Earning Trust as the New Guy

10 steps to clinching your most crucial leadership challenge.

Whether you are starting a new job, taking on a new assignment or transferring to a different project, building trust is vital.

This became clear to me recently when I became the project manager on a supply and demand application implementation. Being the "newbie" came with the stresses of unfamiliar team members, new procedures and compliance requirements, preconceived notions and unknown pitfalls. I had joined the team based only on a couple of phone interviews and a vague description of the project. My first and most crucial challenge was to convince both upper management and my direct reports that I was trustworthy.

On this occasion, there already existed a certain level of trust, but that isn't always the case. Imagine if the first conversation with your new manager began with, "If it had been up to me, we never would have brought you in for this project." Or if your team lead said, "I was finally going to get to manage a project, but then they brought you in." It happens.

Thomas Cutting

Thomas Cutting

Image Credit: Seth JoelBut even in an adversarial environment, I've found that you can help build trust faster by following these 10 practical steps:

1. Know the players. The onslaught of names in a new location can be overwhelming. To add to the confusion, there are names that are gender-ambiguous. Having only exchanged e-mails with one individual for two weeks, I referred to him in a meeting as "she." Slightly embarrassing. But quickly learning to match names to faces helps put both you and others at ease, so make the effort to do it. If it's a large project with lots of new people, consider creating an online photo album to help with team building.

2. Confirm your role. Many projects cross multiple business and functional groups. Although I was brought in to oversee the entire effort, several other project managers were already in place. After a few meetings to clarify the playing field, we created a communication plan and presented it to the sponsor to document the roles and responsibilities of the key players. On this project, there were no oversized egos in the group, but the document becomes even more important if there are.

3. Identify preconceptions. In a new environment, there are always preconceptions of what a project manager should do. As a newbie, there are naturally some things you won't know. Don't be afraid to ask. If possible, find another project manager who has been through it to help you understand what's expected. Check for a documented development process, and review the roles and responsibilities. Procurement is a good example. Is it your responsibility to order and track hardware installation, or is there an infrastructure team to handle this? The lead time on obtaining hardware is unforgiving if you don't learn the answer to that question until it's too late.

4. Set expectations. If left on their own, people begin to establish expectations of you, and that can set the stage for your success or failure. The key is to help set those expectations with them. Conversely, it's important for you to let others know what you expect of them. These can be difficult conversations, but having them establishes a foundation on which to build trust.

5. Involve the team in decisions. Building trust requires trusting others. If you're new to the group, they already know that you are clueless on several levels, so don't try to fake it. Show the team that you're willing to take its advice.

6. Do what you said you were going to do. Nothing kills trust faster than dropping the ball. If you have made a commitment, follow through. If it becomes evident that you can't meet someone's deadline, let him know in advance. Set a new time frame for accomplishing it, and then meet it.

7. Deliver informative status reports. A clear and concise status report is an excellent tool for setting expectations and documenting the completion of tasks.

The two simplest and most important pieces of information to deliver are accomplishments for the week and planned activities for the next week.

As the project progresses, the financials, risks and issues can be added to the report. This will enhance trust in you and your team's ability to deliver on time and within budget.

Status reports are not running lists of all project activity. Pick key accomplishments, milestones, problems and risks to highlight, or your audience will lose interest. Maintain separate logs for the issues and risks and bring them to the status meetings for review.

8. Issue meeting minutes. If it isn't written, it was never said. Decisions and commitments made during meetings are soon forgotten unless they are captured and distributed.

9. Play the newbie card. Whether you are new to the project, group or organization, there will be times when things don't make sense to you. With the vast number of acronyms and group-specific tribal knowledge, it's hard to divide what you should know from what you can't.

Don't worry; it's legitimate to play the newbie card. Starting your question with, "I'm new here; can you help me understand?" frees you from being expected to know everything and gives the team an active role in bringing you up to speed.

10. Be honest. Honesty builds trust. A simple example of this is communicating progress on milestones. If you're running late on something, don't hide it or fudge the status. It's more important to communicate slippage than completion.

Trust is so hard to obtain, so easy to lose, so vital in any relationship. In the end, it's really the simple things that earn the trust of your team.

Cutting is a project management professional and senior principal consultant at Keane Inc. in California. Contact him at Thomas.Cutting@keane.com.

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