Monday, November 28, 2016
By James Sartain
Categories: Communications, Leadership

Recently, I have had the opportunity to coach a young leader in his first few weeks in leadership.  “Troy” has had a successful six year track record  as an individual contributor on an IT team of a large technology company.  He is now responsible for leading another IT team in the department and this promotion represents the first time that Troy has directed the work of others.  With former colleagues and co-workers now reporting directly to him, Troy is, understandably,  a bit anxious about the transition.

Our early conversations started with those questions that many of us had when moving into our first leadership position:

“What if they don’t accept me as the leader?”

What if I can’t be as successful as a project team manager as I was as a project team member?”

“What if I don’t know enough about leadership to do a good job?”

“What if I fail?”

These questions are understandable–even among the most confident new leaders.  By developing a few simple skills during the first 90 days in the job, Troy was able to silence most of the fears that came with his new role and to begin to lay the foundation to effectively lead his new team.   Here are three skills that Troy implemented and developed in his first quarter.  Consider how these steps could work for you when faced with your first leadership position or, for tenured leaders, when given the opportunity to serve an new organization or lead a new team.

  1. Connect first–Challenge later. Troy understood that a big part of his success would be based on his ability to manage relationships.  He decided to have a series of one-on-one conversations to personally get to know each member of his team.  He asked questions about each members’ interests and hobbies, what they would like to work on if they had freedom to pick any project, what they needed from a team leader, what they needed from a team member,  what they thought were their key team contributions, and what they could do more of, less of, or differently to achieve even better results. Troy was surprised at the level of candor demonstrated in these conversations.  He learned that “Barb” did not enjoy working with one of the company department heads given his gruff manner and inappropriate interactions. He learned that “Dale” didn’t think that his expertise with servers was being effectively tapped.  He also learned that each team member, without exception, wanted more communication from management about how their roles fit into the larger company mission.  Troy used this feedback to craft some of his early meeting agenda items  and to begin thinking about ways to maximize the strengths on his team.  Outcome:  Troy was able to match job assignments with interests and abilities; demonstrating to his team that what they believed mattered to him–so much so that he tailored some job responsibilities to their individual talents and preferences. ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… 
  2. Questions–Not answers or Comparisons.  Because Troy was a successful team member in the same department, he already knew the optimal solutions to some of the problems facing his new team.  After all, his former team had become known for their innovative problem-solving.  This was one of the reasons he was tapped to lead this new team.  However, Troy understood that he would not be as successful in influencing his new team if he came in with all the answers.  He remembered a new department executive who was recruited from one of the company’s largest competitors.  This new executive started every conversation with how he or his company “used to do it” and sharing solutions and stories that were grounded in his former culture.  Unfortunately, these solutions did not translate well to the new company and were off-putting to the new company who believed that they did things equally well, if not better, than the company that the new executive came from.  The executive quickly developed a reputation of being tone deaf.  Troy knew that this was not the leader he wanted to be so he set out to come in with questions designed to pull the best thinking out of the team.  For every meeting, he generated a list of ten questions. Some of the questions were designed to pull out different perspectives, to challenge the status quo and to  inspire innovative thinking.  Some questions were simply to provide the team with the opportunity to brag about their accomplishments and successes. And yet other questions were designed to influence the development of a positive team culture.  Troy consciously monitored his question-to-answer ratio so that 80% of his contributions in his team meetings were in the form of a question and not declarative statements and answers.  Outcome: The team learned quickly that Troy wanted to listen to their ideas, that he wasn’t bound by an old way, and that he didn’t have all the answers.  They also began to see that Troy was accessible, open to influence, and level-headed.  These are critical elements of a leader’s first impression. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… 
  3. Invite and Implement Feedback. Troy was deliberate in his approach to establish himself as someone completely different from the previous team leader, particularly around openness to feedback from his team.  The former team leader was notorious for not wanting to hear negative feedback.  He would shut down any dissension that could lead to a discussion about his own limitations.  As a result, conflict was rarely, if ever addressed, and tough truths were not easily or effectively processed by the team.  Troy knew that the success of the team was predicated on the ability to have candid, difficult talks–even if those talks led to his own shortcomings.  He was up for the challenge.    I helped him to implement the feedback process we use in our Connected Communications workshops.  These steps, known as the four “I’s” helped him to establish a reputation early on that he was open to hearing what others needed to share.

First, he learned how to invite the feedback.  He was sincere in his one-on-one and team sessions that he wanted to hear whatever feedback the team felt he needed to hear.  He invited them to share and was sincere in his desire to hear the information from the perspective of how it could help him and the team.  He promised the team that if they would be willing to share the feedback, he would be open to fully listening.

Second, he insulated the team from any negative consequences of the feedback.  The previous team member was known to be punitive when he felt personally attacked and for many of the team members Troy inherited, this presented an almost insurmountable resistance that some team members had for sharing with him.  Troy worked overtime to quell the concerns of the team and to promise them that there would be no reprisals or negative consequences for sharing feedback with him.  He would do his best to honor their willingness to speak up and would never punish them for sharing their opinions and perspectives.  He shared that he may not always agree, but that he would protect the messenger at all times.

Third, he agreed to integrate the feedback into his own thinking.  This was a critical consideration for Troy.  He wanted to make sure that he took time to reflect on whatever feedback was shared an to think deeply about what he needed to change in his own style and approach that might have been revealed from the comments of others.  In the coaching, I emphasized that integration of the feedback into his own self-construct as a leader was the ultimate goal for most feedback–to create sustainable change by focusing on who he was as a leader and how he could be an even better leader by reflecting on the feedback at the deepest level.

Finally, Troy was coached to implement all or parts of the feedback whenever it was feasible or appropriate to do so.  In some cases, Troy didn’t agree with all of the content shared by a team member but he found that there was always an element that he could act on.  And he did.  Other times, the feedback was so spot on that Troy implemented the whole of the suggestions or recommendations without modification. He also affirmed his desire to act on any feedback that would lead himself or the team to more effective outcomes.

Outcome:  Troy began to receive timely feedback about himself and the team and was able to more quickly remove barriers to team performance and set the team up for greater success.

As part of Troy’s 90-day probationary period this past month, he asked that HR create a survey to ask his team members to share their observations of Troy’s strengths, opportunities for growth, and overall effectiveness as a team leader.  This was a unique approach for the department that had not previously used a 360 degree evaluation system but completely in line with the way Troy had chosen to set himself up as the team leader.  His team feedback was exceptional as were his supervisor’s observations of his performance.  Troy made the first 90 days count and is well on his way to leading the next “super star” team in his company. Whether in your first leadership role or a tenured leader wanting to reposition him or herself with a new or existing team, think about how you can implement these behaviors in your daily routine to expand the capacity of your team.


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