New leaders are often eager to make their mark right away. They want to move quickly to action--proving they have a handle on everything. It’s normal to feel the pressure of immediate success, as well as, the fear of failure.
I want to tell all new leaders, “Resist the urge for immediate action.” You are likely to create more problems before you understand the existing systems and politics. The last thing you want to do as a new leader is to take off full-steam in the wrong direction.
One thing that gets new leaders into trouble is that they don’t have a clear and enticing purpose to guide their daily decisions. Without it, you won’t know what’s most important. You will be tempted to tackle the issue that’s right in front of you first. Stay focused on what you were hired to do. It’s key to have a laser focus on the mission, vision and purpose of the organization and not be swayed by the distractions that will compete for your attention.
It's not enough to articulate this clear vision to yourself. Speak it out loud, and speak it often; so, your team has a clear sense of where you’re heading.
Visit your team and the folks that interact with your team. Take time to gather formal and informal feedback. Listen for strong themes. My rule of thumb is--if I hear a concern from one person, I pay attention, but I’m not overly concerned from an organizational point of view. If I hear the same message from three people, it raises my eyebrows. I start to inquire specifically on that topic. Four or more people presenting an issue is a red flag that begs a proper investigation. This doesn’t mean I assume the common concern is a clear problem. I’m mindful of groupthink, so I turn to trusted sources to determine credibility of the flagged issue.
I once worked with a client organization where everybody was frustrated with a colleague. The feedback was clear from multiple voices. They wanted a personnel change. When I investigated, an alternative solution became clear. This employee had a unique set of skills, but not all of them aligned with their role. They were charismatic and creative, which attracted new clients. They met sales goals. Administratively, they were a debacle. Double-bookings, late invoices and disgruntled customers created serious problems for the team. I advocated to re-structure the position to leverage the employee’s strengths. When administrative oversight was removed, they could just focus on new business development. WOWZA! The client saw a 10-fold revenue increase and the team was relieved.
A wave of panic often hits after all of the feedback is gathered. ‘There’s so much to fix here!’ If you let these anxious thoughts swirl around in your head, it can be debilitating. Instead, make a list on a white board or a blank page. Because I’m a visual learner, it’s helpful for me to see all the issues that I need to address in one place. I sort my list into four buckets:
Sorting the concerns into buckets helps me to grasp the scope of the work and understand the interplay between all of the issues.
How do you know which of your carefully sorted buckets is the most pressing? It’s important for New Leaders to bring a strategic lens to prioritization. To help with this, I created an exercise I call the Iceberg Dam. Imagine your issues as icebergs damming up a river. Small problems are represented with small icebergs and large problems with larger icebergs. Some might be connected just as real life problems are. Breaking one at the back might only release a trickle. The challenge is tackling the right iceberg first—one that unlocks flow—movement in two or three other issues.
Prioritize culture. Don’t sacrifice culture for talent, for profit, or to avoid conflict. Your team is watching. These first days leave a meaningful and lasting impression. I often mentor first-time head coaches who feel pressure to win early games. One told me they accepted poor behavior from a star who could score goals. They were afraid of not being able to attract talent if they didn’t put a good record on paper. Wooden reminds us, “Little things make big things happen.” A great culture doesn’t happen by accident. Intentionally articulating, modeling and reinforcing the behavior you want from the members of your team in big and small ways consistently from the start leads to success.