New leadership role? Focus first on learning, not doing

One of my favorite books—and the one I reference most often when talking to new leaders or leaders in transition—is The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins. More specifically, early in someone’s transition—and preferably before they actually start in the role—I point them to the chapter on Accelerating Learning. It describes the most critical information—aside from your own self-awareness of your strengths and weaknesses—when taking any new leadership role: context about the organization and the situation you are walking into. The blind spots you will have without this information will inevitably cause you to fail.

Watch out for these issues that can block your learning when transitioning to a new role:

1. Information overload

2. Lack of skill (or interest) in diagnosing the organization

3. Failure to understand the history of the organization

4. Feeling like you must take some action immediately

5. Arriving in the new role with solutions already decided

To prevent these issues, create a time-bound (30, 60, 90 days) learning plan that balances your focus on business, technical, people, culture and politics. This will help you determine where to focus your learning efforts and sift through the noise of information coming your way. Determine what you need to know about the organization’s past and how they got to where they are today; the organization’s present, its vision and strategy and who the key players are; and the organization’s future challenges and opportunities.

Before you start the job, craft the critical questions you already know you want to ask. This will help you begin your learning—not necessarily your action—early on in your tenure. You obviously have some advantage if you are an internal hire, as you will have some knowledge of the organization, the product, and the players. However, even an external hire can begin to craft basic questions before their first day on the job. If you were observant and crafted some thoughtful questions for the interview process, you should already have some ideas on where you will need to dig in most.

Once you start, you must be careful to identify the right people to provide you answers to your questions. Early on, get help in building a coalition of trusted advisors who will support you, and help you move through your learning plan. As you learn, you will find you are adding questions and adjusting your plan. In gathering information, be sure to balance between what you can read in documents like financial reports and culture surveys and what you can glean from conversations with direct reports, your manager, your peer group, your HR business partner, and others inside and external to the organization. Get a variety of views so you are not too swayed by the loudest opinion. Touring the plant or work area will give you some insight into the culture.

An important consideration is how you will approach your first meetings with direct reports. To make sure you take the right approach with direct reports, seek insight into their background, strength and weaknesses, as well as the history of leaders in your new role—do you have big shoes to fill or are they unimpressed with leaders? Have there been a series of people who have failed before you? What was the personality and approach of your predecessor? Like it or not, those who came before you set the tone of the team and/or organization, and it is part of your job to determine what is working and what isn’t (after thoughtful consideration).

Most importantly, get to know yourself. You may need to take a hard look at the skills, competencies and strengths that have led you to success thus far and be honest about what you might need to do differently in your new job. A focus on continuously learning about and making adjustments to the organization and yourself will most surely help you succeed in any role.

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