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How does a leader go from a fresh start to a jump-start?

“Congratulations on your new job” and “we’ll miss you.”

You might have heard these yourself when you left a position and started something new as a leader. Often, there’s some kind of onboarding program and introductory meetings, whether organized by you or not. These are undoubtedly valuable, but if you have a large team, they can consume many hours, especially if you’re dealing with shifts and schedules. It’s quite a task to talk to everyone…

And then, after finally speaking with everyone, do you have a complete picture? And a picture of what exactly?

For me, it was a time-consuming and energy-draining task to speak with 24 people working in shifts and 2 teams at the start of a new role. Additionally, the notes from all those conversations were quite extensive, making it challenging to distill the essence or the common thread.

Shorter and More Comprehensive

You can get a team overview much quicker and in a more ‘comprehensive’ way. Comprehensive not only for your own understanding but also for the team as a whole. It can be a real eye-opener.

In our work with teams, we often use a timeline. This involves literally visualizing the history on the ground with pieces of paper. Often, there’s still some ‘living past’—an event or time that continues to exert significant influence in the present. This can really hinder a team. The timeline process ensures a shared starting point for the team in the literal now, with a comprehensive view of its history.

For a timeline to be effective, it’s ideal for as many team members as possible to be present. There’s an exchange about important events and moments from the past. It’s important to include both negative and positive events. Negative events might have resulted in losses for the team, such as creativity, decisiveness, or the ability to form a cohesive unit and truly see each other. Reflecting on positive events or successes is also very nourishing. By the end of the process, there’s almost always a much greater understanding of each other and the team as a whole, including its history. It’s a very precise and healing process (healing in the sense of fostering oneness).

Your Flying Start

You can have a flying start in your new role by doing this with your team. Because it’s a group process, it provides a visual representation and a shared starting point for the team, including its history. This requires careful facilitation to ensure that what happened in the past with and within the team is truly recognized, heard, and seen.

If you’re thinking, “But I have a team with shifts and rosters,” this requires more flexibility and creativity. Make sure everyone is updated, or organize multiple sessions.

If you want to facilitate it yourself, genuine curiosity about your team is crucial. Curiosity without judgment, without pointing fingers. But with the intention to understand how the team has arrived at where it is now and how it currently is.

You can find your own way of introducing this, explaining why you want to do it. One effective approach is to express a desire to learn more about the past, acknowledging that you are new and that the team has a lot of information to share. Emphasize the value of sharing and hearing from each other.

Timeline Process: How to Do It

You start by placing two pieces of paper on the ground: one for a date or year in the past, and one for the current date. When you ask, “Where should we start?” there’s usually a clear answer. The exact date isn’t crucial, but a starting point for the timeline is. For example, once I facilitated a timeline where the starting point was 1875. Naturally, no one from that time was present, but it was clear that this year was significant for the organization. For each answer, you can ask about what was happening at that time. Why was the organization or team created?

Next, ask everyone to write down significant, important, and meaningful moments on pieces of A5 paper using markers, so the writing is clear. These don’t need to be sentences; words are fine.

After everyone has done this, have them place their papers in chronological order. When people do this, you often see a lot happening. Newer members might learn something new, while longer-serving members might see that others have had similar experiences. There’s recognition and acknowledgement.

Then, stand with the team along the timeline and have them talk about what’s on the papers. You can engage your intuition and ask questions about what draws your attention or what moves you. It can become a spontaneous conversation with the whole team, or you might choose to start with the longest-serving member. For larger teams, it’s better to do this as a group rather than having everyone individually explain their papers.

Purity, Truly Hearing and Seeing Each Other

It’s a pure process where discussions or convincing each other are not appropriate. It’s about facing the history and truly seeing and hearing each other. Of course, one event may have been experienced differently by different people, and recognizing that is enough.

This way, you ‘walk’ along the visualized timeline. You might feel that the team lost something or had to give something up at a particular event. You can ask about this, and there’s often a sort of ‘knowing’ among team members that leads to an answer. For example: “Yes, that’s when we lost our decision-making power. We used to be involved in decisions, but that ended then. Decisions were made for us.”

If you then ask, “Would you like to regain that?” and the answer is yes, you can write it on a piece of paper and hold it up for them to take back. This is different from handing it over. Simply observe the effect. The consequence is that they need to reclaim that space from you and take it themselves.

At the end of the process, at today’s date, both you and your team will have a comprehensive view. Additionally, you’ll often have valuable input for the coming period and your own role as a leader.

Take Your Time!

A disclaimer: ensure you have enough time for the timeline process. Nothing is more disruptive than having to stop midway because of other appointments. It requires a commitment to free up time. Plan for at least 3 hours, if not half a day.

Do It Yourself or Not?

Are you enthusiastic and planning to do it yourself? Have fun and find meaning in it. If you want to do it but prefer not to facilitate it yourself, you can ask us. We’re happy to work with you and your team.

~ Dees van de Hoef

Foto: Asad Photo Maldives

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