Think back to your first day at work. What didn’t you know then that you know now? If you’re like most employees, you probably had a lot to learn: standard processes, specific expectations, cultural norms. Do staff communicate internally with email or Slack? Can you stop by your boss’s office unannounced or should you schedule a meeting? Is there a sense of trust and shared vision among your colleagues? And what the heck is the ERNIE Report?
Every job transition is a challenge, and none should be underestimated. But perhaps no transition presents a bigger challenge than that of an executive, whether first-time or veteran. As a leader joining an existing team, your approach must be strategic and intentional. We’ve all heard the adage about failing to plan (read: planning to fail). This maxim has exponential impact once you reach the C-suite: it’s not just your own success at stake, but that of your team and your organization if you can’t transition quickly and effectively.
Compounding the issue is the inherent stress of starting a new job – a challenge new team members are dealing with before they ever walk through the door. One report from recruiting company Hired found that looking for a new job is perceived to be one of the most stressful life activities (right after death of a loved one and filing for divorce). It ranked higher than moving, planning a wedding, and even getting a root canal. Plus, a new job can have indirect impacts that also add stress, be it moving across the country, finding an in-network doctor with new insurance, or trying to untangle 401(k)-rollover paperwork.
As I’ve transitioned into CUInsight as the Publisher & CEO, I’ve learned a lot about how to succeed in a new executive role, both through research (my go-to resource is the HBR book, The First 90 Days) and hands-on experience. Keep reading for four things every new executive should consider when transitioning:
1. Adjust your leadership style.
It’s a mistake to assume that what got you here will get you any further – including your leadership style. My natural style of leadership is highly collaborative. I’ve found it to have huge payoffs with knowledgeable and highly engaged teams. I’m always asking, “What do you think?” and giving the team room to provide feedback.
However, I’ve also found the collaborative style to have challenges when leading inexperienced staff or disengaged or demoralized teams. Those employees may need a leader with a stronger authoritarian bent, or at the minimum, one who can pivot to inspire and motivate. On the other hand, a strongly authoritarian leader inheriting an engaged and creative team may need to shift to a more collaborative style of leadership lest she unwittingly deflate them and overlook key feedback. In my case, I couldn’t simply assume my new team was like the old one; the new situation required intentional assessment to determine the best leadership style.
Every new executive will find herself in situations that require quick assessments and subsequent adjustments of leadership style to be effective. Delegating a decision about the right marketing campaign for a niche audience might work with a tenured employee – but could be a mistake with an inexperienced college grad. Be sure to leave old leadership habits at the door, evaluating and adapting to your new work environment as needed.
2. Challenge your assumptions.
No matter how much research you do, it’s easy to walk into a new job with preconceived notions about your new organization, boss(es), team, and market. It feels good to be up to speed and ready to rock, but all new employees, and especially executives, must take care not to stop actively learning too soon.
One of the best ways to do this, identified in The First 90 Days, is to “clarify expectations early and often” with your boss (whether that’s the CEO, or the board, or someone else) and with the people in your organization. Continue to ask questions and seek clarity beyond the time you begin to feel comfortable. I have a bias toward taking action, as many do, so for me it can be a challenge to postpone the temptation to make immediate decisions. Taking the time to continue learning has been critical to ensure I’m setting realistic goals and expectations. Rather than being pressured to make a quick decision on projected revenue growth for example, one new leader may choose to take extra time and ask the right questions. In doing so, he may realize that there are seasonal cash flow patterns at play or new changes to the customer base which should result in a more conservative number.
Overselling hurts credibility – but overdelivering helps build trust. Balance your need to take action with a continuous learning mindset. Challenging your own assumptions beyond your first few weeks on the job is crucial to future success.
3. Early wins are critical.
As a leader joining a new team, you’re not the only one experiencing stress – your people are too. While you are building a relationship with your new boss, you’ve also got direct reports and lateral colleagues to consider. For your new team, reporting to a new boss can stir up their own anxiety about job security, both individually and organizationally.
To earn trust and motivate your team, as well as to build a productive working relationship with your own boss(es), identifying early wins and celebrating them is critical. It can give you the momentum you need to tackle more difficult projects and navigate interpersonal dynamics later.
Early wins need not be huge career-making accomplishments. Look for low-hanging fruit. One of the first decisions I made on the job was to reallocate the workload of key personnel so that they had more time to focus on mission-critical goals without feeling burnt out. Look for “a longstanding employee frustration or an outdated work process… [or perhaps] a project that you can easily fund or prioritize,” one HBR article suggests.
Celebrating a win early on in your role is an important signal to those around you of your insight and efficacy – and people will take notice.
4. Champion your values.
Beyond simply achieving business goals and outcomes, every leader has a unique opportunity to decide how and for what she wants to be known. With every executive role comes a platform, whether sought intentionally or not. People within and outside the organization watch those in leadership more closely: their words, their actions, their priorities.
Identifying personal and professional values should begin well before one’s first leadership role. When serving in an executive capacity, however, those values become even more critical. Personally, I’m committed to supporting women and minorities in career development and leadership. When I have the opportunity, diversity has and always will be a value that I seek to support; it’s a filter through which I define success in addition to organizational goals.
Be intentional about recognizing and establishing your values. As an executive you have the chance to make exponential impact through leadership of others in the values you champion. Use that platform wisely, and treat it as the gift it is.
What have you learned in your time transitioning into an executive role? I’d love to hear from you – find me on Twitter at @LaurenCUInsight!