How to Ace the First Week at Your New Job
Last month I met up with a friend who had just finished his first week at a new job. We met at a local bar and sampled some craft beers while he filled me in on the company, the product, and how he was feeling about his new role. He sounded very excited as he explained the ins and outs of how the app-based business model worked.
However, he revealed that his first week hadn’t gone all that well — he was hired in at a lead level, but since he was new, his team knew more about the brand and product than he did — so he was having a hard time figuring out what he should be focusing on. He struggled to feel productive each day and expressed feeling unqualified to assert his opinion, or to even have one at all.
“I went to a meeting on my second day, and they asked for my approval of their next UI/UX decision. How would I know if that was the right thing to do?” he said in an exasperated tone.
I was so surprised to hear this from this particular person — someone I had known for years, a guy who I greatly respect and has a real talent for leading teams. How could one of the smartest and most capable managers I’ve ever known possibly feel this way?
But… this was a new job. Surely he knew that he couldn’t expect to perform at his full capacity from the first day.
“That’s normal to feel like that. You know that, right?” I offered.
“No!” he exclaimed. “I’ve never been in this situation — I’ve always started teams, never joined one midway. At the end of my third day, I was convinced that they were just going to fire me!”
I’m sure that last bit was hyperbole, but his struggle was definitely real. Joining a team that is partway through its development cycle can be challenging. It’s like a a giant, crazy machine that’s already operating at full speed, and you’re expected to jump in while it’s moving and keep things running at the same pace. It can be really hard to even know where to start.
What I realized while talking with him is that starting a new job without the knowledge that you aren’t going to be able to contribute much at first can greatly compound the problem. If you don’t know that it’s almost impossible to be productive in a new job from day one, you might become frustrated, anxious and disappointed with yourself, especially if you’re used to being a top contributor.
As someone that has joined numerous teams over the years, I shared my experience with my friend, pointing out (kindly) that he was causing himself a lot of additional stress by expecting too much, too soon.
Later on, when I reflected back on the conversation, I realized that it would be a great topic to blog about. I’ve worked primarily at game studios, but most of my suggestions are universal so should be useful to almost anyone working in a business setting. If you’ve just started a new job and want to understand how to meaningfully contribute to your team and project as soon as you possibly can, check out my tips below!
Set the stage with your manager
As soon as possible, (at some point within your first week) set up a meeting with your manager. Your goal is to get clarity on the following:
1. The expectations for your role and responsibilities
Some of this may be obvious based on your particular role and the amount of discussion that went on prior to your being hired, but getting clarification is always a good thing.
“As a Senior Designer, what should I be spending most of my time on?”
At some companies, the title Senior Designer means you’ll spend your day tweaking tuning values in a game editor, but at others, you might be expected to plan future tasks and review the work of your direct reports. Same title, vastly different job description. So don’t assume that you know the responsibilities just because you’ve done the job somewhere else. Every company has its own interpretation of what a job title means, so it never hurts to ask.
2. The goals of the team
Your team is all working together to produce something. What is it? How well do you understand it and the reasons you’re creating it? Are there any key deadlines coming up that you should be aware of? Are there any dependencies between departments? Talking about your team goals can help you get a better understanding of how you fit into the big picture. You’ll also want to get clarification on which areas of the project you “own,” and which are assigned to others on the team.
3. Management styles
Management style is a business-y phrase that simply means the method in which you and your manager can best work together. There are two parts: 1) How your boss manages her direct reports and 2) How you prefer to be managed.
Is your manager hands-on or off? Does she like regular checkins, or prefer to only hear from you when you need guidance? Is she a “big picture” kind of thinker, or does she want to know every individual detail? Find out what she’s expecting and what works best for her.
This is also your opportunity to explain what you need to do to ensure you are most effective, or that you have a specific strength or weakness you know can impact your job performance.
“During the first couple months, I would appreciate getting your feedback on my reports before I send them to the team.”
“I’m great at managing my own time, and part of keeping myself focused includes only checking my email twice a day. Is that going to be ok?”
There’s no one right way to manage someone though there are plenty of wrong ways and I’ve seen my share of both. What you’re aiming for here is a good middle ground that allows you to have the freedom to do your job in the way that works for you and also gets your manager the results she is looking for.
At the end of the meeting, ask your manager if it’s alright to set up a one-on-one meeting at a cadence that makes sense (note: bi-weekly has worked best for me) to allow you both to discuss any issues impacting your role, responsibilities, the team in general, and most importantly, to get feedback on how you’re doing.
One-on-one meetings can work wonders in building a relationship with your manager, who may be so busy that it’s hard to strike up a casual conversation during the day — I’ve at times worked with managers who were hardly ever at their desks. But having a good working relationship with your manager is super important, so push to claim some of their time. Suggest a regular lunch one-on-one if you’re told “there just isn’t time” during normal work hours.
After the “Setting the Stage” Meeting
Write up a summary of what was discussed and save it in a place where you can refer to it in the future. Email it to your manager and ask if he agrees with your write-up. Follow up as needed until you’re both on the same page. The goal here is to come across as proactive, engaged, and responsible.
Take the time in this first meeting to firmly embed the idea that you are focused and dedicated, that you believe in the product, and have the team’s best interests in mind. If you can confidently convey your goals, you’ll win some points with your manager, who honestly just wants to know that the job is going to get done, and it’s going to be done well.
Set the stage with your direct reports
If you’re coming in as a manager, this can be tricky. Early on, it’s going to be challenging to give your reports direction that is useful, and winning over their hearts simply takes time.
So, while you should sit down and have a meeting similar to the one above (but with roles reversed) with each report, your focus should be on calming any anxiety that your direct reports may have about you coming in (and ruining everything!). And don’t doubt that they are be worried about this — they’ve only just met you, and for all they know, you might be the worst manager in the world.
So let’s fix that. In your first meeting, your goal is to listen, above everything else. Try to talk as little as possible. Ask questions about the project, how they feel things are going, and how they feel about their own roles. The message you should seek to convey is that you are interested in their thoughts and opinions, that you know that there is a lot you need to learn, and that you’re looking forward to working together.
“Right now, I’m here to learn and to listen. This is your project and I want you to help me understand more about it so that I can join you.”
Meet your team
By this, I mean your entire team, whether that is 6 people or 60 people (Note: If you’re on a large team, say, over 100 people, you may want to do this with the specific part of your team that you’ll be interacting with most often, rather than everyone. Or split it up into multiple days, whatever works for you).
Ask a coworker to walk you around the team area, or set aside some time to walk around on your own and introduce yourself to everyone personally. Even if you’re the shyest introvert that ever been, this is really important to do — you need to know who is on your team and what they do — so suck it up and just go say hi.
When do you this, be sure to bring along a notebook with you to write down each coworker’s name and role. No matter how many times I’ve heard someone say you should work really hard to recall all 87 of your coworkers’ names after meeting them a single time, most people can’t do this (nor should they do short-term memory backflips trying to).
I once worked with a guy that labeled his To-Do list, “Brain,” explaining that he wrote his ideas and tasks down so that they didn’t take up room in his brain, and he didn’t have to worry about forgetting anything important. He had the right idea. Write down the names and save yourself the trouble of trying to remember them all. You’ve got enough to think about!
Get to know your team
A surefire way to learn about the team and company you’ve joined is by “interviewing” your new coworkers. Now that you’ve met everyone on your new team, make a list of key players. This might mean the leads of each department, but it also could mean the person that’s been on the team / at the company the longest, or the person that seems to have the loudest opinions. Once you’ve got your list, set up short, casual meetings or lunches with each person, where you can speak with them one on one.
If people want to know the purpose of the meeting, just explain that you’re trying to get up to speed as soon as possible and you think that speaking with them would be really informative and helpful for you. Because, truth.
You can come up with your own set of questions to ask each person, but here’s a list that I’ve used in the past:
- Tell me more about your role on the team. What do you like best about it?
- What are the main goals and/or values of this team/project?
- How does our team fit into the larger company picture?
- What does the brand/company stand for, to you? / Why has it been successful?
- What is the best thing about being on this team?
- Are there any problems I should look out for?
When I first joined The Sims team, I went through this process and found that it gave me some useful insights, both about the people I would soon be working with and the state of the team and company at the time. I also learned a ton about the brand itself.
Go to as many meetings as you can
This may sound like odd advice — usually I recommend reducing the number of meetings you attend so you can get actual work done. But when you’re new, meetings can be a great place for you to observe and soak in information. Be a sponge!
So on your first or second day, ask those around you if you can tag along to any meetings they go to. You’ll find that most of the time, people are fine with this. Sometimes they’ll try to explain that you probably don’t need to be there, or that it’s not relevant to your particular role. Just remind them that you’re trying to take in as much as possible and if it’s clear during the meeting that it isn’t helping you with that goal, you’ll politely excuse yourself.
Going to meetings in the beginning can help you understand more about your team, their working methods, process, and the product overall. You’ll also glean many useful somethings about the different personalities of your coworkers and how they interact.
When I am in a work environment, I am a relentless note-taker. Every meeting, no matter how casual, you can be sure that I will write down anything important that was discussed or decided. The biggest reason I do this is because simply writing something down can increase your retention of that information by up to 20-30%. And when you’re a newbie, you are going to be flooded with new information almost constantly.
If you’re in a content / production role, you’ll likely be introduced to the tools that the team uses to get work done during your first week. And someone will be assigned the job of walking you through using these tools and how each process works. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the experience of sitting down with a new hire and I start explaining things, and then notice that they aren’t writing anything down.
You’re not going to remember it the first time — so grab a notebook, and write it down! You don’t want to be that annoying person that needs a second (or third!) walk through simply because you didn’t jot down some notes when things were being explained. So if it’s not been clear ( 😉 ), whenever you’re talking to someone on your team, write down what they are saying. Because writing it down will help you remember it.
Find a “hands-on” task that you can do in your first week
Whether it’s a small coding task, writing documentation, or analyzing some player data, find something that you feel comfortable doing, and then do it. It doesn’t even matter if it that task is going to be your main job responsibility eventually, what you’re looking to do here is to choose a task that will get you involved with your team and the project overall, in a measurable way.
Anything that you involve yourself in will put you in a place where you have the opportunity to learn more about your project, team goals, and how to be better at your job. So find a way to contribute, no matter how small.
Accept that there will be a lot you don’t know
You’re not going to jump into your role at 100% efficiency, and that’s not only okay, it’s completely expected. There’s no way to rush the transition process — the only solution is to be patient and know that it will happen.
Whenever I’ve joined a new team, the goal I set for myself is to feel productive by the end of the first three weeks. In my experience, three weeks is really the sweet spot. I’ve had it happen as soon as two, but it’s also taken as long as four for me to truly feel that I am contributing to my team in a way that feels meaningful. If it happens before then, time to celebrate! But if it doesn’t, I remind myself to be patient, set goals, and take it one day at a time.
It’s the Little Things
I spoke to my friend again after the end of his third week and not surprisingly, he was feeling much more at home and confident at his new company. What helped the most? At the beginning of his second week, he decided to take on something hands-on (actual coding), which helped him really get a much deeper understanding of the product and the direction it needed to go. He felt much more at ease with his team and I have no doubt that he’ll be performing at his usual level of awesome in no time.
- Set the stage with your manager
- Set the stage with your direct reports
- Meet your team
- Get to know your team
- Go to as many meetings as you can
- Take notes
- Find a hands-on task that you can do in your first week
- Accept that there will be a lot you don’t know
If this sounds like a lot of work, well, you’d be right. But you probably wouldn’t be here reading this particular post unless you’re used to working hard. Kicking ass never comes easy. So from one overachiever to another, I hope this list was helpful! If there is anything you think I should add, please let me know in the comments below.