How to spend your first 30 days in a new senior-level role

Originally posted Jan 9, 2023 • More resources on onboarding

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You’ve started in a new role: congrats!

Throughout my years as a coach, I’ve seen lots of my clients land in a new leadership role as a director or above, and make a well-intentioned but enormous mistake: they make a big change within their organization before building up trust with their teams.

I’m eager to help you avoid this classic pitfall! Let’s break it down into how you should think about enacting change in your first 30, 60, and 90 days as a senior leader.

First 30 days: sponge mode

We’re calling your first 30 days “sponge mode” because your primary job during this period is to soak up information.

This means, for your first month, you should be in listen-only mode. I’m serious! These first 30 days are the biggest opportunity you’ll ever have in this role to build trust with your teammates. Don’t squander this opportunity by coming in and enacting change right away.

I totally understand the desire to kick off your new role with a few tiny changes to team processes, meetings, roadmaps, etc. You might be eager to to do this because you want to:

This might come as a surprise: no matter how well-intentioned you are, enacting change within your first 30 days could jeopardize your trust and standing. So if you feel any of those reasons eating at you, please pause. Spend these first 30 days sitting in on team meetings and talking to everybody on the team.

Hold one-on-ones with everybody

Schedule one-on-ones with everybody on the team, your new cross-functional peers, and other stakeholders around the company. Some folks call this a “listening tour.” Yes, this will take up a lot of time; it’s worth it, I promise.

At this stage, you don’t need to have figured out your one-on-one cadence with your direct reports and cross-functional partners; you’re just scheduling one-off 30-minute meetings to be able to talk to everybody and soak up a ton of information.

As you send out the calendar invites for these initial one-on-ones, include a sentence or two about the goal of the meeting to give folks a sense of predictability, and help them prepare if they want to. I like to write something like:

My goal is to talk to everybody in the [Product] team, so that I can onboard and get as much context as possible in my first 30 days! In this meeting, I’ll be asking you what stuff in our department is working really well, and what stuff you’d like to see change. I’ll also be happy to answer any questions you have for me!

During each one-on-one, follow these steps:

  1. Introduce yourself, and give a quick recap of what this one-on-one is about. Something like, “Nice to meet you! I’m Lara, and I’m eager to chat with you about how the organization works, what the roadmap for our department looks like, our team processes, etc.”

  2. Ask question #1: “I’m curious: when you think about [the Product team] as a whole and how it works, what change do you want to see?”

    Give them lots of space to share; some folks might have lots of ideas, and others no ideas at all. (That’s okay!)

    If they ask you for examples, you can say, “I’m intentionally asking a really broad question to see what comes up. Maybe you have ideas on how code reviews work, or our career ladder, or our communication patterns. It could be anything! What comes to mind for you?”

    Reflect back what you’re hearing them say just to make sure you have it right.

    Then ask some of these follow-up questions to more deeply understand their answer:

    • “Got it. What do you see as the risk if we don’t make that change?”
    • “What feels most important to you about this?”
    • “If we make that change, how would that impact you/your crew?”
    • “Who else would you recommend I chat with about this?”
  3. Ask question #2: “Alright, time for the flip side: what’s working so well that we shouldn’t change?”

    Just like with the first question, leave lots of space for them to share. Reflect back what you’re hearing them say to make sure you have it right. And ask follow-up questions to more deeply understand their answer.

  4. As you wrap up the one-on-one, let them know when they’ll next hear from you, and how they can get in touch with you if they have follow-up questions.

The one exception to sponge mode

The only exception to the first 30 days sponge mode rule is if someone’s health or safety is threatened.

A coaching client once called me two weeks into their new role and said, “I’m so sorry, Lara, I broke the #1 rule for the first 30 days. I had to make a change. Someone broke their leg skateboarding near the machinery, and so I had to make a new rule that there will be no skateboarding near equipment.”

You’re likely not going to find yourself in this particular situation. But you never know! Anything of this ilk is truly the only thing you should change!

Big changes might still happen in your first 30 days

Sometimes, enormous changes will happen within your first 30 days that are outside of your control. The CEO is fired. A round of layoffs has already been planned. Your lead engineer quits. HR revamps how compensation and promotions are handled.

You’re along for the ride. You can nudge these changes based on your experience and skills: help leadership implement a communications plan, flag potential pitfalls to decision makers, ask questions and give feedback.

But please please please do not enact new change until after you’ve been in sponge mode, gathered the data, and started building these relationships. I know it’s tough—and the process will be imperfect—but you’ve got this.

At the end of your first 30 days

You’re going to share what you’ve learned with the entire organization. To do so, take a look at what you’ve absorbed in sponge mode and synthesize it.

Identify 1-2 overarching themes you’ve heard.

Consider what you heard in your organization-wide one-on-ones, and find the common threads. Plan how you’ll communicate these themes in a way that will be heard. Keep these themes future-focused; you’re working towards aligning on what the future will look like, rather than dredging up feelings and pitfalls of the past.

You can plan to use broad language like, “team cohesion is the #1 most-requested thing for us to focus on” or “as an organization that’s scaling quickly, we could use more predictability around roadmap changes and a unified vision to align us across teams”. Ideally, these themes will resonate with the folks in your organization—you’re representing what you heard in your one-on-ones, and this will immediately build trust. Demonstrate what a good listener you are! :)

I recommend you avoid providing very specific examples of past events to illustrate these themes, because it’s likely that each person experienced them differently. If folks disagree with or misunderstand your examples, you risk amygdala-hijacking folks, which means they’ll be tuned out for the rest of the meeting. You’ll also risk the trust you’re trying to build. There likely will not be enough time for nuance in this meeting, and again, you want to stay future-focused.

Convey what you’ve absorbed.

Share the themes you’ve heard in your first 30 days with your whole organization. I highly recommend doing this in an all hands meeting; it really helps when people can see your face, hear your voice, and ask you questions in real time at the end.

The goal of this recap is to help your teammates feel heard and seen. Reminder, the goal is NOT to kick off changes! We’re not at that stage yet :)

Be open to the feedback you hear. Maybe you misinterpreted, maybe someone thought of something else after you met with them.

Consider this a meeting for reflection—a step often skipped by leaders—which will help you build that foundation of trust. Don’t waste it.

Optional: share wins.

If it feels relevant, you can share wins you’ve already seen around those themes, driven by folks on the team. (I’m not talking about wins driven by you or other leadership.) By verbally recognizing the work that you want to see more of, folks can begin to sense what you will be looking for going forward.

Optional: hint at changes you’re considering to address those broad themes.

You can tease examples of experiments you might run or changes you’re considering to address those broad themes. Tread lightly—again, you’re still in listening and relationship-building mode. (We’ll talk more in the upcoming 60 days post about experiments!)

Required: state how people can communicate with you going forward.

Be tremendously specific, and make sure you can follow-through with any communication mediums and cadences that you are committing to. You will erode trust if you need to reschedule lots of these one-on-ones or Q&A meetings. Some examples of clear communication expectations:

Again, stick to that plan. Follow through!

And when this plan inevitably needs to change in the future (hopefully after your first 90 days!), proactively communicate to the whole organization any updates about how folks can reach you.

In my next blog post, I walk you through the 30-60 day period of a new senior role.

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Lara Hogan

Author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry.

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