To really learn something, you have to live it. This is also true of companies. The culture of a company lives through the posters on the walls, the arrangement of the conference rooms, and the layout of the buildings. The spirit of a company is in the things people chat about in the line for lunch and their reactions during Q&As. It isn’t something you can truly understand from a distance. Onboarding during Covid is incredibly challenging, and joining as the CEO of a company I’ve never been involved with before, where I have not met anyone face-to-face, has been doubly difficult.
While a successful onboarding is useful at the start of any new job, it is even more important during times when people are apart. I spent my first 30 days on a Listening Tour, and on March 31st, I published my State of the Union. This process gave me a 360-degree vantage point to learn about the company, its culture, and its people. Each conversation added to my knowledge while deepening my understanding of what makes Ancestry unique and special. It gave me a much greater appreciation for the rich history of the company and exposed me to a broad range of ideas for moving into the future.
Since I had not started at a new job in over a decade, I also leveraged this month to learn more about how to learn, and I am sharing my lessons from that experience here.
Prepare for the Tour
Know who you want to speak to. I wanted to take a broad look at the company. Before my first day, I made a list of everyone I wanted to meet. These included:
Every VP in the company
Nominees from anyone I met with
People in interesting roles who had a unique perspective I encountered throughout the month
Cast your net wide to get a good sense of the breadth of functions, experiences, and products at your organization. Meet with the most passionate employees, as well as those who are leaving the company. They will each bring a different perspective to the table. Some people prefer to meet more people and set up their listening meetings in groups of employees, but I found that in a one-on-one setting people are much more candid about the challenges they face.
Get the logistics right. Create a spreadsheet with a seeded list of everyone you want to meet. Include their name, location, tenure, what they work on, and a short bio. Schedule four to five of them per day in half-hour slots, avoiding back-to-back meetings. It is best to leave at least 15 minutes between so that you can run over when a particularly interesting conversation naturally arises. This also gives you a chance to review and clean up your notes before having to jump on your next call. Make sure to vary which areas you are meeting people from so you don't cluster, say, all of Finance on one day and all of Product Management on another. Send out your questions ahead of time so those who want to prepare have the space to do so.
During the Tour
Make each conversation feel fresh. The goal of these conversations is not necessarily to discover something new, but to understand how this person, in this position, working on this area feels relative to the company as a whole. By the 20th conversation, many of the themes and ideas you’ve explored will feel less revelatory to you, but this doesn’t make them any less important. To you, it may feel stale, but remember that for each person you speak with, this is their first conversation with you. You owe the 60th conversation the same enthusiasm and energy that you brought to the first one.
Take notes and highlight important insights. I took over 80 pages of notes during these conversations, and I knew that if I didn’t review them until the end of my first month, it would become overwhelming. Instead, I reviewed my notes at the end of each day and focused on two key areas:
In bold black, I highlighted important insight and quotes that were broadly applicable to the company, which I wanted to add to the list of important themes I was compiling. These would feed into the State of the Union.
In bold blue, I highlighted idiosyncratic insights or feedback on specific areas that were less relevant to the company as a whole. These would be shared with the Senior Leadership Team (SLT), as well as individually with the leaders of those specific areas.
Review common themes. This will help you make sure you are catching the larger, common threads during your meetings.
End of Week One: Note themes that emerged from what was bolded that week in black and in blue. Start the scaffolding for your State of the Union. But be willing to evolve your thinking as you gather more data points.
End of Week Two: Add and refine themes. Start adding commentary and quotes on areas that are likely to appear in the State of the Union.
End of Week Three: Take stock of what is working and what is not. Share your initial thoughts with key people to get a second opinion and crucial context.
End of Week Four: Add your final thoughts and get feedback from trusted partners especially those who have been a part of the culture for varying lengths of time.
After the Tour
Compile your State of the Union. Your State of the Union revolves around what you heard and your reflections on it. For each major theme, write a summary of important insights, and then add three to five representative quotes from those you spoke to. Making sure people see the words that they’ve said helps add color and cultural context while letting them know that their voices were heard. My template is available here (this link makes a copy in Google docs). Focus on four main sections:
Summary and methodology
What is working?
What is not working?
What should we do?
Make sure to outline clear next steps and action items. Part of this exercise is to understand the challenges facing your company and to share your roadmap toward developing solutions. Don’t try to solve everything at once. Instead, focus on the process of getting to the answers together.
An alternative State of the Union can be found here by Will Lawrence.
Share your State of the Union. Part of the work is to close the loop with the people you met. Share your insights widely, and ensure that those who spoke with you feel that their investment of time was worth it.
Focus on the future. The State of the Union is the first step in your journey as part of this new organization. Set out your communication plan for your 60- and 90-day summaries. This may be a vision document for 60 days, or an execution plan for 90 days. It will depend a lot on the needs of the organization. Make sure that everyone understands where you are in the 30-60-90 day plan and knows what is coming up ahead.
Listening tours are not just a box you can check off as you enter a new role. Rather, they lay the framework for your direction going forward. Approaching learning with true curiosity and an open mind will open up these conversations to new and interesting ideas that you may otherwise miss. Let the conversation lead you, not the other way around. During this month, I met with 67 employees across the company who shared their hopes, concerns, and advice with me. It gave me a perspective I could not have gotten anywhere else. And it was well worth the investment.