Taking on a new leadership role? Ask and then act; not the other way around.

“I don’t get men like you, you’re dangerous men. You start wars and then let other people fight them for you. You come in and say ‘do this, do that, think like this, become this kind of person’, you put a sign in somebody’s hand and say ‘follow me, I have all the answers’, but all you do is get people killed!”  ~ Richard “Dickie” Coombes

The only thing constant these days is change. The economy sucks; it’s sucked for years and it looks like it’s going to suck for a good deal of time going forward. If you are lucky enough to have a job, you’re probably now doing the work for two and have managers looking over your shoulder asking you why you can’t do even more, because they have managers looking over their shoulders who have managers looking over their shoulders. To state that we are all living under a considerable amount of stress is a ridiculous understatement.

In times such as these, success or failure is determined in days or weeks, not months or years. Deliver or die and fail fast are mottos many managers are living by these days. If the performance isn’t there quickly, make a change and make it quickly. The furious pace of change is business’ version of the fight or flight response. And this carries over to the people that are being put into new roles because they know that if they don’t show results immediately, they will be the next casualties of this war.

So how do you step into a new situation and give yourself the best chance to succeed and succeed quickly? Here are two recommendations.

  1. Get inside and form your own opinion before making any changes. Beyond listening to those who asked you to take on the role, ask the people in the trenches and ask your customers. Take the time to identify the problem you are trying to solve.
  2. Move quickly to make the changes that will motivate your employees and increase the confidence of your customers

“You can’t reform the system if you’re not in it.” ~ Lilian Gray

The truth matters – Chances are, the person who asked you to take on the role has already shared their opinion of what he problem is and how you are best suited to solve it. That said, whatever you think the situation is from viewing it from the outside, don’t rush to conclusions until you’ve gone inside and seen for yourself. Often new managers feel that they need to immediately make wide sweeping changes in order to be seen by their boss as having the right stuff to be effective and gain their confidence. Unfortunately this strategy can often backfire both on the objective and on the new manager. Unless that manager is going to do all of the work him or herself, he is going to have to rely on the people in the trenches to get it done. Swooping in like a white knight does nothing but alienate you from those that are already battle scarred from fighting the fight on a daily basis. Before passing judgment, get inside and find out what is really going on. It’s okay to start with a hypothesis, this approach will allow you to move quickly, but be as open to proving that hypothesis wrong as you are to proving it right. What you are looking for is the truth – the real problem that needs to be solved. Getting the problem statement wrong leaves you open to criticism, heading down the wrong path, and making decisions that will immediately undermine your credibility as an effective leader.


“I don’t see playing politics with the truth.” ~ Henry Brubaker

A terrific example of this method of transition management is found in the 1980’s film Brubaker, where we first view Robert Redford’s character Henry Brubaker as an inmate in Wakefield Prison in Texas witnessing first hand the mistreatment of the inmates, the corruption of the guards and the deplorable conditions. Brubaker quickly sees who is effective in their roles and who isn’t. We all quickly identify people with characteristics and values that aren’t being effectively used and those in leadership who aren’t contributing at all. We see who “gets it” and who is just passing time. So when Henry Brubaker, still in his prison garb, breaks up a volatile situation by telling an inmate he’s the new warden, we are both surprised and curious why he didn’t just come into the prison the normal way by letting everyone know who he was and asserting himself in his appointed role.

The answer is simple, if he had, he never would have found out the truth – what problems needed to be solved and who he could count on to help him to do it. Instead he might have wasted valuable time trying to solve the wrong problem, or simply been rendered ineffective.

Beyond asking the employees on the ground, ask your customers. Voice of the customer isn’t just about branding. One of the worst things you can possibly do is walk in and make sweeping or critical changes that disrupt your customer or client experience without even consulting with them. By doing this, not only will you lose credibility with your own people but you will lose credibility with your customers. Trust may be hard to make up with your staff but you still have institutional power to lean on. With customers, you have no such authority and the savvier the customer, the more they will form an initial opinion of you of a poor manager and someone they won’t find value in dealing with. That will be even harder to rebound back from.

“Be quick, but don’t hurry” ~ John Wooden

As stated above, once you have figured out the problem you need to solve, move swiftly. By listening to both your customers and the people in the trenches, you’ll quickly hone in on a few critical changes that need to be made and equally which things you should absolutely leave alone. Make quick changes of personnel and tactics that immediately will be seen by your customers as addressing their needs and by your employees as improving their opportunity for success.

I’ll provide you with an example from one of my own clients, a finance executive who was asked to come out of running the finance side of the liquor division to run that of a larger entertainment business. He didn’t have to play an “undercover boss”; he just made sure to spend enough time to ask the people on the ground the right questions. Once he identified the problem to be solved, he quickly wound up sacking the finance VP and promoting a controller two levels down because that was the right person to lead that function. The business results spoke for themselves and the new leader had an inspired employee group to take his strategy forward.

In summary, to be not only seen as effective but to be effective in a new leadership position remember to  ask the people on the ground and form your own opinion of what the problem is and who can help you to solve it, and once you do figure it out, move quickly and decisively. You know what they say, you never have a second chance at a first impression and understanding the situation clearly is much more important than trying to establish yourself as a hero when you haven’t even gotten your clothes dirty yet.

Finally something to share

This is my mea culpa for not having posted anything to this blog in ages. Truth is that I have posted on my blog only when I have thought I had something valuable for others to read. When I’ve simply wanted to vent, I found Twitter or facebook to be convenient receptacles for my raving and sometimes mindless rants. So if you’ve done your math, you get to the inevitable point that for months, I haven’t felt like I have had anything valuable to share. Until now.

About a week ago, I woke up in the middle of the night in a Los Angeles hotel feeling like someone was stabbing me in the back and my right arm was on fire. I wish I could tell you exactly what’s going on but I can’t yet and more than a week later I’m still trying to figure it all out.

What I can share is that now that the pain is no longer intolerable, I can actually type full sentences on a keyboard and figured that my experience here is something that someone else might find useful in case they find themselves in a similar situation. I openly confess that I have no idea how this is going to end, but I can promise that I’ll be sure to share what I learn and what works and what doesn’t work for me in the hope that someone else might benefit.

More to follow…