Becoming a leader is a major job change. That doesn't mean you should change who you are. Plenty of new leaders force themselves to undergo an instant transformation from "one of the gang" to commander in chief. That's a mistake, warns Ascher. "Don't try to become some kind of 'presidential' persona," he says. "People want you to be yourself. You have to lighten up. You have to get to know people on a personal level, make the job enjoyable. You shouldn't change who you are."
That's not always as easy as it sounds. Nancy Toro's team wasn't happy when she took her new job at PictureTel. The group had worked together for six months. They were comfortable with the way her predecessor had run the team, and upset that she'd been replaced. The former leader had been relentlessly interactive, deeply involved in the day-to-day work. That's not who Toro was. She focused on the big picture. Her predecessor had been vocal, argumentative. Toro considered herself shy.
"People really liked her, and they didn't know me," Toro remembers. "So I had to establish my own way of doing things. It wasn't explicit. I let people see how I worked, showed them that I was capable by the example I set." She set her sights on two big-picture issues that her predecessor had ignored — smoothing over a troubled relationship with a key supplier and stretching the team's vision of the potential features of their new product — and let the team attend to the engineering details.
Toro had one clear goal — "to get the product out," she says. By bringing a different style to the process — her style, the style she was chosen for — she was able to lead her team past the roadblocks that had blocked their progress.
That's not to suggest leaders shouldn't evolve their styles. Shortly after Ascher took over Quicken, one of his team members arrived at their first one-on-one meeting with a prepared agenda. She had generated a two-page list of the strengths and weaknesses of her previous managers, and offered suggestions about the kind of leader Ascher should become.
He took the advice in stride. "I saw some things I could definitely take away," Ascher says. "I understood what I had to do to make her experience enjoyable and to be useful as her manager." But there were limits to how much he would change. "Just because acting silly and goofy with her worked for one manager doesn't mean it would work for me. It's not who I am."
A version of this article appeared in the June/July 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.