6 tips to help you excel in a new leadership role

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A change in leadership can be stressful for both the new boss and the existing team, but these six steps help make the transition a smooth one.

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Studies have shown that it takes a typical employee six weeks to feel comfortable in a new job. However, as the new leader of an organization, you will be far behind the curve if it takes you six weeks to settle into your position. Fortunately, there are a number of steps you can take to make sure you get off to a fast start, even if you know it will take some time to truly understand the needs of the new organization.

1. Assess the new organization

A key task when assuming a new position is to determine why you have been brought in. Some organizations are in serious trouble and need a turnaround, while other organizations are doing fine. During the interview process, it should be fairly easy to determine the perception that exists of the organization, and this will be a good starting point. Over time, you will be able to compare your own observations to this initial point of view and make your own assessment.

The behavior of a new boss should be significantly different depending on the state of the organization they inherit. Organizations that are running well allow the new leader to take some time to understand the challenges and to make incremental changes to improve results. There probably won't be a need to make many personnel or process adjustments if things are already working well.

In contrast, turnarounds require change. There are often people in jobs who are not good fits, and it is probable there is a need to upgrade the processes that are used to manage the organization. Decision making in a turnaround situation needs to be quick, as it will be important to convey a sense of urgency to the new group. (For a detailed discussion on how to assess the maturity of a technology organization, see my three part series.)

2. Adopt the behavior of a leader

Defining leadership can be a tricky proposition so I was happy when an executive at one of my jobs provided a definition that resonated with me: Leaders respect the past, are realistic about the present and are optimistic about the future.

When you take over a new organization, no one wants to hear you criticize the previous regime. After all, they were part of it. You can focus on the issues that need to be addressed without placing blame on the organization. Also, it is critical to be realistic about the current situation to your new team, your boss and your business partners. Having an overly optimistic or pessimistic view of your issues will hinder your efforts to move forward.

Finally, everyone wants to work for an organization that is expected to achieve great results. As the leader, it is your job to recognize the great work that is being done and to paint a picture of a future organization that is much further advanced than the one that exists today.

3. You don't need vision on day one

Despite the need to paint an optimistic future, you do not need to provide details right away.

I remember the first time I became a divisional CIO working for the president of a business unit. The CIO of the company called me to congratulate me, and he asked if I needed anything from him. I told him I was worried that people were going to ask me what my vision was for the organization, and I didn't know how to answer the question.

The CIO told me it would be presumptuous of me to have a vision on the first day of a new job. He said if anyone asked me what my vision was, I should reply, "How could I have a vision when I haven't taken the time to listen to you first?"

He said everyone goes into a new job with ideas that have worked for them in the past, and it is very likely they will implement many of these ideas. It is a big mistake, however, to make assumptions about what the organization needs until you have taken the time to listen to the people who know its strengths and areas for development.

4. Put the right metrics in place

Also on my first divisional CIO job, I remember meeting with the president of the business unit, my new boss. He asked me how he was going to know if I was doing a good job. I told him he would see results, he would hear good things about me from others, and he would see firsthand how I handled certain situations. He said all that was good, but he wanted to know what metrics he could look at to know if we were doing well or not. He noted the organization I was inheriting did not have many metrics in place, and this had frustrated him.

In response to his suggestion, I implemented a series of metrics. I learned that metrics can make all the difference in moving an organization from "good" to "great." Metrics will change the behavior of an organization. They can help the organization focus on the important items and inspire the team to make adjustments when needed.  However, you need to be careful with metrics, because they can result in bad behavior if suboptimal work is done simply to improve the numbers. (For a more detailed discussion of metrics, read my article on the critical metrics for IT success.)

5. Meet with everyone

Whenever I take over a new organization, I try to meet everyone. The first priority is to spend enough time with your boss, direct reports and key business partners. Then I attempt to meet with everyone else in the organization. After all, the people in the organization have the answers to most of your questions, and as you meet with more and more people, you will see familiar themes that need to be addressed. 

Of course, meeting with everyone is a daunting task if you have hundreds (or thousands) of people in your organization. My suggestion is to prioritize the meetings so you can meet one-on-one with all your managers and then, for organizations smaller than 500 people, meet in groups of 15 with the rest of the staff.

A technique I have used successfully is to invite groups of staff to coffee and donut sessions every morning, as this allows me to meet close to 300 people a month. I ask them to come prepared to tell me what they think is going well, what they think is not going well and what advice they have for me. It is amazing how much information can be obtained from these sessions.

For organizations with more than 500 employees, it will be difficult to meet everyone face to face. What I have done in the past is scale up the 1:15 meetings to 1:50 or 1:100 town hall formats, which allow people to see you in a smaller setting and provide them with an opportunity to ask questions.  

6. Communicate, communicate, communicate

People often believe they communicate enough, but this is rarely true. I remember talking to an HR person once who had the responsibility of rolling out a new mission statement to the organization, and he told me how important it is to over communicate. His view was that you need to communicate three times as much as you think is needed and, even then, it might not be enough. Most of us communicate a couple times and assume the message has been heard and understood but, at this point, many people still see the ideas as "noise," and it requires communicating an additional five to ten times before the message is understood.    

Schedule an all hands meeting shortly after you arrive on the job, and if you have multiple locations, do it in person at each place. People will be worried about the transition, and if they don't see you for a few months rumors will circulate about what is going on. It is better to get in front of the group right away, so they can get to know you — even if you don't have many answers for them. One important piece of information you can share with them is a list of the areas you have been told need attention. This probably won't be a surprise, and it will be good for the group to know you are planning to look into these areas. 

After a month on the job, write a report for your boss that shows what you have learned, what you intend to do about it, and where you need their help. This sets the stage for an ongoing partnership with your boss as you move forward in the job.

Summary

The experience of taking over an organization can vary greatly. I have taken over organizations that were in serious trouble, and I had to completely replace the management team. I have taken over other organizations that were perceived as being in serious trouble, but I realized the perception was not the reality, and major changes were not required. I have also taken over organizations that were doing very well, and I was able to incrementally help them improve over time.

When you take over a new organization, it will often take you some time to understand the magnitude of the change that is required. Adopting the behaviors in this article will help you get off to a fast start while you determine what needs to be done to move the organization forward.

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