This is a continuation of my guide to onboarding to a new role, but it can also be used for any team needing to align. If you have not done so, you can read the rest of the series here:
I am writing this to be the guide I wish I had when I started my new role, and I hope it will help you as you encounter similar challenges. Please subscribe and share if you have found this useful.
When you first take on a new role, you are given the opportunity to evaluate and listen, but at some point, that flips. You go from the person with fresh eyes to someone who's expected to work alongside others and lead. During those early days, there are things you still don’t know, questions you still have. With each day, the feeling that you have less freedom to ask those questions will tug on you. The ratio of doing the asking to being asked begins to shift, and people start to look to you for answers.
This is the beginning of my third month at Ancestry. As I shared in my 30-60-90 day plan, I spent my first month listening and my second month aligning. Today I share the lessons I have learned from that alignment process, as well as a few insights you can use as you get your team on the same page.
It just so happened that we had a board meeting set for the first week of May, which forced us to invest in aligning on our strategy and investment plan during April. I walked into the last month with a decent sense of how people felt, but with just enough knowledge of the business to understand the questions we had to answer. I had a great team around me, and together we set out to develop and present our two- and five-year plan. After many fits and starts (and a few late-night rewrites), we successfully aligned on our strategy and investment plans.
The secret is not having all of the answers, but understanding how to align a group of people to discover the answers together. I liken it to an analogy I learned from Naomi Gleit: The role of a leader is that of a conductor. It is not about playing all of the instruments, but ensuring everyone is playing the same music at the same tempo.
How to drive alignment
Start with the outline. What are the questions you hope to answer? It's important to know the skeleton of what you are aligning on before you pen a single word. I started with a document with only bullet points. Before gathering any data, we iterated on the outline together until we agreed on our questions, and then we assigned ownership to each person.
Gather your data. Data in many companies live in the heads of those who work day-to-day on the business. So much of the important information doesn’t exist in one single place. Leverage this exercise to enlist your teams to gather the facts from various parts of the organization into one place. As the data comes in, ensure that everyone reviews it together. Getting on the same page requires everyone to agree on a baseline set of facts.
Develop the narrative. Once you have your outline and your data, you can start crafting your narrative. Some people actually start with the narrative, but that can lead you to fit the data to the story, rather than the other way around. Carefully write out the story such that it flows from the title of one slide to the next. Because we knew this deck would be shared widely without commentary, we developed the content so that it would stand on its own in a readthrough.
Ruthlessly align. An orchestra’s job is to make music together. You may have an amazing violin section, but if they are half a beat off from your woodwinds, you will end up with cacophony. Many times in these exercises, people superficially agreed, but when we put the words on the slides, the cracks became evident. Most people are trained to be agreeable and try to align their point of view when speaking, but when you look at something together in black and white, there is no hiding the weak points. Allocation of resources, prioritization, and goals are often agreed upon in theory, but not in practice. Be assertive, and make sure everyone is on the same page when push comes to shove.
Refine and ship. Near the end of the alignment process, we realized that our storyline was too hard to follow and that there were too many duplicative areas in the slide deck, which had ballooned to over 100 pages. To address this, a few of us took the deck offline and reordered the slides to clean up the narrative and tighten the story. It reduced the content by more than a quarter, but it also made it a lot clearer. There is a temptation to keep things in just because someone did the work, but you need to resist it. Instead, focus on the audience and their ability to understand what you are trying to say. Aim for comprehension over comprehensiveness.
Through this alignment process, we learned a tremendous amount -- about each other, and about our joint aspirations for the company. We were also forced to address questions we had for one another and have hard conversations about what we saw for the future. Superficial agreement is easy, but true alignment is hard. In the end, though, it helped us get on the same page so that we can move forward as a team.