As an independent consultant, I find myself in the position of “new girl” more than most. As a result, I’ve learned a few things about how to hit the ground running.
Managing information overload
A universal feature of starting any new job is a tidal wave of information to absorb: names to learn; obscure project names to remember; tools to get familiar with; the list goes on.
Even those of us blessed with exceptional memories are going to find it challenging to hold this amount of new data in our heads, without other important things being pushed out.
To manage this, I like to keep a rolling notes document for myself, organised into the following headings:
Here’s where I list out any questions I have along the way.
My questions usually start off quite high level. Things like:
- What is the company’s 5 year strategy?
- How many people work here?
- What are the aims of this project?
Over time, questions get more specific:
- Who manages email content?
- What is your design system contribution review process?
- Who designed this flow in Figma?
I record the answer to each question in a different colour and in bold underneath the question in case I need to revisit them at a later date. Answered questions move to the bottom of the list, and new questions get added at the top.
I usually keep this document private (for reasons explained below), but sometimes I’ll share the questions and answers with whoever I’m reporting to, to check I’ve got accurate information.
This is where I keep notes of anything important that I’m noticing.
This often includes things about ways of working, apparent priorities, people’s preferred communication methods, and any discrepancies I notice in the information I’ve been given.
The last point is important to cover, because it can easily become a source of stress. By recording it as an observation, I’ve got it on my radar, but I’m approaching it as a neutral observation, rather than a clear problem.
Sometimes clients will give me a very specific list of things to do, but more often than not it’s up to me to determine how I can best fulfill the objectives of our engagement.
I use the opportunities section of my notes to record ideas, as they come to me, about what actions I think would be helpful for me to take and why.
I’ll try to share these ideas with my client early on, to check if it matches up with their expectations.
Even clients with the clearest communication practices tend to use:
- arbitrary product names
- software I haven’t encountered before
I use this section to note down any terms I don’t understand, and add their definitions as I discover them. This provides a useful reference for me in those early weeks, before I know things by heart.
People to meet
In this section I create a table with columns for:
- date and time booked
I tend to start this off by asking whoever I’m reporting to to give me a list of people they think I should meet with, and then through those conversations the list usually gets longer.
Here’s where I record fairly detailed notes from the introductory discussions I have. I review these notes regularly, looking for themes and adding points to my questions, observations and opportunities sections as needed.
Finding small wins
I’m a firm believer that the early days at a new company are best spent listening, learning and absorbing information. This ensures that any decisions I make or work I do are grounded in context, and means I’ll be able to move quicker and more confidently when I’m ready to start delivering.
With that said, seeking ways to deliver small amounts of value in those early weeks goes a long way to building a relationship with my client and generating goodwill.
I tend to pick on things that are:
- ring fenced and don’t involve changing or critiquing someone else’s work (unless explicitly asked)
- quick to deliver and don’t take too much focus away from my initial learning
Examples of small, early contributions I’ve made in the past are:
- setting up a weekly crit for the client team to get support with content design
- creating a style guide where there wasn’t one to document grammatical and phrasing conventions
- running a lunch and learn session on inclusive design systems, based on a conference talk I’d done previously
Starting a new job is exciting, but usually generates a fair amount of stress.
The sheer amount of new information to process, coupled with the unrealistic expectations I often have of myself to start delivering value right away, means it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.
Stepping up my self-care during this phase - getting enough sleep, exercising, drinking lots of water, blocking out time for lunch and for focus time - tends to keep me level enough to manage it.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is not to sit on things. When I first started contracting, I had a harmfully perfectionist notion that I should have all the answers, and be able to do whatever a client asked me - but that’s neither realistic or sustainable.
A job description and a statement of work are, to some degree, just theoretical wishlists. It’s only once I’m actually working with them that I can assess the dependencies of what I’ve been asked to do, and whether or not it’s achievable given the reality of the situation. Good clients, and indeed employers, will understand this and work with me to negotiate any adjustments we might need to make.
If something is unclear to me or if I think I’m being asked to do more than I have capacity for, I will raise it early and often with my client.
Not only does this help to build trust because they know I’m being honest and transparent, it ensures I’m holding the client accountable for making sure I have what I need to do the job they’ve hired me to do.
The final and perhaps most important part of my new-job process is overcommunication.
Some organisations are very proactive with their onboarding, but for people embedded in a company, the needs of new starters can often fall by the wayside in the face of other priorities.
For this reason, I communicate what I’m doing as widely and frequently as I possibly can.
I address blockers early and often, and I make sure that everyone knows what I’m working on to avoid any misunderstandings or nasty surprises.
What have I missed?
This is just works for me, and I’m refining this process as I go along.
If you’ve got any tips for new starters that I haven’t covered here, I’d love to hear them.
You can get in touch with me on: