That first big promotion. What a rush! I held the keys, I made decisions, I made the schedule, I was in charge. Nothing beats the smug satisfaction of a career that’s on track. Add to that the bigger paycheck and the confidence that came from being called “boss,” and I felt like I was on top of the world. After all, I was in charge, right?
Well, not exactly. One thing I discovered once I was “the boss” was that mine weren’t the only hands on the steering wheel of my career. The fact was, my success (or lack thereof) was largely controlled by those I managed. Scary.
Don’t get me wrong, I DID have a say in my success, and my peers played a role in it as well, but at the end of the day, that old saying “Promotion is a push-up not a pull-up process” meant that my future was in the collective hands of those who worked for me. I realized early on that, for me as a newly promoted manager (and also for experienced managers on a new assignment) it was important, very early on, for me to get my leadership skills in line. It wasn’t something that I could put aside for a later date, after I had settled in, or figured out where my favorite parking space would be. No, the leadership clock started ticking immediately – hour one, day one.
Here, then, are the leadership secrets that I quickly learned that placed my career success firmly back under my control:
1. I had to know what I was talking about.
In the beginning, if you don’t know something, it’s better to keep quiet and appear foolish than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. You must be careful to know and understand the basic operational issues with your new role as well as various company policies and avoid any knee-jerk decisions – or worse, dithering uncertainty – so as to NOT diminish your credibility. It might take weeks, even months, to recover.
Assuming your skills and expertise are sound, (you DID get the job, after all.), your staff will still wonder, particularly during the critical early days, whether they could do a better job than you. It gets worse if one of them was passed over for the promotion YOU got. An understanding of your company’s policies in personnel matters, operations, workplace safety, and other job-specific duties is crucial, both to your staff’s perceptions and your confidence, so learn as much as possible, as early as possible (preferably before you arrive on the job).
As a new manager, my level of maturity and willingness to learn sent a clear message that I fully understood where I was on this new learning curve. Becoming the boss wasn’t as easy as it appeared, but I was, and I was going to make it work.
2. Make a good first impression.
If at all possible, I recommend having a meeting with ALL your staff to give them an glimpse into who you are, what you stand for, some brief details of your background, and one or two cornerstones of your leadership style such as your open door policy or your team approach. You could refer to a long standing problem on which you will be “seeking their assistance” to resolve. Use lots of “we” and “us” rather than “I” and “you”. Keep in mind, too, that displays of authority are out of place here. Sure, remain businesslike, demonstrate a firm grasp of the big picture, and speak confidently (despite the butterflies!). But the value of projecting a friendly image, will get you some significant mileage.
Remember, they’re already checking you out, forming their opinions, and in some cases, deciding whether or not to give you a fair shot. Smile, acknowledge their contribution to the company, and if appropriate, mention other supervisors and key people (by name) that you’ll be consulting with.
Leave with the promise that you will be out and about over the next few days and weeks to talk with each of them, to become fully acquainted with the role they perform, and to get a close up view of day-to-day operations. This is a promise you must keep.
3. Define your leadership style.
How you conduct yourself on day one is vital, but if all that open friendliness you mentioned was an act, you must keep at it until it becomes a part of who you are! Also, be aware of the image you project in how you dress and how you conduct yourself. Don’t parade your authority, but acknowledge that you understand your position and responsibilities.
Avoid the tendency to be one of the boys or girls. Managers promoted from within can find this difficult to overcome, but in career terms, it’s a dangerous approach. Remember to be “fair, firm and friendly, but not familiar.” But don’t wear your new management status like a medal. On the contrary, quality of leadership depends on your actions, not where you park your car, or if you have a corner office. You might seek opportunities to play down any symbols of position. If, for example, your staff’s working day commences at 7am, arrive at the same time regardless of management norms. And if there is some necessary weekend overtime, show up and demonstrate your willingness to be there if needed.
In my current role, I make sure my staff sees that I’m willing to help unload a truck, speak with a customer, help with a display, or load a customer’s truck. When they see me do these things, I can tell they’re surprised, and that they are energized. “Hey, he really DOES understand what we do.”
4. Hone your interpersonal skills.
Insure that the chain of command is respected. Those people earned their positions and you shouldn’t be going around them unnecessarily. But it an urgent situation demands a direct approach to an employee to carry out a particular task, let the supervisor know about it, and why, as soon as possible. Supervisors appreciate being kept informed and the appreciate your recognition of their standing.
It boils down to treating people with dignity. Respect their efforts, their experience, and their right to “have a say”. At meetings, publicly recognize (by name) worthwhile ideas or outstanding work.
Learn every subordinates name and a little about them. By getting to know your subordinates by name and learning something of their non-working lives, you demonstrate your humanity. Show interest, smile a lot. They too, are human, with strengths, weaknesses, dreams and fears. Treat them accordingly.
5. Go TEAM!
Let’s face the facts: Floor employees have a better grasp of operational details better than management. It is foolish to ignore this wealth of expertise and experience, yet so many managers do. Every one of your people from the janitors to the cashiers to the smallest project managers, even new employees, can add value to the decision-making process. When you involve them, it serves to demonstrate that their input is valued.
But if your ultimate decision runs counter to their ideas, take the time to explain it. If you don’t, you may not get too many ideas or suggestions from them in the future.
Remember that successes belong to them and failures belong to you. Demonstrate that you accept the
buck stops with you. At the same time make it clear that, with their support, “we” will get it right next time.
In a subtle way you are gaining their trust, and trust is the glue that holds a team together. In return, you must trust them, their skills and abilities. You must trust that they will get on with the job without you constantly looking over their shoulder. Is there anything worse than being micromanaged? You don’t like it when it’s done to you, so don’t do it to your staff.
6. Blitz those problems.
What keeps many people from assuming management ranks is the unwillingness to face those inevitable problems. How many times have I heard, “I wouldn’t HAVE your job.” People usually want the money, but not the responsibility of facing and overcoming problems because it usually involves some sort of confrontation. Most people avoid confrontation.
But every little win, especially in the early days of your new management career, makes the task of managing incrementally easier. Be alert for everyday gripes and look closely at issues like staff amenities, safety, and housekeeping. Any high profile win in these area in your early days not only boosts your confidence, it shows your people that you’re a doer not a watcher, looking out for them.
When the inevitable poor-performance situation arises, step back for a moment and consider that the real problem probably lurks somewhere between interpersonal relationships, lack of training, or off-the-job personal issues. The task before you is to quickly uncover which it is, then act accordingly.
7. Look out world, here we come.
Keep an eye on your collective futures by keeping the team moving in the direction of your group’s goals. Don’t allow comfort zones to dilute your efforts, or responsibility apprehension to hold you back. It’s natural to drift toward areas where you feel most comfortable, perhaps spending too much time in the office, or over-managing secondary functions you enjoyed on previous jobs. Stay alert because comfort zones are, at best, a form of laziness and, at worst, a manifestation of fear.
Pushing comfort-zone barriers applies equally to your staff. Growing people are productive people, so look for development opportunities in training, exposure to new operations, or wider responsibilities. If appropriate, arrange for them to visit other departments, vendors, or customers. Expand their horizons, show them how they fit with the mission and emphasize their value to the organization. You should soon be grooming your eventual replacement.
Finally, there’s one invaluable trait guaranteed to leverage success: loyalty. Always verbalize support, upward to your boss, sideways to your peers, and most importantly, downward to your staff. Never be afraid to stand up for those who, directly or indirectly, can enhance your career.
On the other hand, the time may come when you have to back a senior management decision that is difficult to accept. Express concern – with reasons – but only in private to your boss. If the decision still stands, get behind it and move on.
In communicating difficult decisions to your staff, you must not only articulate reasons behind the move, but also accentuate the positives. Never voice doubts and negative opinions to subordinates.
There you have it. With a sound mix of honesty, courage and human respect you can meet the challenges of your new management role. More to the point, you can create the sort of leadership environment within your new workplace that, ultimately, puts career control back in your hands.