When I was in high school, I was in a two-year advanced US History course. It was taught by an amazing instructor, Dr. Karen Hoppes. Each year, we were expected to write a 15+ page research paper. Writing a paper that long was a daunting task, especially for a kid in high school!
To help us learn how to write a large research paper, Dr. Hoppes did something very unique. She informed us that we could turn in our paper as many times as we wanted to. Each time she would grade it and provide written feedback in which we could then update the paper and turn it in again, hoping for a higher grade. The last version of the paper we turned in became our official grade for the assignment.
If you were lucky during the first turn in, you would get an F (Dr. Hoppes wasn’t easy to please). However, it was not uncommon for many of us to receive a NG at the top of the first page. NG was short for No Grade, which meant the paper was not even good enough to be an F! The second turn in usually resulted in a D or maybe a C-. The fourth or fifth turn-in usually got closer to a B or an A grade.
This powerful method of teaching kept me in a constant state of learning. It was not the traditional process of writing a paper, turning it in, and forgetting about it. Instead it was write, learn, re-write, and REPEAT, learn, and so on until I understood and practiced the process of writing and achieved the desired outcome.
This unique writing process has an important lesson for leaders. The finest leaders remain in a constant state of learning. They recognize that they may not always deliver an A performance every time. In fact, sometimes they might have a NG idea or make a NG decision. However, how they listen to feedback and learn is critical for them to continually improve and do better.
Just like writing many drafts of the paper, as leaders practice the art of leadership, they can shift from away from D and C work and more regularly perform at a B and A level!
There are few times when learning is more critical than in the early days of a new leadership assignment. The first 90 days is also a risky time because 40% of management hires fail within their first 18 months according to a CLL and Manchester Partners International survey.
Whether it is a new promotion in the same organization or a new position in a new one, approaching your first 90 days in a leadership role in the right way can be critical for you, your team, and your organization.
Below are the 10 behaviors you need to do to make your first 3 months a success. These proven approaches will help you avoid the NG decisions that can tarnish your emerging credibility, especially in a new cultural environment.
Implement these 10 behaviors and keep a learning mindset so your decisions and actions can eventually earn you an A in your new leadership role!
Know Your Boss: Understand the pressures and expectations of your boss. You want to make him or her be successful. Learn their style in processing information, in making decisions, and in managing others. Identify what motivates them, how they like to communicate, what annoys them, and their typical availability is. Be exceptionally clear on what their top 3-5 goals and objectives are for you and focus your time on these goals. Use this information about your boss to help create your own, aligned voice as you support the goals of the organization.
Create Clear Strategic Priorities: Get to know how the organization makes its money and what it is proud of in the marketplace. As you learn about the organization and what your boss feels is important, craft your own aligned priorities to share with your team(s). Frequently communicate and recommunicate these priorities with your team using language that resonates with them. Help them translate it into day-to-day application. Adjust your own schedule so that how you spend your time matches your stated priorities. Avoid distractions and leverage the strengths of your team to achieve these priorities.
Appreciate the Culture: Other than not getting along with one’s boss, a lack of cultural understanding is often the biggest reason for a new leader to fail in a new role. Organizational culture is defined by a set of often unwritten rules that helps people know what to do and how to be successful. These rules tell people what to expect so they aren’t figuring out anew how to work together again every day. Disrupting these rules, even if it is helpful in the long-term, can create potentially deep and unintended performance impairing issues. These patterns of behaviors (how meetings are run, who makes decisions, how process is created and followed, what information is shared and when) are critical to understand and honor. Appreciate the culture first and then you will be in a better position to reshape it.
Build Key Relationships Early: Ask your boss, “Who is critical that I get to know?” Set up one-on-one meetings and lunch meetings to get know these people personally and professionally. Too often we may solely focus on getting to know those with hierarchical authority, but also consider and get to know the opinion and thoughts leaders in the organization. Identify those who others look to for guidance and spend time getting to know them and they getting to know you.
Listen Before You Speak: Too often a new leader comes in with the attitude that everything in their department is wrong and they are going to fix it all. Even if things are messed up, you still need to shut up and listen to understand why things are the way they are. Resist loudly critiquing and offering your opinion and instead ask probing, neutral questions, listen and allow others to do more of the talking. Allow time to form your opinions and respect the work that people have been doing.
Don’t Talk About Your Past Organization: No one likes it when the new person says, “Well, at my previous company, I was named the top salesperson and we really understood the customer!” Comments like this create instant barriers instead of bridges. People can see your accomplishments on your LinkedIn page or resume, they need to hear it from you. Resist the need to highlight your achievements or how your previous organization was better in some way. Live in the present and apply general learnings from your past to help build a better future in your current organization, while resisting the temptation of frequently referencing your past.
Do What You Say: If you promise someone something, then make sure you 100% deliver! Be very clear what you say you will do and by when. Others may have high hopes or fears for a new leader and may misinterpret your behaviors and expected future results. Clarify these expectations at the end of conversations so others don’t accidentally aggrandize your positive or negative impact, making it harder to build strong credibility.
Acknowledge Trade-offs with Home Life: Starting a new leadership role will likely involve a lot more hours as you get familiar with a new culture, a new boss, a new team, and a new way of doing business. Putting in the extra time either at the office or on the road is often critical to getting up-to-speed. Have realistic conversations with your family and friends about your availability during these first several months because you may need to put more time into your new role than you anticipate.
Do Your Whole Job, Not Just Your Favorite Parts: We all have certain problems and issues that we prefer to tackle and solve in our job. Perhaps you like coaching employees through a new project or having career development conversations. Or maybe you prefer creating elaborate spreadsheets and focusing on the technical aspects of the job. Identify all the parts of your job and make sure you are not overemphasizing just the aspects that you like. A leader needs to deliver business and people results—not one or the other. Prioritize job responsibilities in terms of importance, not preference.
Waiting Too Long to Make an Impact: Sometimes a new leader may want to observe for 3 months and then start contributing in significant ways. However, that is waiting too long to establish yourself and demonstrating your current and potential value. Identify small contributions, even each week, to reassure others they made a good choice in hiring you. Find small, often less controversial, decisions and actions to accomplish to show your value. Give others a glimpse into the impact you can make by letting them see early, small wins.
Successful leaders who are new in a position keep themselves open to learn and to receive feedback from others. Understanding the context and culture first, aligning with the priorities of your boss and the organization, and showing your value early on in small wins will enable your own ideas and future contributions the greatest opportunity for success.
Just like Dr. Hoppes’ approach to writing a paper, leaders starting in a new role need to maintain a learning mindset, listening to feedback, and practicing the art of leadership. Following these 10 behaviors will help prevent a NG decision or action—and help you deliver A level work as you rise to your leadership potential in your new position.
For the time-starved leader.
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