New Leader Challenges—A Review
Since this is the second post about tips for new leaders, let’s review the challenges. Achieving a new leadership position is both rewarding and challenging. It acknowledges that you are someone who can make a difference, lead others and get things done. On the other hand, it is perhaps another step toward more responsibility and provides greater visibility of your actions and style.
Whether you are new to a department, new to a company or just received a promotion, the challenges are very similar. It is important to establish your style, values and culture effectively and quickly. As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression. So what are some techniques to quickly establish your leadership style and lead effectively?
“Never underestimate the effect of taking action on small things.” -Bruce Rhoades
Much of my career has been serving in interim executive positions or as interim CEO for various companies, where I often entered the organization as the “new guy” in charge. Here are the fundamental areas that I have found helpful for your initial focus to be an effective leader:
- First Impressions
- Information Gathering and Relationship Building
- Open Communication
- Decision, Delegation and Empowerment
- Action and Accountability
In a previous post, I discussed techniques for gathering good information, building relationships and communicating.
In this post, I will discuss techniques for:
Decision, Delegation and Empowerment
Action and Accountability
From a foundation of reliable information, relationships at all levels and open communication, here are some tips to establish a culture of decisiveness, empowerment, action and accountability.
First Impressions—A Reminder
Whether you are in a new leadership role as executive, department manager, product manager, or team leader, people will watch closely to understand your style. A few of the things people will evaluate include:
- Are you decisive? How do you make decisions?
- How do you take action?
- What do you tolerate?
- Do you hold people accountable?
- Can you be influenced? Will you listen?
- Are you approachable?
- How do you react to bad news?
- Do you focus on big picture or detail?
- Can you be put off, pocket-vetoed?
- How do you deal with good or poor performance?
- How do you think about customers; how do you treat them?
- How do you gather information?
- What are your values?
As the organization’s employees and customers observe these traits, it is important to remember: They will listen to what you say, but it is what you do that counts the most to establish culture.
So, where do you start? I suggest you initially focus on these characteristics as the most important:
- Gather reliable information
- Communicate openly
- Be decisive
- Delegate and empower others when possible
- Encourage action
- Require accountability
- Satisfy customers
Here are some tips on how to set the tone for decisiveness, empowerment, action and accountability.
Decisions, Delegation and Empowerment
The job of a leader is to make decisions happen—not necessarily make all the decisions, but to ensure they happen. In fact, it is better for the strength of the organization if the leader does NOT make most of the decisions. When others are involved, empowered and delegated the task of making decisions, everyone learns, people are more engaged and the organization begins to have a culture of deciding instead of just identifying problems to discuss endlessly.
One of the best times to establish a decision culture is when you are a new leader. First, you certainly do not know all the answers, and you need input from others. Second, people will be open to helping you. Here are some tips:
- Look for Small Things: In various interactions within the organization, be alert for small items that are frustrations, inefficiencies or items holding people back. Ask “Who needs to be involved in changing the item?” Then delegate and empower the two or three people named to make the decision and take action. If the people involved cannot agree, then they can come back for guidance, but if they do agree, then it is done. Many times, there are small decisions that do not need senior management involvement. After all, those involved know more about it anyway. Delegating small decisions will set the tone for the organization, encourage others to decide and help establish an empowerment culture. Never underestimate the effect of taking action on small things.
“Delegating small things creates a decision and empowerment culture.” -Bruce Rhoades
- Take Immediate Action on the Obvious: When you are the new leader, after many discussions you will find that there are some very well-known and recurring issues that have been around a long time. Many times everyone agrees about what needs to be done—so do it! If possible, delegate the responsibility. If delegation is not appropriate, then gather input from many, test your decision with them and decide. These items can be large or small, but deciding quickly will establish your style and send a message to the organization that decisions are encouraged.
- Delegate with Caution and Verify: It is always best to have a bias toward delegation and empowerment when a decision is needed. However, if you are not sure the person(s) that you are asking to make the decision can do it without some other guidance, then you can do one of the following: 1) Instead of asking for a decision, ask them to bring back two or three alternatives for review so you, or others, can “weigh in.” 2) Ask them to check back to brief you on their decision before it is finalized. Either way, you get to judge the competence of others and still get them to engage in making the decisions. One other thing to remember about this technique: If the recommendation from the person(s) is incorrect, do not make the decision for them — send them back with better guidance for another try. Do not allow “upward delegation” to occur under the disguise of not getting a result.
- Treat Causes not Symptoms: When you are the “new person,” it is easy to sub-optimize issues, define a problem too narrowly or react to a symptom rather than a cause. Always ask others if the issue is a symptom or a cause. Determine if there are other things that need to be considered. Is the issue a part of a larger problem? Ask if the issue to be addressed will help in the long term or is it a short-term symptom. Try to frame the larger picture and articulate a forward vision. Discuss if there are larger opportunities and get others to help connect it to the company strategy or goals. Make sure tasks are properly framed before delegating.
- Define Alternatives and Schedule Closure – Three Steps: 1) For difficult decisions that cannot be made “real time” during a discussion, start a decision process by first making sure everyone agrees to the alternatives. If the group cannot decide, ask “what are the alternatives for this decision?” Then list them on a flip chart or white board to get agreement. 2) Determine what additional information is needed to choose among the options and who is responsible to follow thorough. 3) Schedule a date to reconvene, review the additional information and then make the decision. Or if possible, delegate a group to review the information offline and return with a recommendation.
“To establish decisiveness, define alternatives and schedule closure.” -Bruce Rhoades
- Set Priorities: Organizations are always capable of doing many things at once, but a wise leader will not start too many large initiatives at the same time. By delegating small things, it will free you up to focus on some larger issues. I suggest that you establish 3 – 5 large priorities or goals around which you start driving larger decisions. By articulating the larger priorities and the rationale for them, you provide context for others to make smaller decisions, focus their attention for maximum benefit of the organization, and allow others to connect their work to larger goals. Make sure you spend time reflecting, summarizing and testing these goals with others before formalizing them. Just tell others what you are thinking and ask if it is on the mark or why not.
- Take a Position Early but Remain Influenceable: When you are a new leader, you have the luxury of not knowing it all (if you ever will). That gives you the license to try some not-so-well-thought-out ideas and positions on others. I have found it really helpful to precipitate a decision by simply saying, “What do you think about this?” Then suggest a direction, decision or position. Indicate that you know you do not have all the information and want input and suggestions from others. Then LISTEN and allow others to have input or change the decision. Most people are better at talking about what they do not like, or what is wrong, than coming up with their own position. Let them. Then modify the direction accordingly—not to mention that if the group sees that you can be influenced, then the trust level will go up.
“When others see that they can influence you, trust level increases.” –Bruce Rhoades
Using these techniques, you will be able to lead the organization to many quality decisions, engage and energize others, establish a decision culture, teach the organization how to make decisions, empower the organization and improve the teamwork in the organization. Keep in mind, the most important skills for these techniques to be effective are listening and questioning.
Action and Accountability
Turning decisions into visible actions has the maximum benefit for the organization. If you are trying to establish culture, actions speak louder than words. People will listen to what you say, but they will pay more attention to what you do. Not only do actions get things done, they engage people, energize the organization and provide visible evidence of a decisive, action-oriented culture. Word spreads fast when people see actions. The most effective way to establish your desired culture is through action.
“If more that one person is named to lead, no one is accountable.” -Bruce Rhoades
Along with formulating actions comes accountability. Accountability is also part of delegation, but it really counts when a decision is made to do something. If there is not clear accountability, many times decisions and actions will fail. Note that making a complicated decision can also be an action if additional work is needed by others to make the decision. Here are some tips for effective actions and accountability:
- Name Only One Person to Lead: When formulating an action, my preference is to name only one person to lead the work. Whether it is an analysis, formulating recommendations, starting a project or any other action, if there is more than one person named to lead, then no one is really accountable. The person named to lead does not need to do all the work, but they need to be the one to make it happen. While naming one person to lead, also list those who need to help, just to reinforce that there are more involved.
- Make It Clear Who Needs to Concur, Have Input or Just Be Informed: With larger, more complicated actions, it is important to clearly state who has what role. This establishes clear accountability and also reinforces that the person named to lead does not get to unilaterally decide. Additionally, it formalizes the help for the leader.
- Set a Date: When delegating actions, always ask for a date when the next step will be taken. If no one can set a date at the time, set a date to declare a date. Do not leave it open-ended. Sounds simple, but you would be surprised how many times target dates are not set, resulting in little action.
- Establish a Review Process with Checkpoints: For larger, more complicated actions, always establish checkpoint dates to review progress and issues. A review process not only keeps activity moving but also helps the lead person get help from others. It is a place to make mid-course corrections, resolve issues and deal with problems.
- Deal with Poor Performers: Poor performance is often not adequately addressed in many organizations. It is difficult, easy to put off and viewed as unpleasant. An important action for a new leader that can change culture, improve accountability and energize the organization is to deal with poor performers. Start with the obvious individuals that almost everyone can identify. The best approach is to use the HR staff and management to take action with an orderly, fair process. If there are people who are not meeting expectations on projects or not helping the leader on an initiative, then set the process in motion to take corrective action. I do not mean just firing people, but start coaching, training, teaching, giving them feedback and at times making it uncomfortable for them. Obviously, discretion is advised, but at times calling out poor performance in public sets the tone for all. I mentioned key business processes for attention in the “Getting Good Information” post. The performance appraisal process is another important process to add to that list. If you are in a position to do so, review the performance appraisal process and assure that it is rigorous and timely.
“Dealing with poor performance enhances accountability and energizes the organization.” -Bruce Rhoades
- Do Not Do It for Them: People make mistakes, misjudgments and sometimes simply misunderstand. When the person accountable does not “get the right answer” or does not do an adequate job, do not do the job for them. It is best to provide additional information, context or help and send them back to try again. If you do the work or make the decision for them, then they have avoided accountability. I once sent a team back three times to get them to make one decision. Additionally, if you do it for them, then an atmosphere of “upward delegation” can result.
“If the leader decides for the team, the team has avoided accountability.”
Establishing a culture of accountability not only increases the performance of the organization, but it will also enhance empowerment. Most people like to make a difference, and fostering accountability lets them visibly contribute.
In this post and the previous one, I have outlined several techniques to improve your effectiveness as a new leader. You do not need to use them all, just the ones that are comfortable for you. I think you will find that if you use them, you will be very effective quickly, establish a decision and action-oriented culture with open communication, while at the same time empowering others and forming some lasting relationships.