The End of the Beginning: A Look Ahead From Here
Maintaining momentum after the first 90 days
This is the last post in my onboarding series. Here are the first four posts in the series in case you missed them:
This post will take a look back at the onboarding process during my first three months at Ancestry, and discuss how what I have learned from that process can guide you as you take on a new role. After completing an initial onboarding, the following six months will be a new test as you enter the next phase of your journey. No longer the newbie, but not quite the expert, you risk losing focus and getting distracted if you are not careful. These principles will help ensure you stay on track and stay effective.
Managing Your Priorities
You have two main assets in your work: your time and your attention. How you choose to prioritize these two things is critical. During my listening tour, I met with someone from a well-run part of the organization who offered to spend several hours explaining the nuances of the work he and his team did. I thanked him for the offer, but said, “[Your area] is doing well, and I trust you. There are several other things that need my immediate attention. I don’t want you to take this as not caring, but rather as a vote of confidence in your work.” Understanding everything is not the goal; addressing the critical areas of focus is.
For the first three months, I created a detailed plan with deliverables, which I then published. Starting at the end of my first 90 days, I have laid out a plan for the rest of the year and broken it down, choosing three priorities for each month. I want to make sure I am investing my time and attention in the highest-priority areas including aligning the company on the vision, focusing us on executing against our direction. As that next period passes, however, it becomes easier to say yes to less important things as they arise. It’s crucial to remain disciplined and keep your eye on what matters most.
Culture and people: A company is defined by its culture and its people working toward a common goal. Prioritize understanding that culture, and then cultivating and curating it. The goal is not to change it, but to evolve it as needed to achieve a common vision.
Must dos: There are things that only you can do, whether because of your position or your knowledge. Keep this list small and constantly prune it, delegating where you can. For example, I led the organization and drafting of the deck for our first board meeting after I joined. Next time, I will have our new Chief of Staff take that on.
“Future you” decisions: I often ask myself and my teams, “What does the future you wish we had done today?” Human nature is to avoid hard decisions or to postpone them until they turn into full-blown crises. Instead, constantly envision yourself two years from now, ask yourself what you wish you had done sooner, and do it.
Important, but non-urgent: We have a natural bias toward urgent to-dos because they feel more salient than far-off concerns, but these small, important things add up to large, impactful things. Set a bit of time aside each month to think about and prioritize these issues.
Maintaining an Open Mind
It is easy to assume that you know most of what you need to know after 90 days, but that is not the case. Keeping an open mind will be critical in the months ahead. Otherwise, you risk hubris and overconfidence in what you know overtaking your decision-making. While your opinions get more firm as you learn more, you still need to interrogate them and question yourself in order to ensure you aren’t steering down the wrong path.
Continuing to listen is an important part of the work you must learn to do. To that end, I’ve started hosting small group Ask Me Anything chats throughout the company. These 15- to 20-person events help me hear what questions people have about the work ahead while also getting a sense of what their concerns are. No one can truly master all aspects of a business or company, and to assume that is to close your mind to the possibilities and opportunities that may lie ahead.
In the very beginning, most people you meet with on your listening tour will share with you candidly. They’re eager to help you understand their work and the challenges they face. But as time goes on, they will start to assume that you already know the answers, or be too intimidated to share further. That’s a dangerous place to be, for both you and the company. It is important that you continue to gather feedback and seek out information about what’s working and what’s not.
Recently, I had a candid conversation with a senior leader. I sensed they were holding back their feedback and thoughts, and I was not sure why. I said, “If you were waiting for permission, I am offering it now, but you don’t need my permission to share your thoughts. I respect your opinion, and I don’t want you to ever feel like you should hold back.” This led to a rich conversation about our relationship and what was preventing them from being more candid and open with me about what was working and what wasn’t.
Many leaders start out with strong communication, but over time, it is easy to reduce the cadence or assume people know your priorities. On the other hand, maintaining a clear pace of information flow ensures that everyone stays on the same page.
Some leaders feel like they constantly have to have new information and different ideas to communicate, but that creates churn and a lack of clarity. Rather, priorities and goals should be relatively static over the long periods they take to execute. Some of the best leaders I have worked with say the same thing over and over. As they get alignment, they go deeper and richer — not just on the what but the how — but they never deviate from the core message of the vision, mission, and priorities.
Next month will mark a new quarter, and we will be rolling out our new OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) for the rest of the year. This is an excellent chance for the company to focus execution against our shared objectives, and to ensure that the work of each team ladders up to our company-level goals.
Expand Your Circle
When you start a new role, you are heads-down. Often, you are so immersed in getting to know the team, the systems, the process, and the products that you risk neglecting external stakeholders. After 90 days of learning and understanding, however, it’s important to start engaging externally, making sure you understand the market, competitors, and new opportunities. As part of your next six months, be sure to include space for engagement with investors, partners, or the press. Being a leader who is engaged in the industry and committed to learning from others will help you catch blindspots and discover new ways of looking at the problems your company is facing. Look into joining a group of leaders with a similar focus, or find a coach to help you work through any issues that arise. Getting insights and advice from others outside of your immediate day-to-day will allow you to see problems and possibilities more clearly.
Starting a new job is a challenge at the best of times, but it is all the more challenging now, during this time of uncertainty. Focusing your energy on the most important things will ensure that you are able to help guide your team and product in the right direction.