Thought Leadership

Three Key Things for New Leaders to Do

A Checklist of Essential Items for Stepping Into a Leadership Position

By Karen Cates, PhD

If stepping into a new leadership role has you feeling a little nervous, multiply by ten to estimate the apprehension rippling through your new team. While you may be wondering whether you are up for the challenge, the people anticipating your arrival are wondering, “What’s going to happen to me?”

As you manage first impressions, existential anxiety can be paralyzing to the workforce. So to look like you know what you are doing and to maintain morale and performance as you settle into the big chair, here are three things you should consider doing right away when you get to your new office.

  1. Have a plan: This sounds mundane, but many leaders assume they will assess what is going on in the new office when they get there and then figure out what they need to do after completing their due diligence. This is half right — the second half. Before starting an assessment, leaders must create a tangible plan to collect and analyze the information they seek. What do you need to know? How will you uncover this information? To whom will you speak? What do you plan to talk about? How long do you anticipate this will take? Having a plan provides a framework for making decisions as you navigate those first days and weeks.
  2. Share the plan: You need to communicate the plan to your new team as soon as possible. Remember, you are not sharing proposed changes or other content. It’s too early for that. But you do want to reveal the process you will follow to collect information. Will you be talking to everyone in the office or just key players? Can people come to you to share information? What is the best way for them to get on your calendar? In short, you need to establish the rules of engagement out of the gate so people understand how the flow of communication is going to work and how much time you are going to spend seeking input. By managing their expectations, you manage their fear.
  3. Follow your plan: Talk to the people; ask the questions; take the time you planned to take. For some of your people, this will be the first they will see of your leadership. They will be judging you while you assess them. Don’t deviate if it will call the process or your intentions into question. Why are you talking to Jane before you talk to her supervisor? Be sure to walk your talk, and build positive attributions for your actions. Honor the hierarchy. Be easy on the people and tough on the problems.
Too often, leaders approach a new role as something they will figure out for themselves. But sitting in your office making notes to yourself won’t net you the same early leadership capital as having a plan, sharing the plan and following your plan. The specifics of the plan are less important than following these three steps, assuming you are sincerely seeking information to understand and diagnose the people and the work. By proactively managing your entrée into a new leadership position, you begin building trust. You provide your new team with a roadmap for what might otherwise be a bumpy ride. And you channel the anxiety of transition into productive dialogue that sets the tone for the future.

Karen Cates has been teaching at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University since 1994. For nine years, she taught Negotiations, Human Resource Management, and Organization Behavior courses to MBA and Executive MBA students. As a lecturer in executive programs over the past 15 years, she has developed programming and consulted with client companies (domestic and global) around issues of organization alignment, leadership development, communication, strategic planning, and employee relations. She is currently an Academic Director in Kellogg Executive Education's Energizing People for Performance program.

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