Quint's Column: Tips for new leaders
- By Quint Studer
- Apr 17 2018
A change in leadership often means company-wide anxiety. Few things in organizations cause more concern.
A CEO called me and asked if I would consider a seat on the board. Why? He planned to retire in the next few years and he felt I could play a positive role in succession planning and transition. He was concerned that if the succession was not handled well, all improvement could be lost.
A few days later, a university president wanted to discuss a job offer that he was considering. During the call, he mentioned the need to make changes and his plan was to bring people with him from his current job right away. I cautioned him against it.
I spoke to a large group in Fort Myers and reviewed why most company initiatives fail. A key reason is the lack of trust by employees. Employees are skeptical to get on board because with every leadership change comes a new plan, new initiatives, etc. Why get on board when it won’t last anyway? Employees end up just waiting it out.
My heightened sensitivity to this may come from my own experiences. Years ago, the organization I was working for brought in a new CEO. He quickly brought in a number of new executives.
What was the message that was sent? The current people were not talented. I understand change happens, but it is best to be patient and assess the current team. So, what happened? Ironically the new people did not do well, and the people who carried over from the previous regime ended up being important players in the organization.
The anxiety and lost time could have been reduced or avoided. This impacted me so much that when I moved jobs from Wisconsin to Chicago, and then from Chicago to Pensacola, I brought no one with me. My main goal was to learn from the people already there, assess and retain people in place. When people are unsure of the new leadership, they tend to leave when it was not necessary. The best people leave first.
In these transition situations, there can be manipulation at times. Let’s say there’s an opening for a CEO position and a well-known internal candidate is in consideration along with a few outside candidates.
To gain favor, the inside candidate may begin to assure people that their jobs are safe – and perhaps if they get the job some will be immediately promoted if he is hired. That inside candidate may begin to spread rumors that if an outside person is hired they will be “cleaning house.” They believe this will help them get the job. They use fear of the unknown to help their cause. That is an example of poor leadership.
When I was preparing for the Baptist Hospital administrator job, I reviewed the results of everyone in a leadership role. There was one leader who had horrible results. My thought was this person will need to go. However, I waited. Once on site, leadership training was implemented. This person was a sponge. The issue turned out to be that they were relatively new, and with the skill-building they blossomed. This person became a very high performing leader.
If a new leader comes in with their own team, the rest of the organization hears the message we are not valued. It causes the fear of “are we next to go?” Fear-driven leadership is short sighted and does not work in the long run.
This is not to say that everyone will make it. Some may not. It does not mean that outside talent may not be needed. It may. The message is, take time to diagnose the situation, learn more about what had been taking place and assess each person before making decisions that will impact a person’s life and family. The exception is if the new leader uncovers behavior and situations that were not appropriate and must be dealt with to be consistent with the organization’s values.
Here are some tips for people in a new leadership role.
— Take time to do your homework. Review past results of the leader, including their past performance reviews.
— Review the training and development the current leaders have received. I find the No. 1 issue managers struggle with is not a lack of passion or potential. It is the lack of mentoring and access to skill building. Implement skill building. The most important item in the budget is the training dollars.
— Meet with everyone in a leadership role that comes under your umbrella. Even if they don’t directly report to you. You will learn a great deal of valuable information.
— Survey. Send out a link to an anonymous survey. Because you are new, and they have spent time there already, explain that would like to learn from them. Ask these questions. 1: What do you feel the organization does well and needs to keep doing? 2: What are areas you feel could be improved? 3: What questions and or concerns do you have? 4: If you were in my role what would you focus on during the next six months? This shows people you want their input. Make sure the results are rolled out to all. I’ve seen this process work very well. It is now the organization’s agenda, not the new leader’s agenda.
— Give people the benefit of the doubt. Years ago, I asked Michael Rindler, an expert who was brought into organizations by the board to turn poor results into good results, what he did early on. His answer was I tell everyone to go home, get some rest, and come in the next day with fresh eyes, put the past in the rearview mirror and let’s move forward.
Leadership transitions are hard, even if they are done well. Sadly, most are not handled well. This doesn’t need to be the case. If you take the steps outlined above, anxiety is reduced, people feel more valued, a great deal is learned, and people get the opportunity to prove themselves. It’s called value-driven leadership.