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Becoming an Effective Leader at a New Organization (Part 1)

Entering a new organization as a leader is a tricky proposition. This is true at any level of leadership, from team-lead, to department head to executive. There may be differences in scope and scale, but the first challenge is always the same: how does a new member of the organization find her or his place as an effective leader of the organization? I originally started this as a single post, but found that there is a lot to say on this subject, so I have broken it up into two pieces that I will post a few days apart.

First let’s settle on the some common ground with regard to leadership. I don’t want to empty out the worm can in this post, so let’s just agree that for the moment, leadership is the ability to effect change with the support (or at least willing participation) of the followers (i.e. that part of the organization that you lead). This would be in contrast to power, which would represent the imposition of change on unsupportive/unwilling followers, or management, which would represent the application of administrative change for which support and willingness are irrelevant.


When a new leader is brought into an organization from the outside, there is usually an expectation that the new leader will bring change at some level. Whether it is just within the leader’s span of care, or in ways the affect the whole organization, the assumption is that the role requires insights, expertise, styles, approaches and ideas that aren’t currently available within the organization, thus the need to bring in fresh insights, expertise, etc.

Now, to be fair, the assumption that new leadership from the outside is always an indication that the organization seeks fundamental change does not always originate with the organization itself, nor is it always a valid assumption. Sometimes organizations have leadership vacancies, and just don’t have qualified internal candidates, so they have to hire from outside, even though they are perfectly happy with the way things are going on the inside. However, this scenario is almost never sufficient to quash the assumption that change is necessary, because this assumption often comes from the new leader herself. There are good reasons for this, and again, that’s not today’s can of worms, but suffice it to say that a new leader from outside the organization will, by definition, bring insights, expertise and ideas from the outside, and the pull to implement change will be very, very strong.

The Mandate

The desire for change, whether explicit or implicit, valid or invalid, is present and powerful, and usually accompanied by a sense of mandate.

“The organization brought me in from the outside. They selected me over everyone else because they believe I am best able to identify and implement the kinds of changes that will make the organization better. They want me to make something happen, so I better get to it and prove that they made the right decision.” — New Leader

Like expectations, the mandate can be articulated explicitly by an organization, but more often is it either implied, or it is assumed by the incoming leader. If nothing else, the assumption of the mandate is a powerful self-justification for an incoming leader who may be anxious about how to prove his value to his new employer.

The Response

Followers (i.e. subordinates, colleagues, users, customers, etc. – essentially those that are impacted by the change that is effected by the new leader) have a fairly consistent response to changes implemented by new leaders. Resistance. Even in situations where the status quo is clearly not working, such as a failing business, or a struggling department, resistance is the most common response to change. And for those who want to effect change as leaders rather than managers or wielders-of-power, overcoming resistance is critical. And, of course, strategies, tactics, tips and tricks for overcoming resistance to change is a third can of worms that is much too large for this post. So I will stick to three critical steps that are necessary for new leaders to lay a foundation on which they can build their change management strategies at their new organization.

1. Ask us before you tell us

Let’s be honest. Leadership often involves telling people what (or what not) to do. And on its face, there really is nothing wrong with that. Leaders, even charismatic leaders who inspire action through ideas and influence, have to give their followers direction in practical ways all the time. This is a tricky situation for a new-to-the-organization leader because the risk of speaking from ignorance is high.

Here is an example. A local non-profit that I am familiar with recently brought on a new staff member to manage a team of volunteers that run a vital service that the organization offers to its constituents. The service, which involves caring for children while their parents are involved elsewhere, is a combination of high-tech and high-touch, and is highly security-conscious, due to the presence of children. The new manager came on board with a perceived mandate to improve both efficiency (speed of processing registration and check-in) and quality of service (making parents feel good at drop-off and kids feel good for the hour or so they are in-care). The first thing this new manager did on his first day on the job was to change established process on the fly, telling the volunteers at their registration stations to stop doing what they were doing and to do something else.

Regardless whether the changes this manager made were reasonable or effective, the ultimate result of his approach was not what he wanted. Most of the volunteers quit. The changes were irrelevant because the team was no longer there to carry them out. Some brief follow up with the former-volunteers quickly revealed that they were offended that the new manager made changes to processes without ever asking why those processes were in place. They were told to stop doing things without being asked why they were being done. The volunteers felt like they were treated as though they were doing it wrong, and were too stupid to see that they were doing it wrong, whether or not they were actually doing it wrong.

The point being that leaders who are new to an organization must start with asking, not with telling. This is a simple step that is all too often overlooked. A new leader that starts by asking “why do you do it that way?” accomplishes two things. First she opens up the door to vast amounts of information and history that creates context for the organization in which she aspires to lead. And second, she starts a relationship with her followers on a foundation of explicit value and respect for the individual, rather than a foundation that is dismissive of that individual’s value to the organization.

As a side note, there are two ways to ask “why do you do it that way?” You can say, sarcastically, “Why are you doing it that way (you idiot)?” Or you can say, sincerely, “I don’t have any history with how this process developed, can you help me understand why it’s done this way?” You should go out of your way to be sure your followers are hearing the second question, and not the first.

The Costs of Asking

So why don’t all new leaders do this? Ultimately, it is because there are costs associated with starting with questions rather than answers. The two most significant of these costs are time and credibility. A new leader that starts by asking his followers “why?” and not by telling his followers what to do extends the time it will take to deliver measurable results from change. This is pretty simple math. If I show up on my first day and tell a team member to stop delivering information to executives on paper reports and to start delivering that information via web-based dashboards, I can show progress toward a concrete deliverable right away, quickly justifying my hiring. On the other hand, if I spend a week asking questions about how information is distributed and why various methods have been used in the past, it is very difficult to show progress toward a concrete deliverable.

The payoff comes from the long-term value of the latter approach. With the former, I may get kudos for my quick work, bringing in a technology solution to a team that was stuck in a 20th century mindset, but those pats on the back disappear on the first Monday morning that paper reports go away, and I get a call from an old-school Executive VP that insists on getting his paper reports back. Had I asked my team why the company was still producing paper reports, I might have learned something that would have led to a better long-term solution.

The credibility cost is more subtle, and in some ways it can be harder for a leader in a new role to gather up the courage to absorb this cost personally. In this case, when one takes up the mantle of leadership in a new organization, there is some level of expectation that she brings something that the organization doesn’t already have. Typically a leader is hired for what she has to offer the organization, not so much the other way around. So what impression does it make for the new leader to spend her honeymoon period in her new role asking people how things work? To accept the short-term credibility hit in favor of the longer-term effectiveness boost, a leader has to have a degree of self-assurance to carry her through the early days, but rest assured, the investment has very real payoffs.

While the specifics of any individual situation obviously depend on lots of different variables, by and large, teams are more accepting of new leaders that start their time with expressions of respect and value for their team members. Team members are more invested in the success of these kinds of leaders, and leaders are more prepared to lead those teams to success when they are armed with the information and contextual understanding that comes from asking these kinds of questions.

Image credit: “Vatel Thailand Business School” by International School of Hospitality and Tourism Management

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