Episode 3: Getting Bearings

Picture of Kanban board

After the first week in my new role was completed I was ready to get down to business.  Based on my one-on-one conversations with my new employees, I had some direction on where to direction on where to start, but the todo list was daunting.  Hiring two employees (one part time and one full time,) learning about my new business partners, standardizing work practices, standardizing project planning, better defining job roles and descriptions, just to name a few.  Unfortunately, all of these items would have to wait until my third week on the job.  My second week on the new job was filled with a previously scheduled user conference that I had committed to speaking at.  This was very unfortunate timing. This timing was made worse by the fact that it was an intentional decision.  As I learned, it is critical to spend as much time as possible with you new team and you manager during the first few months in a new role.

As soon as possible, you should meet with you new boss and clearly establish expectations during your ramp up period over the first 90 days.  My first week on the job, my boss, Robert was at a conference in Philadelphia and the second week on the job I was at a conference in Chicago.  As a result, my first real conversation with Robert in my new role didn’t happen until the third week on the job.  This was undesirable, not because I was moving in the wrong direction with my new team, but because I didn’t have clarity on what Robert’s top priorities were for me in my new role until my third week on the job.  During this conversation, Robert identified his top priority as having the upcoming Tri-Annual updates go well.

The Tri-Annual update has its roots with our former CIO.  This originally started as a quarterly update the Information Services gave to each of the other 6 divisions at Associated Electric to update them on the various projects that IS was undertaking on their behalf.  This started as a communication tool that our CEO implemented to improve communication and collaboration between IS and the other divisions.  Today, under the leadership of our current CIO, it is an open forum to present Information Services’ KPI and gain alignment on our project plan.  The team that I had inherited had a very wide variety of was to track and manage their work, so getting KPI’s and putting together three formal project plans in four to six weeks was a fairly tall order.

In Information Services, we break our work apart into three categories: project, support and meta.  At this time, most of our KPI’s revolved around the “support” type work.  This is type of work (for my team) is typically your tier two help desk type work.  We don’t plan for this type of work; but rather, we budget a percentage of time for this type of work and strive to complete this work as quickly as possible.  Standardizing emergent (support) work became my primary focus for the team.  Without a standard was to track our support work, I would not be able to compile any support related KPI’s.  Many of our teams use Team Foundation Server for managing our work and that was the system of record that my team was going to start exclusively using.  Accomplishing this required everyone to get out of the habit of immediately resolving support requests and into a habit of documenting what they were being asked todo.  To make this easier, we kept it analog and a created a physical Kanban board on some of the exterior cube walls.  I clearly laid out the expectations for the team that, at a minimum, every support request that you receive needed to be documented on a 3×5 index card.  No entry into TFS if they didn’t want to, I would take care of that and allow them to focus on the work.  Some of my employees habitually recorded everything into TFS, but for those that didn’t, my gesture greatly improved their buy in.  After all, I was only asking for a few words to be written on an index card and pined to the cube wall.  The results were immediate, we went from about 5 recorded tasks a week, before I joined the team, to an average of twenty.  The second problem to solve was to ensure that team members that habitually used TFS properly categorized their work for future analysis.  This was easily accomplished by using a TFS query pinned to the home screen in TFS.  Below is a picture of the Kanban board and the TFS home screen that I use to keep all the work straight.

Picture of Kanban board
TFS home page
At the end of my first month, the entire team was now managing emergent work in a consistent manner and we were beginning to collect KPIs to measure and improve our performance.  Lessons I learned include avoid traveling during the early days of the transition.  During the first two weeks in my new roll, I did not have a chance to speak with my new manager because either he or I were out of town.  This cause delays in the two of us gaining alignment on immediate priorities, preparation for the triannual updates.  That said, the best thing you can do for yourself when entering into a new role is to have a direct conversation with your new manager to negotiate and align expectations.  Once we had that conversation my focused immediately turned to the triannual updates.  That preperation would continue into the second month with a focus on the team’s projects.

Episode 2: Landfall

Good leaders are multipliers of talent.  They can take the three individuals and have them produce the output of six individuals.  On day one in a new leadership role, all leaders are a talent and value drain; they actually take away value from their organization.  Think about what you do on your first day in a new job, go through human resources, read policies, etc.  It could be days or even weeks until you are able to start doing the work you where hired to do, never mind the fact that you may not be doing it well in that early phase.  The message from the first post was to build a plan for your transition.  Building a plan will help you get to the point where you can add value sooner.  Michael Watkins refers to this as the “break even point.”  In the first week in a new role, you will not step in and start adding value; however, there are a few things that you can be doing early (and some missteps and you can avoid) to help you accelerate the break even point.
My approach to the first week was inspired by The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.  In this story, Jane (the fictional CEO) started her first two weeks on the new job as a listener.  She attended the regular meetings, spoke individually with her new employees and focused on learning all she could about her new team.  I modeled my first week on the job after that.  The transition plan I created called for a series of conversations with my new team covering everything from personality to their current projects.  I also built in time to speak with critical business partners.  The only person that I did not spend a significant amount of time talking to and learning about was my new Manager, Robert.  These conversations and the learning that occurred was all directed and inspired from the The First 90 Days.
The First 90 Days includes a concept called the learning plan.  The learning plan is a involves identifying questions that you want to learn the answers to, building hypothesis and then testing them and refining the questions you are asking to progressively increase your knowledge about your new team.  Before staring my new role, I created a list of 5 questions and my hypothesis for each of them.  During my conversations with my new team, I tested the hypothesis and built an action plan for the next steps for learning.  The single more important thing I learned was that there was a lot of confusion about individuals job roles on the team.  Why was this?  How did we get to that?  What did everyone view as their role on the team?  Those became my next focus of learning.  Answers to these questions would be very influential in the future as a starting building a strategy how to run the team near the end of the 90 day journey.  At the end of this post are the 5 questions that I was seeking answers to from my Learning Plan.  Learning was necessary and a positive way to start the new role; unfortunately, not everything was pleasant on that first week.
On the last day of my old role, I was very concerned.  I had not told any of the people I had work closest with about this transition, that I would be leaving and Michael would be taking over the work I was doing with them.  After expressing my concern with our CIO, he agreed that I should go ahead and communicate this to a Sr. Manager that I worked closely with.  The conversation went like this
Me: “I’m sure James has already given you some details about this this transition …”
Manager: “Not really, I heard something from my boss about this, but this is the first conversation I’ve had about this …”
It turned out that my former manager had told a Division Director (manager’s boss) that Michael was inline to replace me and that it would likely happen before the end of the year.  I personally called one of the women I had been working very closely with over the last 18 months that evening to let her know.  There was a lot of confusion, excitement for my opportunity, and hurt that this had been kept in the dark until after the 11th hour.  In total, 3 people, outside of my department (old and new) and HR, knew about this transition before it happened.  Monday, as the word got out with my business partners, was a day filled with negative emotional reactions.  This created a mess for myself, Michael , James and Robert to clean up, and it took a lot of energy to do that.  To make the situation worse, both my prior and current managers were out of town that week.  Email and phone calls between sessions at the conference they were attending was the only opportunities for them to assist.  The final announcement came out on Thursday when Michael and I traveled to the monthly leadership meeting at our power plant in Oklahoma.  This cost me a day with my team but it was necessary as all of the managers and leadership that I had been working with for the last 8 years was present in one place.  You cannot under estimate the power of good communication, or the effort it will take to repair poor communication.
Coming into my new role with a plan made that first week relatively easy.  Any leader tranistioning into a new role should prepare, plan and make assumptions about your new role, but be prepared to be wrong on them.  That’s okay, what is important is that your learn and grow from you incorrect assumptions.  The things that made my first week difficult issues around timing and communication.  The feelings from the people that I worked with was that this change was a big secret.  It was not.  I have learned that it is important to be as transparent and preemptive in your communication of the transition as possible.  On the issues of timing, you should avoid starting a new role when your new boss is out of town and you should also avoid being out of town as well.  Having your new boss there to bounce ideas off of a soliciate feedback is important, so is spending as much time as possible with your new team in that critical first week.
The questions from my Learning Plan:
  • How has this team performed in the past? How do people in the team think it has performed?
  • What efforts have been made to change the team? What happened?
  • Name three things that if we accomplish in the next 12 months would constitute for the team, i.e. what would make 2016 a good year?  Why?
  • In what areas is the team most likely to face challenges in the coming year? What are these challenges (technical, cultural, political?) What can be done now to prepare for them?
  • If you were me, what would you focus attention on?

Episode 1: New Horizons

The story of this transition actually began six to nine months prior to me taking the helm of a new team.  Early in 2015, Robert came to James to ask for help.  He was in a rough spot for a newly appointed manager.  He had newly appointed supervisors and supervisors that were increasingly dissatisfied with their roles.  Additionally, Robert had a team of software professionals, the “Platforms Services Team” (essentially the SharePoint team at the time) reporting directly to him.  All of this, while reporting to a new CIO, made Robert’s role a very difficult one.  It was in early 2015 at one of our department strategic meetings that this subject came up.  There was some lively discussion around department organization and supervisor movement but very quickly a common theme emerged, I would be leaving my current role and joining Robert’s team.  We left that discussion knowing something was going to happen but without knowing when.  At this point we were still several months away from anything happening but it was already time to start preparing for this transition.


My earliest preparation focused on two areas, growing a team member to succeed me and building and strong relationships with my potential new boss and colleagues.  James has already helped solved the first problem by create what he has called the “L-Team.”  This is all of the supervisors in the department and individuals that have identified management as a possible career path.  Fortunately, I had a member of my team, Michael, that was part of this group and was already working towards becoming a supervisor.  At this point, all of my technical employees had goals to grow and focus on specific technologies to establish deep skill sets across the team.  Immediately I change Michael’s focus from depth to breadth of technology.  This was to enable him to have enough technical skills across the teams technology sets so that he could be an effective coach to the team one day.


To address the second concern I immediately asked Robert to start mentoring me.  This was mostly driven by the fact that Robert was potentially my next manager, but also driven by the fact that the was further along in a career path that I was, and still am, looking to follow.  Over the month that followed I meet with Robert on several occasions.  Looking back, this was a great way to jump start our relationship but too short to be a good mentoring relationship.  I also focused on building relationships with my potential colleagues in Robert’s Department.  This was accomplished with a series of lunch conversations that would always start as a conversations about projects or common concerns to make the conversations safe but they would quickly grow beyond those seed topics.  I was able to carry out about a half dozen of these conversations over a six month period.  I would recommend more but once a month seem to be the best I was able to do at the time.


Finally, at our August strategic meeting that included the leadership group (managers, supervisors and aspiring supervisors) from James’s and Robert’s departments, the team came together and made the recommendation that I move to supervise the platforms team and that a member of my team be moved into a development role to supervise my current team.  The output of this meeting was a recommendation that was taken to the CIO.  There was no plan or timeline for implementing this change and so it sat on the back burner for the next month.


During this month in limbo, Michael and I were almost at a loss on what to do next.  On one hand, this “recommendation” had already been communicated to our department; on the other, we were not allowed to talk with out business partners about it.  In my opinion, this was the first of a few communication mis-steps on the part of my manager.  The ramifications of these missteps will be discussed in the second post.  While we were in the limbo state, Michael and I agreed that going forward he would be (for all intents and purposes) running the team.  Michael started running and leading all of our planning meetings, project meetings and became accountable for our team’s KPIs.  Over this month, Michael started attending and participating in (but not let leading) all of our external facing meetings.  A detailed plan had not yet been created but Michael had already stepped up into the role.


At our September strategic meeting, there was a new sense of urgency towards building and executing on a transition plan.  It was discovered that Human Resources was placing a freeze on all employee position changes at the end of October, in five weeks.  We quickly hashed out a plan covering the major events for the rest of the year, tri-annual project planning, employee evaluations, and leadership meetings.  This plan covered who had responsibility for which events, for which team and when.  This plan also included me transition to the new team as soon as possible, October 12th, in less than two weeks.  At this point, I was nearly lost.  In less then two weeks I would be leading a new team.  That team was more than twice the size of my current team and directly (or indirectly) supported 4 of the divisions at AECI.  What really concerned me was that I didn’t yet have a plan for what to do once I got to the team.


This change was coming very soon and I was lost as to what todo.  I knew that I was not the first person to do this type of job transition before; therefore, I did a quick google search and I discovered The First Ninety Days by Micheal Watkins.  I immediately committed to reading this book and applying some lessons into this new role.  In the week before the transition, i met a few times with my new manager and conducted a few conversations or excercises from the book.  We jointly completed a STARS portfolio of the team, had a conversation around expectations for the rest of the year, and reviewed my personal 90 day plan.  This book was very influential in guiding me through this transition and I would recommend it to anyone in a similar situation.


This post covers all the events leading up to this management transition I recently underwent.   This is really more of the setup and back story about this transition and less on guidance, advice or lessons learned at this point.  Even this early into the story there is one lesson to share with anyone who may be going through a transition like this and that is to have a plan.  With a plan inplace, you will hit the ground running; you will likely be running in the wrong direction, but a plan on day one will give you momentum and credibility.  These are a critical in having a successful leadership transition.  Good leaders will always be able to read their situation and adjust course as necessary.  Below are some artifacts, including my 90 day plan.  In my next post I will go over the events of the first two weeks in this new role.