Is there a blueprint for how to go about starting a new job as the leader of a large and complex organisation? Probably not, but having recently done just that I would humbly suggest there are some important rules to follow.
The first lesson is to make sure you understand the local context. It’s all too easy to assume that what works well somewhere else will easily transfer. Don’t be fooled. While the challenges may be the same as everywhere else, the history, culture and perspectives of partners and stakeholders will almost certainly be different.
Experience is valuable, but much more important is an early reality check to understand what works and what doesn’t in the new setting. Judicious reference to previous experience is also important, as too much referencing to how things were done elsewhere can grate with people and has more resonance in your mind than theirs.
When you arrive, all sorts of people will be seeking your direction on a whole host of matters, especially if there is a crisis. This can be uncomfortable when you don’t know the local systems, politics and people so well. So, it’s important not to make too many decisions too precipitously. As Ian Davis, the former managing director of Mckinsey & Company, says: “There is a difference between being undecided and indecisive.”
Paradoxically, it’s generally easier to make tough decisions as early as possible, so I avoid prevaricating too much on issues that require firm and decisive action. Leaving things alone induces drift and familiarity, making some decisions much more difficult to take later.
Next, make sure you’re not overwhelmed by the welter of requests, pet projects and causes that people want you to handle or champion. The number one task early on is to prioritise. It’s essential to listen carefully and respond to these demands, but the way in which you do this will establish your style, as well as manage expectations.
Coupled with this is managing time. The intensity associated with taking on a new brief means your time for reflection will be limited, so plan for it ruthlessly and use it well.
Start building relationships quickly. This is relatively easy to do within the organisation, but it’s important to pay as much attention to external relationships so the balance between presence with staff and profile in the community you serve is established up front. Taking control of this agenda gives you a greater chance of mitigating against the risk of circumstances driving your time and priorities.
Unashamedly use every means possible to communicate your message and the major priorities you’ll be focusing on. Good news or bad, it’s generally better to be on the front foot and proactively influencing the media, and internal and external perceptions, wherever you can. There’s no substitute for visibility, but augmenting this as much as possible with a communications strategy that uses as many mediums as possible is vital. Consistency of message is also an imperative and it’s best to focus on strategic direction and style.
The worst thing to do is to commit to too much too soon, or make promises that can’t be delivered. Frugal, focused and frequent are the key watchwords for effective and consistent communications in the early stages of settling in.
Perhaps the most vexing challenge is in finding grounded and objective feedback. At the best of times, this is often distorted and filtered, and this is amplified when leadership changes happen.
There are serious bear traps to be wary of, as people are likely to tell you what they think you want to hear, or over egg or under rate what they are reporting to you. Triangulation and leg work are vital to making sure the information you’re receiving aligns with the frontline and external partners.
Collect and use data assiduously. This will help cut through anecdote, hyperbole and opinion and give you a stronger basis for pushing back on issues tinged with history or personal agendas.
Have a set of ground rules that can be your compass as you navigate through the complex array of competing priorities, people and problems that pop up at every turn as you bed into a new role. These should cover your expectations of others, what they can expect from you, things you won’t tolerate and the tone and style you want to convey.
Lastly, leadership positions can be all consuming, as I have found to my own cost in my career. If you’re not careful, you can find yourself working way beyond your daily sell-by-date. So make time to switch off, see the kids and get a life as well.