How to build a team from scratch
Have you ever interviewed someone for a team that doesn’t exist yet, in a fast-growing company you don’t yet work for?
That was me almost three years ago, and it was a pretty surreal experience. I was due to start my new job at The Data Shed in about a month and was asked if I would be part of the interview process for the team that was going to be working for me. Of course, I said yes, and during the interviews stumbled my way through answering questions about the work, the company, and what a normal day would look like without really having much of a clue!
It’s too easy when you interview candidates to notice similarities, and positively ‘rate’ the person on these factors without even knowing you’re doing it:
- Does this person come from the same area as me?
- Have they studied the same subject?
- Do they have a similar background, upbringing, interests, appearance, viewpoint?
The result of recruiting in this way can be a team with similar strengths, who tend to back each other‘s ideas up. Although this sounds quite harmonious, it also means that you could miss out on ideas that a more diverse team would bring.
It’s the differences that people bring to a team that will strengthen it. Respect for each other’s thoughts is always important but there is also a very healthy place for challenge. The way to foster this is to build a team of unique individuals who all feel empowered to share their thoughts. This means that everyone can learn from each other’s ideas and each person, as well as the business, can develop and grow.
Once I actually started my new role, I had one month to work out what the work looked like before my new team joined me; so I got stuck in. I needed to understand the current situation, the end goal, and then break down the journey from one to the other into manageable chunks.
My first step was to do the job that my team would be doing when they started. This allowed me to see when things get busy, when they tail off, what parts of the job are painfully boring, what parts allow for a bit of creativity, and which bits made me nervous because of the risks involved.
I also decided what success looked like. How fast, accurate and thorough did the tasks need to be carried out to be at the level I wanted our team to be known for, whilst not going overboard and creating extra work for the sake of it. How would I know if we were hitting that level of success, or falling short? Was this measurable and if not, why not and how could I change that?
Once I had got my head around what was needed, I had to think about the new starters I was going to have with me imminently, asking myself:
- What does the business need from the team and how will I get the team to buy into this?
- How will the team know what they need to do?
- How will they know why their work is important?
- How can I build a team culture that works for the company and for the individuals?
Starting with the day-to-day tasks, I created some simple guides with clear steps that anyone could follow. This meant that the new starters would have documents to refer to if they became unsure of what to do next. Providing a way they could help themselves was going to allow them to get up and running a lot quicker, and was also the start of a large knowledge base that would mean that future new starters had a ready-made training program.
By the time the new team members started, I had their first couple of days planned out. There were some standard induction bits and pieces, introductions to other teams and projects, but also some sessions that were aimed at answering these questions:
- How are we as individuals going to join together to make a team?
- What do we want to be known for?
- How do we want to treat each other?
- How are we going to make sure that we’re not just delivering what’s needed, but that we’re constantly on the lookout for things to make us better?
- What are the risks in the work we are doing and how will we mitigate them?
These sessions were a lot of fun and really interesting for me as a Manager. When you’ve had a few years of experience in a role and you’re working with people with far less time under their belts, it’s so easy to slip into dictator mode and tell them what needs to be done and how they should do it.
Far more difficult, but ultimately so much more rewarding is to throw things out there to the team and ask them for the answers. ‘This is what we need to achieve, how should we do it?’. Almost always I’d have an idea in my head that I was pretty sure was the ‘right’ way to do things, but time and time again the team would come up with a different answer that added to my idea, or was so much better that I’d throw my idea away!
To do this you need to put aside your ego, pause everything you’ve learned so far and have faith in the fact that the people you have employed all have something valuable to share. To miss out on all of the wonderful things that could come out of that diversity would be doing a total injustice to yourself, to them and to the company.
There are some very happy side effects of this approach too. You are teaching your team that they matter, that they will be listened to and that it doesn’t matter if their idea doesn’t end up getting used, they have ideas of great worth and their new employer recognises that. Their confidence will grow and they’ll feel freer to come up with more ideas, more often – and your life will become so much easier because of it!
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