In today’s work environment, there’re more demands for leaders than ever; leaders to lead organizations, teams, and even projects. As a result of these demands, leaders are being promoted and flipped at a pace we have never seen before, which is creating a tense work environment filled with complexities and uncertainties. Many leaders are accepting new roles with little information and no training, and they are expected to produce results immediately. So, how can you lead effectively and efficiently from day one and produce results in no time?
In 2002, early in my professional career, I was working as an outdoor sales executive for a regional telecommunication company in the Southeast Region of the US. It was my second year in the company and I was one of their top salespeople. I built a reputation in the company and amongst my peers as a highly driven, ambitious, and smart worker.
As a result of my achievements in my first two years there, I was promoted to become the youngest Area Sales Manager in the company, managing 14 sales professionals across three cities. It was a challenging - yet rewarding - role with high expectations.
Then suddenly, at the age of 28, I became a manager over an area that was already a top revenue-generating market in the company, and the challenge was formidable. My challenge was not only to maintain a high level of productivity - which had been reached by my predecessor – but also to lead a diverse sales team with strong personalities. As expected, I had few of them backing me for the new role; some believed that they deserved the job more than I did, and others felt that I was not up to the challenge.
Facing some resistance, I had to act swiftly and decisively. After all, my actions would have a direct impact on the team as a whole and the revenues generated. Many ideas came to me on ways that I could approach these challenges. I could act tough and show them who’s the boss. I could alternatively show them that I was a know-it-all and tell them what to do. After all, I was an award-winning top sales professional in the company.
In the end, I decided to go with the 3rd option which is to win everyone over just like what my predecessor had done when he took over the team. Two key things I learned from him include: (1) to respect people for who they are and (2) to create the environment for them to excel. I decided to put people at the forefront of everything I do. This mindset put my team at the top in the company and this has proven to be successful throughout the last 20 years.
Here are strategies I used back then, and I still recommend them for my colleagues and clients to make sure to have a strong, productive and highly engaged team from day one:
- Understand that your new role will be a stressful change to the team and this change needs to be managed. The sympathetic nervous system of human beings responds to stress in two ways - fight or flight - which causes people to react to change with resistance. To mitigate resistance to your new role as a leader, you have to manage change. Start with learning about change management theories, models and approaches. I recommend you read about Everett Rogers’ model, the Karl Albrecht Change Response Cycle, Rick Maurer’s 3 levels of resistance, and John Kotter’s 8-step model of change.
- Get to know your team before you start your new role. Look for information about them from all sources possible and get to know their values, their likes, and dislikes. Accept people for their diversity and unique selves with no pre-judgments or prejudices.
- Character and competence build trust and confidence. Whether you are an outsider coming into the company for the role or an insider promoted or moving into a new team, your reputation matters. So wherever you go, make sure that you have a reputation for being of good character and able to build competence. Know that your new team will be asking about you as well.
- Once you start your new role, respect the existing norms and have a clear direction and a vision. Make sure that you have a realistic view of what’s going on with the company and the team that you are leading.
- Communicate with your team as soon as you take on the new responsibility. At the very least, this could mean sending them individual emails saying that you look forward to working with them. This will allow you to build trust early on and identify key people that can help you through the transition.
- In your first meeting with the team, start by (a) Telling your personal story. Tell them who you are and how you got there. Stories build trust and create connections with people. (b) Conveying confidence and support. For a first-time meeting, I used this speech back in 2002 and many times afterward: “I was hired by the company for this role believing that I can take this team to the next level and produce greater results [vision and direction]. I may not be the smartest or the hardest working person here, and you know this business more than I do. So, I need you to be beside me to reach milestones never reached before. I promise to give you 100% and to be fair to everyone. I will fight for you and support you with everything I have. All I ask you for is your commitment and your dedication to your work and this team.” Yes, it may sound like a war speech from the middle ages, but it works.
- Expect resistance and that the time needed to accept change will vary from one person to another. You should be able to notice those who will accept you and those who will resist early on. Here are Rick Maurer’s 3 levels of resistance: (a) I Don’t Get It – refers to not understanding the reason why you were brought in. This comes from a lack of information. (b) I Don’t Like It - this is an emotional reaction to the change, and it is based on fear: People are afraid that this change will cause them to lose face, status, control – maybe even their jobs. (c) I Don’t Like You - So maybe they like you, but they don’t trust you – or don’t have confidence in your leadership.
- Identify networks and find out who the influencers are. Without sacrificing equity with other team members, use them to create trust and a healthy work environment.
- Get everyone involved early on in creating new strategies and initiatives. This will give them confidence and show that you trust them and their abilities to move forward.
- Reward appropriately and soon. Identify behaviors that are favorable to the change and show appreciation.
Bonus: Ask for feedback. You will be surprised how people are willing to help you and direct you towards better results if you allow them to.
You may have noticed that I mentioned trust multiple times. Trust is the key to creating a healthy work environment where psychological safety exists. Yes, your goal is to achieve your company’s strategic objectives, but you will not be able to achieve them without a fully functioning team.
With the rate at which the business world is evolving – thanks in large part to digitalization and globalization - the pace at which leaders are flipping isn’t likely to slow down any time soon. Given that, we must acknowledge the new world order and create future leaders that can keep up with the pace of change. The above is my recommendation for embracing the new leadership realities within companies. It’s worked well for me and for many executives and I’m confident it’s a great starting point for you too.