I am working as an independent consultant since the year 2010, and I have worked with product teams in sixty plus countries, right from those in Japan, New Zealand, Iceland, South Africa, and many of them are in the US, UK, and in the EU.
Every client is different, their market and their product sense are different, the team-size and structure are different, and the reasons of why they want to hire someone for content, marketing, UX, or design are also different. In this post, I am sharing my experiences of how I onboard myself in the teams.
Not many people in the organization with whom you will work know that you are joining the team. Hiring independents is generally not a full-team decision because they are not even sure of the contract length. So, when a CTO or customer success director or the founders hire me and I sign the contract, I had already asked them about the current team size and structure and I have some picture in my mind about the people with whom I will work. I have seen their LinkedIn or Twitter or their personal websites to know their work experience, and any more insights about their approach to the work.
When I introduce myself in the live calls or in Slack, I keep my knowledge about their role and work balanced, and I make sure that I unfold it gradually, as and when required in the actual work. The goal of introduction is not only to tell them about my experiences, but it is also to share why I am joining their team, a quick note on my related experience, and how I will need their support and directions for our collective work.
In the introductions, I relate my work to the specific function and role. For example if they hire me to lead their product content strategy team, my introduction is like:
- To product managers: I work on making content’s role more relevant for the product goals. For example when you reprioritize certain features or plan another round of user research, I will make sure that content informs the product decisions in measurable ways.
- To product marketing managers: I had a look at the product marketing strategy. We will find a lot of common ground to use the strategically designing product content to keep the product marketing in synch with product onboarding content for the message, and its goals.
- To design leaders: We need to work together so that content adds usability and usefulness to the design for the right interactions and the experience. We need to find more reasons to work closely such as for the design systems if you have, or for consistent brand positioning.
- To customer success leadership: You are so close to the real paying customers, I am sure you understand that the customers’ needs and goals in their own natural language. I will contact you some time for the plans.
- To sales leadership: I would love to learn how you pitch the product so that…
- And likewise to the other functions and teams.
In specific cases such as when the product domain is new to me or if the team is specifically designed as an important function for the product category such as in automobiles or in clean energy tech, I ask them if they have any employee onboarding document to help me learn their practices.
I make sure that I do not talk about my working style unless they directly ask me to share it. Our working styles unfold in our first few communications via calls, emails, or in Google Docs, Notion, and Slack.
Learning about the organization
An organization’s digital presence tells a lot about their work, culture, and their focus. Their blog posts and any interviews or podcasts if they join or host show something about the history, and how they sell. This helps me to craft the early stage communication to be more aligned or relevant to their work—for vocabulary and for the sentiment.
Know their working style
Before signing the contract, I ask them how they work and if they have any documented reference to brand message, their sales pitch (after signing an NDA if this is private), their employee programs, and any north star metric references.
In the first couple of interactions with the individuals or in the teams, I make sure that my conversations reflect that I know their working style, and their core anchor points. Not everyone wants to spare time from their work to work with an independent because for them there are no real long-term relationship building incentives because I might leave the team anytime. So, building the confidence early is important.
Sense their work momentum
When I start working, I try to sense and watch their core priorities and concerns—and what builds their momentum.
- The internal communication for its timing, focus, and frequency shows in their work even if I am not directly involved.
- What are the specific moments when they pause, or question something in the process, or of ownership? What tends to bother them—I pay attention to details.
- What happens to the action items and what is the follow up cycle?
- What is the workflow in design, engineering, marketing, and whether they love to work more as a close-knit unit often cross-walking each others’ workflow, or they prefer to work independently.
Respect the boundaries
As a new contributor to the team, I focus on building the confidence that our goals are common. That is why speaking in their language early in the process is important because the timing and usefulness of their response directly depends on how confident they feel about my role. I need to show that my work elevates their work individually as well as collectively.
Depending on the individuals and their roles, I invite them for conversations, proactively. I respect their boundaries. If an individual prefers emails or meetings on a certain day or at a certain time, we should respect their schedule and try to work within those boundaries of the individual.
I watch their habits. For example, if I know that a design manager always have inbox zero, I trust their judgment that they might have seen my email even if they have not responded. I give them some benefit of doubt if I have watched their habits and individual work practices.
Aa an independent, I understand the delicate balance in command, influence, and getting the work done. I watch my tone while writing to other functional heads or leaders with whom I am not directly working. I had one such experience early in my career, while working on a B2B enterprise help center project. The contract manager advised me to contact the engineering manager for my questions and after an introductory call between the three of us, I took it as any other contract in the past. After a couple of days, my contract manager advised me if I could fine-tune my tone because I was not the manager or supervisor of the engineering manager.
Remember—your personal brand is not part of the org
ICs have their personal brand, and they tend to carry it forever. After a few years of experience, I realized that I need to keep my personal brand separate from my contract work. It is not about the alignment or any conflict of interest—it is not required.
My client rarely cares about my brand or values—at least they rarely discuss it with me. It means that when I work with their teams, I work as a neutral, as an independent without carrying any strong opinions about their industry or market or trends, or anything that shows up for or against the organization’s sentiment.
Be on time
Since I get a chance to work with different teams, my learnings and experiences vary a lot. I can filter what works and what might not work in specific situations. It means that I have my own set of beliefs that I have seen working for the teams in design, marketing, product, SaaS onboarding, and brand positioning. It is important to watch out for what is the right time to propose something that is new to the team.
Not all my contracts have been a success, in fact many of my contracts did not go beyond the six-months trial because we validated each other’s strengths, opinions, and working style and we just canceled the contract in time so that we can continue to be friends. However there are teams where I am working with them for the last eleven years, and my ever evolving self-onboarding practices always played a role there.
This topic is part of my advanced course in product content strategy, content design, and UX Writing. See the course details for how we can find and add more meaning to our work. If you are new to the independent consultancy work, there is considerable shift in how we work with the teams. I hope this post gives you some directions.