Getting Started On The Right Foot

Q. I'VE JUST BEEN ASKED TO TAKE OVER A DEPARTMENT IN A DIFFERENT PART OF THE COMPANY I KNOW LITTLE ABOUT. All my experience up to now is in very different areas, but my boss thinks I learn quickly and will bring some needed skills.

I'm concerned about getting started on the right foot with everyone -- and not coming across as a know-it-all sent there to straighten out a mess. Can you give me any guidance for what to do the first day when I hold a team meeting to get them talking openly and create an atmosphere of working together?

A. Sooner or later, every leader has to step into areas they don't know a lot about and take charge, I told the class. In those cases, you have to try to connect with the people there, get them engaged, and get the right things moving forward. So this is a question that probably applies to each of us in this class.

Before I gave my answer to the question however, I asked the class for ideas and suggestions on what they might do. Lots of hands went up since many were already seasoned managers. Suggestions included: learning all you can about the department in advance -- including what they do, the people there, and performance data; trying to identify some potential allies and influencers and win them over; getting there early to walk around and introduce yourself and learning as many names and faces as possible; and so on. All good ideas.

Then it was my turn. I gave my answer in four parts.

1. First, as was suggested, starting immediately do all the homework you can. But in addition, try to get a feel for the temperament of the group. Are they a tough, hardened group that needs a strong approach, or a group that is reasonable, or frustrated or feels abandoned or threatened? Ask for insight and advice from those who know the department and the key players. And then match your approach accordingly. Neither coming across too hard or too soft will get you the results you want.

2. Second, your success is ultimately going to be determined by whether you gain their trust and respect -- and that takes time -- but starts the first day. So in that first meeting, keep the conversation mainly on them. Perhaps start off with just a brief overview of what you've learned and worked on in other parts of the company (focused on skills, not bragging about accomplishments)and why you think you were asked to work with this team (particularly experience that might be useful to them).

3. Third, having a good plan is critical -- both to get better results and to give you confidence. In this case, build your plan around asking them questions -- especially questions that show you are serious about helping them to be successful. Here are three non-threatening examples to consider. Revise them to fit your situation of course. And if possible, make notes on a whiteboard or flip chart as you go. Writing down what people say for all to see helps people to feel heard and that they have contributed.

a. What do you all do very well here as a team? What are you all really good at? What doesn't need a lot of work? What are the things I probably don't need to worry much about? What's working well? (Have some positive items in your back pocket if needed to show you've done your homework and recognize their strengths).

b. What do we need to work on and improve as a team? What would make our department better and more effective? What are the things that I might be able to do that would help our performance? What's not working well right now?

c. How can I help you? What can I do to support you? What might I be able to get for you that would help? What should we do to make ourselves into a very successful part of the company -- because isn't that what we all want?

4. Last, close the circle with them inside. Invite them to copy down what was suggested or take pictures with their smartphone. Tell them that every department you've ever been part of has things that are working and things that aren't working so well at any given time. But that what you've learned is the importance of working on both parts -- to make the working parts even stronger over time and to fix the not-working parts as quickly as possible.

And remind them that no matter how good we get to be, there will always be parts that need work.

Very important -- notice the change in language. It's no longer I or me versus you and the department. In the course of the meeting, it's now us and we and our performance and our success. And then -- what can I do to help all of us -- precisely what you want them to be thinking about. Subtle points, but some will notice.

Hopefully, this will give you a few ideas to adapt to your situation next time you are called to lead a new group.



UPFRONT posts are drawn from talks and MBA and Executive Education course Carl teaches or participates in at Drexel's LeBow College of Business. This particular class was composed of younger executives.