The New Leader
I want one moment in time
When I’m more than I thought I could be
When all of my dreams are a heartbeat away
One Moment in Time. Song by Whitney Houston.
Written By: Albert Louis Hammond / John Bettis.
Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.
So, Happy New Year! Congratulations, you won a promotional position at an interview on 18 November last year and today’s the day! You’re a new leader, with a new team at a new organization. Your family is excited, you’ve worked for it, you won it on merit. As Whitney Houston says, “all of your dreams are a heartbeat away.” Amidst all the excitement, is an eerie sense of nervousness that the joy may be short-lived. For whatever reason, you keep thinking that they never quite prepared you for day one of leadership in ‘grad school’!
The Fictitious Case Study:
To keep this narrative going, the fictitious job is ‘Manager Supply Services’ at the fictitious ‘Department of Government’. You will be responsible for the procurement of goods and services, government supply contracts, and the like for all state government departments and agencies. It’s a job that might seem inconsequential to some, as you will be responsible for the ordering of screws and nails for government building projects. However, you will be negotiating multi-million dollar contracts for paint, air conditioning units, cabling, hand sanitizer, and so on. The potential impact – positive or negative on the government’s budget is immense.
You arrive at the newly built government center in the downtown area, sign-on, and meet the Assistant Director that will be your direct report. The Assistant Director indicates that they will come down at morning tea (tea/coffee break) at 10:30 am, to formally introduce you to the branch. The Assistant Director confirms your (fictitious) pay grade is ‘Executive Level 6’ or colloquially ‘E6’. Being new, you enquire ‘how many pay grades are there?’ The Director-General (top position in the Department) is an E36. You suddenly realize that you are not a senior-junior manager but a junior middle manager, with that many pay grades in the organization. Nonetheless, you think positively. There’s plenty of scope for further promotion if you can simply prove yourself to be a great leader. It can’t be too hard, you have the theory in your MBA from ‘grad school’.
You have already gone through your initial induction/onboarding with a small group of leaders joining the Department with you. This was off-site early in the New Year. After the meeting with the Assistant Director, you head back to your office and your team of 100 people. You move into your office which is a series of glass walls and a door. You turn your computer on, sign in, and take your seat in your office. You start to answer some emails from others in the organization, people you are yet to meet, welcoming you, and introducing themselves to you. After replying to six of these emails, you glance through the glass wall and notice your 100 strong team, diligently working away at their desks. That’s when it occurs to you. You haven’t met any of these people, you don’t know their names, how long they have been in this branch, what qualifications they have, what aspirations they have, even who your leadership team might be! You realize to your horror, despite all of the courses and graduating from the Master of Business Administration ‘With Distinction’ from a well-known ‘grad school’, you know nothing at this point in time! Your formal introduction to the team with the Assistant Director won’t be for another 45 minutes! An important decision point has been reached, one which may well set the tone of your leadership. The obvious options are:
- Say a prayer that your second-in-charge (2iC) will introduce themselves and brief you.
- Discover that there is an administrative assistant on a reception desk who can help.
- Start walking around and introducing yourself to the groups in each section of the branch.
- Finish unpacking and answering the 70 emails that seem so urgent.
Whichever option you choose, in choosing your own adventure, the choice and the outcome means you are choosing the adventure your team will go on as well.
Without being negative, this fictitious scenario is probably not that far removed, nor are the choices for the adventure you end up selecting for yourself and in turn for your team. Suffice to say that any choice other than ‘D’ is a winner! The one that is most likely to be highly effective is ‘C’. Obviously, ‘B’ could be full of information some of which may be useful, and ‘A’ is obviously the short-term answer to your prayers. The answer though must prioritize people; hence ‘C’ is the option that gives you the ‘best return’ as you try to establish yourself with credibility amongst your new team. The clear lesson is that it is the leader’s role to take the initiative, create momentum and engage the team.
At some point, you will need to discern ways in which you can engage with your team, ways that will develop the relationship, carefully building the important thing that all good relationships are predicated on, trust. The important thing here is that trust is built through signs that you keep commitments made and have a true presence amongst the team that you lead. This is the decision that good leaders make on Day 1 and every day thereafter. One good example can be found in a world leader, Pope Francis. On July 25, 2014, Pope Francis made headlines because he had lunch! In the ‘World Views’ section of The Washington Post, the headline screamed: “Today’s lunch special in the Vatican cafeteria: Pope Francis!”
There are a number of lessons from the decision of Pope Francis to have lunch with the employees of the Vatican in their cafeteria.
The first lesson: Demonstrate priorities! When you are the employer of every employee in the Vatican and a world leader, your diary is likely to be very busy. Yet Pope Francis hosts dinners for the homeless and finds time to have lunch with the people who work for him. It’s a priority!
The second lesson: Demonstrate to the team, a real understanding that to build relationships you must spend time with the people that matter.
The third lesson: Demonstrate the willingness to follow through on commitments and in doing so build trust.
The fourth lesson: Demonstrate that trust starts in you trusting yourself, trusting that you can do these things.
The importance of trust and self-trust in leadership is a critical point that Stephen M. R. Covey makes in his excellent works, The Speed of Trust (2006) and Smart Trust (2012).
This doesn’t mean that you stop asking searching questions to validate information, assess risks, or see where the answer sits in the grand scheme of things. You can start by asking some basic questions that are designed to quickly establish a relationship. Pope Francis at lunch, gives some insight into this.
“The pope sat with Vatican employees, asked them about their work and hung around afterward to compliment the food and take a few photos…Francis also discussed soccer and the economy with the Vatican pharmacy warehouse workers sitting at his table.”
Ohlheiser, Abby. (2014). “Today’s lunch special in the Vatican cafeteria: Pope Francis!” The Washington Post (July, 26, 2014).
Former Secretary of State and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell (US Army Retired) makes the following observation, useful to leaders, especially those just starting out in a significant leadership position.
“Success ultimately rests on small things, lots of small things. Leaders have to have a feel for small things—a feel for what is going on in the depths of an organization where small things reside. The more senior you become, the more you are insulated by pomp and staff, and the harder and more necessary it becomes to know what is going on six floors down.”
Powell, Colin with Koltz, Tony. (2012). It Worked for Me : In Life and Leadership (eBook). HarperCollins e-books: New York. p.21 of 244.
Good leaders know their people. They understand their story and know how to engage with them. They are in touch with the staff on the front line, the people who make big things happen for clients and customers by doing the ‘small stuff’. More often than not, if you get the small things right, the other things fall into place. At the heart of good leadership is a clear focus on relationships and trust with the team, amongst the team, and with the clients/customers.
Typically, as a person moves into their first leadership position, it is often a junior or supervisor level role. These positions are where you get first-hand knowledge of the business, the customers, a small team. It is usually a fairly defined area of responsibility. As you grow and develop in your leadership, your responsibilities start to expand. In a government agency, you may find you have a greater interaction with other branches within the Department. Moving beyond these positions means having greater responsibilities across the state. For a new leader, putting in place professional development opportunities that will help to build your skillset, especially the soft / people skills that good leadership requires, is critical. Here a coach is highly recommended. If the Department or organization has a ‘Leadership Framework’ with core skills required of all leadership positions within the organization, then your Professional Learning should be linked to this.
Good leaders know their people. They understand their story and know how to engage with them.
A classic piece of research into leadership and organizations is the 1985 longitudinal research of first-time managers by Harvard Business School Professor, John Gabarro. Professor Gabarro (1985, 1987 & 2007) discovered that first time managers, whether first time entirely to a leadership position or new to an organization as a leader, are likely to transition through five stages, typically across 36 months, though this may vary because of experience. These stages according to Gabarro are:
Stage 1: Taking Hold (3-6 months in this stage)
“The first stage, taking hold, typically lasts from three to six months and often sets the tone, if not the direction, for the rest of the taking-charge process…Taking hold is a period of intense action and learning. If the new assignment is a big promotion or change, the newcomer may at times feel overwhelmed.”
Stage 2: Immersion (4-11 months in this stage)
“During immersion, new managers run the organization in a more informed fashion and steep themselves in a less hectic, finer-grained learning process than was possible when they were taking hold. Consequently, by the end of this stage, they have developed a new concept or at least have greatly revised their ideas of what they need to do.”
Stage 3: Reshaping (3-6 months in this stage)
“The reshaping stage, like the taking-hold period, involves a great deal of organizational change…Nonetheless, after 13 to 18 months, most managers studied had reached the reshaping stage, where they were eager to act on the learning and exploration they had experienced in the immersion period…The Reshaping stage changes may involve altering processes as well as making major structural shifts.”
Stage 4: Consolidation (3-9 months in this stage)
“Throughout this period, much of new managers’ learning and action focuses on consolidating and following through on the changes they made during reshaping. The process is evaluative…Finally, during consolidation, new managers deal with those aspects of their concept that they could not implement before.”
Stage 5: Refinement (4 months onwards in this stage)
“This stage marks the end of the taking-charge process…Refinement is a calm period. From this stage onward, managers’ learning will be more incremental and routine. Important developments in the economy, the marketplace, or technology may destroy this calmness, but whatever additional learning and action such factors lead to, they do not result from newness. For better or worse, the manager has taken charge.”
From Gabarro, John. (2007). ‘When A New Manager Takes Charge.’ In Harvard Business Review Magazine (January 2007).
Also, Gabarro, John. (1987). The Dynamics of Taking Charge. Harvard Business School Press: Boston, MA. p14-15.
The reassuring thing from Gabarro’s research is it gives voice to the conventional wisdom of good leaders. It takes time to become a good leader and all leaders go through some version of Gabarro’s stages when they start out in a new position, even if they are coming from a similar position at a different organization. For our new ‘Manager: Supply Services’, it will take at least three years. The key to their success will be the extent to which they see relationships and trust as a priority. Relationships with other leaders in the organization, with the team they seek to lead, with suppliers, and with the leaders of the government agencies, they seek to service. Being savvy around this and of course, the stated agenda of the government of the day is often vital to future successes.
Good leaders ask questions and importantly stay in touch with the staff that actually make things happen on the ground. They have a healthy ‘sixth sense’ of when they need to be overt in leadership and when it’s time to let the team lead and do the good work that they do. Share and celebrate the achievements and successes of the team and its individuals. Seek out the advice of leaders that are highly regarded. A great leader is always willing to help another leader mature on the journey. Good leaders create good leaders! Ensure you do exactly that with your team. Be articulate around goals and any particular philosophy that might guide you and be prepared to justify decisions. Beyond terms like ‘vision and mission’, always come back to the one question that will keep you on course. What is our purpose, our raison d’être? The ability to have these conversations with your team is predicated on the assumption that a positive relationship exists or is emerging. At the heart of all healthy relationships of course is trust.
“In fact, the first job of a leader is to inspire trust, and the second is to extend it. This is true whether a person has a formal leadership role, such as CEO, manager, team leader, or parent, or an informal role of influence, such as work associate, marriage partner, or friend…Bottom line, if we’re not inspiring and extending trust, we’re not leading. We might be managing or administering, but we’re not leading. We manage things, we lead people. And real leadership requires trust.”
Covey, Stephen. M. R. Link, Greg. Merrill, Rebecca. R.(2012). Smart Trust: Creating Prosperity, Energy, and Joy in a Low-Trust World (eBook). Simon & Schuster: London. p.192.
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