New Leader 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?
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 this post, I will discuss techniques for:
Information Gathering and Relationship Building
The techniques in these areas will establish the foundation to develop a culture of decisiveness, empowerment, accountability and action. I will discuss these attributes in a future post.
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 the following characteristics as the most important:
- Gather reliable information
- Communicate openly
- Be decisive
- Delegate and empower others when possible
- Encourage action
- Require accountability
- Satisfy customers
To lay the groundwork for these cultural practices, you must first have good information, form relationships at all levels and communicate openly. The next two sections provide some techniques.
Information Gathering and Relationship Building
Before a new leader is able to decide, initiate action or communicate intelligently, he/she needs good information quickly. It is vitally important to have information from different perspectives and different levels in an organization. Just getting information from one person/place can lead to narrow, sub-optimized decisions. Here are some mechanisms to obtain good information and simultaneously form relationships:
- Skip-Level Meetings: Go to department staff meetings at all levels of the organization, starting with your direct reports, if you are a manager. This also works for project team leaders. You may simply listen during the meeting, but a simple round table discussion also works very well. Popular questions are: what is working; what is not working; what is frustrating; what should we stop doing; what decisions are holding up progress?
There are several benefits to skip-level meetings. Not only do you get good information from “the front line,” but it is also a good place to find things that people can be empowered to fix, thus setting the tone for delegation, action and decisiveness. Two fundamentals: 1) Always listen and question; 2) Be cautious not to manage around the team leader.
- “State of the Union” Meetings: These are short one-on-one meetings for a person to give you a summary of the situation for a group, team, department or project. It does not have to be a polished presentation, just a discussion from an outline that covers: priorities, issues, decisions needed and what to start, stop or keep doing. Basically, let the person tell you what they are doing, what is going well and what needs attention. Again, look for opportunities for decision and action.
- Product Briefings: Set up meetings to have product managers, sales people or people working on products to give a demonstration of the product. Discuss its benefit/value to customers and the strategy for the product. Ask about new versions, pricing, competition and relationship to other products. These sessions are a great way to understand the products and strategy and to meet key people in the organization.
- Talk to Customers: Use various mechanisms to talk to customers. Go along on sales calls; meet customers at the end of training sessions; listen to customer calls in customer support; get a list of customers from sales and simply call to hear what they have to say. There is no better way to get information on your company, its products and its people than by talking to customers. These discussions will allow you to develop “street cred” when you are in internal meetings, plus it will let the organization see you making customers a priority.
- Regular Staff/Team Meetings: No matter what your leadership position, conduct regular meetings with those you are leading. It can be a staff meeting for direct reports, project team meeting or a meeting of those helping on a specific initiative. In these regular meetings you can set goals, solve problems, find out what is going on, and find decisions that are needed. Always have an agenda, but do allow some round table discussion time.
- Walk Around: Management by walking around is an overused term. I think the benefit is not management, but an opportunity to listen, collect information real time that you would not normally get, form relationships, and open channels of communication. Walking around is not the time to direct but to listen.
- Get Involved in Key Business Processes: There are a large number of business processes needed in most organizations for smooth, quality operation. As a new leader, it is almost impossible to get involved in all of them. I always “run to the problem” by getting involved early in processes that have one of two characteristics: 1) problems keep occurring as a result of the process; or 2) it is a process where decisions are needed. These are important venues to set the tone for decisiveness and action. The key processes that are always on my list are: Customer Issues; Sales Forecasting; Project Reviews; Product Management Reviews from concept to launch; and Pricing.
All of the items discussed above are not only ways to get good information directly, but also allow you to build relationships broadly in the organization. Many people will see you in action personally, understand how you think, and see what is important to you and understand your values. These relationships also open important informal lines of communication via email or walking around. People in all aspects of the business are more comfortable communicating if they have met you personally. These forums present great opportunities to teach, communicate openly and become a more effective leader.
Open and direct communication is critical for success as a new leader. By communication, I mean both talking and listening—a lot of listening. Communication is not only about the exchange of information but also about building relationships, understanding and trust.
All of the techniques outlined in the “Information Gathering” section should be viewed as opportunities to communicate. Skip-level meetings, product briefings, walking around, project reviews and “state of the union” discussions are not only excellent ways to listen, gather information, and build relationships but also places to communicate informally and directly. A few more communication tips include:
- Hold Informal Associate Briefings: If you are in a management position or otherwise leading a large group of people, I have found it really beneficial to hold frequent informal briefings for the appropriate group. My preference is to prepare an outline with one or two slides, or flip charts, to guide the discussion, but no mind-numbing PowerPoint presentations. Just provide information and encourage discussion on key topics. This is also a place to allow others to lead the discussion on selected topics. Keep the sessions short and ask for feedback.
- Openly Address Rumor Control: For meetings and employee communication, I have found it beneficial to have an item on the agenda to address “rumors.” This is a semi-humorous way to find issues, address them and establish open communication. Topics can even be submitted in advance of the meeting. If you are in a position to do so, add a specific topic to the meeting for “rumor control.” When “rumor control” is added to the appropriate regular staff meeting or associate briefing, a culture of very open, direct and honest communication is established. If you are a manager, you can start by putting the topic on your staff meeting agenda. You can always set an example at whatever level you are in within the organization.
- Address Elephants in the Room: When a leader fails to address a large, important issue that is on everyone’s mind, it is not only awkward and distracting to all, but it also undermines a culture of open and direct communication. Failure to address “the elephant in the room” is poor leadership. Even if there is not resolution or an answer to the issue, at a minimum, the leader needs to acknowledge that the issue exists and let the others know that resolution is in progress. Saying nothing at all is the worst thing to do.
- Feed The Grapevine: Every organization has a “grapevine”—the informal, efficient, semi-gossip network that spreads organizational news—usually negative news. The organizational “grapevine” is very efficient, and without the leader’s direct input, something will be on the grapevine anyway. I try to find the connectors/feeders of the grapevine content and talk to them informally. Listen to their questions, since those are usually relevant to current grapevine stories, and answer these questions directly. It is a chance to feed the grapevine from your perspective. After all, it is usually faster than any other communication you can do.
- Give Recognition: Always look for opportunities to give recognition to good performers, preferably in public. Positive feedback enhances a positive atmosphere, inspires others and is a great way to establish values for the organization.
- Openly Change Your Mind: Do not be afraid to openly change your mind if new information warrants doing so. If others realize they can influence you, it will encourage openness, participation and trust. You will be able to achieve more timely and higher quality decisions.
These techniques will help establish a more open, direct and honest environment and they will discourage hidden agendas. People always perform better when the leader demonstrates effective communication.
When it is time to try some of the techniques I have outlined, 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.