Lessons Learned From Leading New Web Professionals

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Jeremy Girard was born with six toes on each foot. The extra toes were removed before he was a year old, robbing him of any super-powers and ending his … More about Jeremy ↬

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Jeremy Girard has had the opportunity to lead various Web design and development teams, including a number of professionals fresh out of school. Along the way, he learned some valuable lessons. So, he decided to make a list of some of those lessons, as a way to remind himself of what he needed to do to make sure his designers had the resources needed to succeed. Many of these lessons were actually common sense, and these common-sense lessons are exactly the ones that are easy to neglect and that we often need to be reminded of.

Over the course of my career, I have had the opportunity to lead various Web design and development teams, including a number of professionals fresh out of school. Along the way, I’ve made my share of mistakes and learned some valuable lessons.

Some new team members have jumped right in and begun contributing in a meaningful way almost immediately, and others have struggled to adjust to their new role because I failed as a leader and didn’t give them the tools they needed to succeed. One thing I’ve definitely learned is that the success of a new team member is determined not only by their own abilities and drive, but by the leadership on the team they are joining.

Recently, I was preparing to welcome a young new designer to our company. This position would be his first real experience working in our industry; so, prior to his start date, I decided to make a list of some of those lessons I’ve learned over the years as a way to remind myself of what I needed to do to make sure he had the resources needed to succeed here. As I wrote my list, I realized that many of these lessons were actually common sense — and yet, if my past experiences are any indication, these common-sense lessons are exactly the ones that are easy to neglect and that we often need to be reminded of.

Make Them Feel Welcome.

Joining a company can be an intimidating experience, especially if the company has a close-knit culture or the team has been together for some time — two factors that contribute to new employees feeling like outsiders. As a leader, you can make your new team member feel welcome by showing them, both in actions and in words, that they are absolutely now a member of the team.

If your website lists biographies and pictures of employees, make it a point to add the new team member’s information quickly. Even in organizations that have a “probationary period” to evaluate new hires, those employees should still be added to the website sooner than later. Having a presence on the website, alongside their colleagues, demonstrates to those new team members that they are a part of the group.

Adding a biography, as FreshTilledSoil does, shows a new employee that they are part of the group.

You can also use social media to welcome new employees to the organization. Welcoming them on Twitter (or in whatever social media you use) shows the new member that you are excited to have them on board. Your Twitter followers will sometimes chime in as well, echoing your welcome and adding to the warmth and positivity.

Finally, you can make new employees feel welcome by involving them in events and activities with other members of the company. This doesn’t have to be elaborate — a simple lunch is a great way to get out of the office for a bit and to interact as more than coworkers. By including new hires in the lunch party, you give them a chance to socialize with others and to feel like more than the “new person.”

Make Time For Regular Meetings.

This lesson is certainly “common sense,” but also one that I, admittedly, find myself failing to follow most frequently.

It is easy to get caught up in projects and other responsibilities and overlook that new employees, especially those new to the industry, need a lot of guidance early on. I try to meet daily with new team members for at least their first few weeks at the company. These meetings do not need to be lengthy — in fact, most are 10 minutes or less — but they provide an outlet for the employee to ask questions without feeling like they are interrupting an activity. Because these meetings are scheduled in advance, the person knows that time has been allotted to their questions; this is important because, even if you have an open-door policy and encourage new team members to come to you with questions, they will be reluctant to “bother” you. You can alleviate this concern with regular meetings.

Without fail, whenever my schedule gets crazy and I start skipping these regular meetings, I notice that the stress level of my team rises accordingly. These meetings not only give new employees an outlet to ask questions, but give me an opportunity to let them know what is expected of them and how they are doing. This open dialogue is essential as the person adjusts to their role in the company.

Of all the lessons on this list, this one is undoubtedly the easiest to let slip — but also the one with the worst consequences if allowed to go too far.

Meetings are essentials for new employees who will need lots of guidance early on. Image courtesy of flickr/dennis crowley
Meetings are essential for new employees, who will need a lot of guidance early on. (Image: Dennis Crowley)

Assure Them That Failure Is An Option.

No one wants to fail at a task, least of all a new employee who is trying to make a good impression. But, as Seth Godin so perfectly stated in a recent interview with Kara Miller on NPR’s Innovation Hub:

"If failure is not an option, then neither is success."

New employees need to know that making mistakes is OK. If failure is not an option, then you will become crippled from trying to get everything right the first time. Anyone who has worked on the Web knows that trial and error is essential to the job. New employees need to be assured that failure will not be held against them.

Of course, a balance must be struck here. While failure is acceptable, it must yield a better understanding of the problem and an eventual solution. Failure is a means to finding a solution. So, while new team members should know that failure is an option, they should also know to use each failure to propel themselves to an eventual success.

Mistakes are a part of the job - as long as you learn from those mistakes. Image courtesy of flickr/ktpupp
Mistakes are a part of the job - as long as you learn from those mistakes. (Image: ktpupp)

Encourage Them To Contribute.

I once had a manager who felt that if you attended a meeting, you had to contribute to the meeting. He would often call randomly on attendees who had yet to contribute to a meeting and ask, “What do you think of this?” as a way to involve them in the conversation.

While I understood his reasoning, his execution left a lot to be desired. Too often, individuals would be called upon and would struggle to come up with an answer to a question that they really weren’t prepared to speak about. It put people on edge as they waited their turn. Sometimes, attendees would even rush to contribute early in a meeting so that they wouldn’t be called out later. This rush to participate usually added a lot of extra words but very little value to the conversation.

Instead of putting new employees in the hot seat, I try to find other ways to make them comfortable with speaking in front of our group. One way, when conducting design reviews, is to ask a new designer to present their work to the team, alerting them well before the meeting so that they can prepare a short presentation. Furthermore, because everyone is commenting on each other’s designs and offering constructive feedback, new employees feel comfortable speaking up and offering their own comments. This is an excellent way to help them speak more frequently in front of other team members and clients and to engage in other types of meetings.

Keep Them Busy.

You’ve probably hired the new person because your company is busy and there is work to be done. That’s great, because keeping new team members busy is critical.

Long-time employees will undoubtedly have built relationships with certain clients over time. Many of those clients will prefer to communicate with these employees than with a manager or salesperson. This is perfectly fine, as long as your company has a system in place to properly estimate, carry out and invoice this work. These client relationships can keep employees busy with new work.

Additionally, some long-time employees work on internal projects, as time permits. When they hit a lull between projects or wait for feedback from clients, they fall back on these projects to keep busy.

New employees have neither of these sources of work. Instead, they look to you to assign them tasks and keep them busy — and they will likely complete those tasks as quickly as possible to make a good impression. This is great, but also a challenge for you as the team’s leader. If you do not have a bank of work to keep the new team member busy, they will drift and grow bored, unsure of what to do with their time. Aside from your short daily meetings with them, digging up meaningful work for them will require a time commitment from you.

Before bringing a designer on board, review what projects you would expect them to work on for their first 30 to 60 days — both client projects and internal initiatives. Identify accounts into which you can integrate them so that they can begin building their own relationships, and let them know what the process is if they run short on work and you are not around to assign something else. This could be assisting other team members, furthering their training and education, or experimenting with new technologies or techniques for evaluation.

Prepare To Educate.

Part of your job as a manager is to continue a new employee’s education and fill in gaps in their knowledge. While this certainly involves mentoring and directing them to relevant resources, one of my favorite ways is to take them to a Web conference.

Many students graduate from school not having had the chance to attend a professional conference. Industry events such as the Smashing Conference and An Event Apart offer new Web designers and developers a chance to meet and learn from their peers in an energizing environment. Taking a new team member to a good conference opens their eyes to just how awesome and welcoming this industry can be. It also shows them that the company has invested in their success and is willing to spend money to help them grow in their knowledge and their career.

Every time I have taken a new employee to a Web conference, the experience has been fantastic. Such events show the team member that they are a part of something much bigger than our company — they now belong to the Web community as a whole.

Inspire new employees by taking them to a quality conference. Image courtesy of flickr/Kris Krug
Inspire new employees by taking them to a quality conference. (Image: Kris Krug)

Great Employees Need Great Leaders.

Being a leader is an awesome responsibility, especially if you are leading people who are just entering our industry. Whether you follow the lessons covered here or have more profound ways of leading new team members, the challenge you face is that, to have a great team, you must be a great leader. You must take a consistent approach to welcoming new employees to your organization, helping them to build on their strengths and acquire new ones and supporting them in their career growth.

If you do your job right, then one day, the new hire you are leading will pick up the torch and lead the next generation of designers and developers.

For more thoughts on leadership techniques in a creative agency, see “On Creative Leadership” and “Assuming Leadership in Your Design Agency.”

Summary: Do’s And Don’ts

  • Do make new team members feel welcome and part of the team by including them in company activities — both in and outside the office.
  • Do schedule regular meetings to allow new team members to ask questions and get feedback on their performance.
  • Do not allow your busy schedule to constantly override those regularly scheduled meetings, leaving the new employee with no way to get the guidance they need early on.
  • Do assure new employee that failure is a part of the job — so long as it propels them to the solution.
  • Do not put new team members on the spot by calling on them unannounced in meetings.
  • Do encourage participation by giving employees time to prepare before presenting to the group.
  • Do keep new employees busy with meaningful work.
  • Do not assume that new employees will know how to fill their time if they run out of assigned work.
  • Do educate and inspire new team members by introducing them to the Web community a whole, including at conferences and other industry events.
  • Do recognize that the team members you lead today will become our industry’s leaders tomorrow.

(Front page credits: David Joyce)

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (al, il, ea, mrn)