselves, then they are likely going to immediately encounter resistance that they will be forced to spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with instead of helping the team move forward. This person is protecting their ego and has set the proper conditions for judgment, resistance, and potential fracturing of the team cohesion.

How to walk into the room

My suggestion for how to walk into the room is virtually identical to sitting on the same side of the table, which is the key concept in my book The Lovable Leader. This is because the most important thing you can do when you walk into the room is establish trust.

Two people can give you the same advice or criticism, but if one of them is a close friend and the other is a complete stranger, you’re going to receive it differently. The difference is trust. You trust that your friend still has your best interest in mind. There is less of a defense mechanism being engaged.

Similarly, when you make a first impression on a team, I would suggest you start with the following steps.

1. Prepare an opening statement

Let people know about your goals and intentions. Share with people how you have been received in the past including things you do that might rub people the wrong way. Acknowledge and label all of these things so that when those issues inevitably arise, people are prepared and you’ve already addressed and contextualized those behaviors and tendencies.

Hi everyone, I want you all to know that I’m really excited to be joining this team. I already see how much hard work has gone into this process. I hope that I’m able to contribute by helping us work through some of the strategic challenges we’re having. Since this is the first time we’re working together, I want to call myself out and acknowledge that I have a tendency to let my enthusiasm bubble over and that sometimes leads to talking over people or being a little too high energy. I know that I do this and I will try my best to keep it in check. If you notice me doing it, please mention it to me as it’s something I want to work on because my intention isn’t to take away from anyone’s efforts or dismiss anyone’s contributions.

2. Listen, Be Curious, and Validate

When you first join a team, your advice isn’t likely all that good. That’s because you don’t know enough to know what problems need to be solved. So, at best, you’ve got a few nuggets of wisdom sitting amongst a variety of suggestions that are either not relevant or solve the wrong problem. For more on this, read Michael Bungay Stainer’s book The Advice Trap.

Instead, listen to what’s going on. Ask questions. More importantly, ask good questions. Good questions are ones that are meant to gather more information, nested inside of a desire to understand the other person and their ideas. It comes free of implied judgment.

Since I’m new to this, I want to make sure I’m on the same page as everyone else. What sort of criteria were we looking for when we selected this software? How has it been working so far? Are we planning to continue using it or if not, what are we looking for in a replacement?

Bad questions are the ones that come with an implied judgment. For example, let’s say you see the team doing something that isn’t working. There are lots of different ways to ask about that. The wrong way would be to use words or tones that imply malicious intent, incompetence, or willful disregard. For instance…

Why did we decide to pick this software when there were so many obvious red flags? It seems someone should’ve caught that.

With this line of questioning, people are already getting defensive. Blame is already being casually passed around. Instead of everyone feeling like they’re on the same team, now we’re trying to find the imposter.

When you join a team, give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and focus on building trust with everyone on the team. When you walk in the room, you haven’t yet earned the trust you need to ask hard-hitting questions because people don’t yet know if you’re there to be on their team or break up their team.

3. Align & Move Forward

Too many people skip right to this stage and start talking about moving forward. They want to talk next steps, they want to implement changes, and they want to fix problems.

Just because you were assigned to a team, doesn’t mean you’re on the team yet.

Slow down. Being a part of the team requires you to be accepted, and embraced by the team.

So, in your first few encounters with people, resist the urge to rush toward the solution. Instead, look for places where your goals overlap with the team’s. Talk to team members and see where your goals align with theirs. The vast majority of first impression situations do not require speed so much as it requires depth and precision. Take your time, focus on relationships and then move forward.

Don’t Trip

It’s easy to trip on your way into the room and fall flat on your face.

All you have to do is make the mistake of thinking that your arrival is what’s important, when really what’s important is the team accepting you in the first place.

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