10 Things Great Leaders Do On The First Day With a New Team




Why are these kids smiling?

I should know–they’re my kids.  Alexander and Miranda posed for this photo last Wednesday, right before they got on their bikes to ride off to the first day of school.They were really excited.  Usually a request for their picture provokes eye rolls and mad faces.  Not on Wednesday.  If you look closely, they’re even holding hands!  (They never do that, by the way.)

Why so perky?

It was the First Day Syndrome: New possibilities, hopes and excitement.  There’s still infinite potential.No bubbles of disappointment have been burst. Yet.

Much in the same way that my kids got excited for their first day, when adults join a new intact or project team, they’re excited.

They may not hold hands while posing for photos, and yes, they may seem jaded and cynical, but underneath that cool professional exterior, they’re hungry for hope.

They want this team to be a success.  The want things to go well.As the team leader, you have a unique situation on Day 1.  Your team members still have an open mind.  They’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, if you lay out a compelling case for why they should stay excited and engaged moving forward.

You’ve got this little window of opportunity to appeal to their hearts and minds.How do you not screw it up?

Here are ten things great leaders do on the first day with a new team

:1. Show Up Energized

People are first and foremost social animals.  Our limbic brain (emotional center) is designed to be open-looped.  This means that people on your team are highly influenced by the emotions of others-especially you as their leader.

If you want your team to show up to that first meeting focused, energized, and excited, then you need to model those same qualities.  As Albert Schweitzer put it, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others.  It is the only thing.”

2. Be Prepared

It’s a lot easier to show up energized when you’ve done your homework.  You only get one chance to make a first impression.  A kick off meeting isn’t just a meeting:  it’s an experience.  Any time that spent in “boring business meeting mode” detracts from the impact you want to make. Be prepared.  For example, consider:

  • Have you reviewed the agenda for both content and timing?

  • Are you clear on the anticipated take-aways and next steps post-meeting?

  • Have you secured the meeting space/conference line?

  • Have you done a rehearsal with all of your technology?

  • Have you planned on getting enough sleep the night before?

3. Put Relationship Before Task

As social creatures, humans crave interaction.  They want to be seen and recognized for their inherent value.

When I asked my daughter Miranda how that first day of school went, she replied, “We didn’t really learn anything.  Well, not any regular subjects, anyway.  We spent the day playing games and learning about each other.”

Good advice from a third grader.You may feel you don’t have a whole day for your team to get to know each other. But do you have more than a minute?

People will do more for people they know than those they don’t know.  Are you creating a team of people or a team of worker-bees?  There are plenty of resources available out there to help leaders foster teamwork.

Get creative, and get working.

4.  Make Implicit Assumptions Explicit

People are good at many things.  Mind reading is not one of them.You have expectations, assumptions and preferences of how people should work with you and work together.  Don’t make people guess what those are.As you prepare, make three lists on paper:

  1. What assumptions do I have about this team?

  2. What preferences do I have about how I like to work best?

  3. What expectations do I have on how people should work with me and each other?

For example, do you have an expectation that there should only be one point of contact between your team and the external client? How can you let the team know this?

When people have clear guidelines, they can follow them.

A bonus here:  sharing your implicit assumptions is a great way to deepen authenticity.  By keeping it real, you avoid the leadership trap of the “superhero complex”.  There’s no need of you to try to be all-seeing and all-knowing.  Show your team you’re genuine from Day 1 and they’ll respond in kind.  It creates a much more collaborative team dynamic.

5.  Make the Meeting a Discussion

The “guidelines” from #4 shouldn’t be handed down in dictator-like fashion.  Find ways to co-create norms for how the team will operate.  Just like you, your team members have their own preferences and expectations.Share ownership with the team.  Give them autonomy.  The more you do this, the more you move away from compliance towards commitment.

As you structure the Day 1 meeting, find ways to create dialogue, participation, discussion and interaction.  Include the team.  No one likes to be lectured at.

6. Share the Team’s Common Purpose and Goals

This seems so obvious that it needn’t be included.  Yet many Day 1 kickoff meetings I’ve seen skip this step.  Why?

The leader confuses a working group with a team.

While a working group may all share one leader, they have no mutual work products that calls for them to actually work together.  The collective results are merely the sum of their individual results.

A real team calls for people to create joint work-products and craft goals that involve mutual accountability.  This means working together and navigating the conflicts that are bound to come up along the way.

Are you leading a team or a working group?   Get clear yourself first.  There’s nothing wrong with leading a working group.  Just don’t call it a team, and expect it to act like one.If you’re leading an actual team, share your vision for the team’s reason for being.  Then, create opportunities to get input on the team’s vision so there’s co-ownership of that final vision (see #5 above).  Then, work together to set collective goals and milestones for the team.   Don’t let Day 1 end without a clear end in mind for what your team is ultimately working to achieve.

7. Set Communication Norms

Communication is the lifeblood of every team and organization.  What will you do to make sure that it’s effective on your team?  A subset of “making implicit assumptions explicit”, take extra time to establish norms of communication.  To name a few:

  • How often should the entire team meet?

  • How often should subgroups meet?

  • What’s the best method for communication?

  • What are our expectations for “timeliness” in replies?

  • Are late nights/weekends off limits or within reason?

Establishing these norms can avoid a lot of stress down the road.  If you go slow upfront and clarify these norms, you’ll be able to speed up further down the road.

8.  Capture Ideas 

If you set the right tone, you’re going to have a lively and engaging first team meeting. Ideas may be bouncing off of the walls.

Don’t let ideas bounce away.  Appoint a scribe(s) to capture ideas/insights/actions so they don’t get lost.  Don’t be the leader and scribe.  You’ve got enough on your plate already.  Just make sure your scribe is up to the task.

9. Convert Ideas Into Actions/Next Steps

Too many meetings suffer from the “What did we just agree to do?” plague.  Ideas and concepts don’t move themselves forward:  they need people who will take action.

As the leader, be ready to activate ideas by asking “How can we turn this idea into reality?”  or “Who will do ___?  By when can you finish that?

Find champions for each appropriate next action.  The actions you select become milestones, and give the team momentum and a sense of progress moving forward.

10.  Follow-Up and Thank Team Members Personally

Just because the meeting ends doesn’t mean that you have to retreat into “business mode”.  People are still social animals who want to be recognized and valued.

If your belief is “It’s their job to be on this team”, then you’re going to get a minimum level of commitment. People don’t do their best work because they have to.  They do it because they want to.

You taking the time to follow up to appreciate someone personally sends a very clear and energizing message.  (By the way, handwritten notes work wonders.)

Feeling appreciated is a powerful constituent of well-being, and a key driver of engagement.  The cost on your part is relatively little, but it pays huge dividends.  Start on Day 1, and continue this practice moving forward:  thank early and thank often.

To recap, here are the 10 Things Great Leaders Do On Day One:

  1. Show Up Energized

  2. Be Prepared

  3. Put Relationship Before Task

  4. Make Implicit Assumptions Explicit

  5. Make the Meeting a Discussion

  6. Share the Team’s Common Purpose and Goals

  7. Set Communication Norms

  8. Capture Ideas

  9. Convert Ideas Into Actions/Next Steps

  10. Follow-Up and Thank Team Members Personally

Remember, you only get one chance to make a first impression.

Do a great job with your Day 1 kickoff, and your team members will be smiling, too.

What have you experienced that works well to kick off a new team?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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