We’ve all seen it happen. A company hires new leaders who were really successful someplace else but can’t seem to replicate their successes in their new environment. We conclude that they weren’t such good leaders after all. Maybe they inherited a successful project or the right people in their past jobs. Maybe they don’t have the skills to adapt to a new culture.
But the problem is often something different. My own research on cases like these suggests it’s not that the new supervisors or managers were poor leaders or bad cultural fits. They were simply uncomfortable at being proactive, confident newcomers.
The truth is, what new leaders do during their first week or two on the job sets the course for their entire tenure. Getting off on the right foot isn’t just a clichéd expression. It matters on a very practical level. One reason why is that leadership is all about getting things done through other people. Leaders can’t succeed if they don’t build the relationships that get them the help, advice, and resources they need to accomplish their goals. And building those relationships starts at Day 1. Here are three things every new leader should do right away.
It sounds simple, but many leaders I’ve interviewed–especially more reserved or introverted ones–find themselves reluctant to approach unfamiliar coworkers. They get introduced to their new team but hesitate to reach out to everyone else. They’re worried about intruding and bothering busy people, and they’re careful not to violate existing norms about who talks to who. Tact is important, but it shouldn’t forestall a simple hello. And the real danger is that if these introductions don’t happen within the first few days or weeks, it becomes even more awkward to make them later, and the relationships are never built.
Solution: Step out of your comfort zone and recognize that as a newcomer, you have the right and permission to introduce yourself to just about anybody.
One of the best ways to make a great “second” impression with those we manage is by confidently recalling their name the next time we see them. The problem is that many of us are hopelessly bad with names, and in the whirlwind of first-day introductions, we’re hit with a firehose of them. Forgetting someone’s name the first couple of times is perfectly excusable, but after that it becomes awkward. If we don’t make the commitment to really learn names, over time others can start to tell, and it eventually sends the signal that we don’t value them enough to figure out who they are.
Solution: During introductions, focus on paying attention to their name, and then repeat it right away to get it into your short-term memory. Mentally test your recall during the conversation, and if you’ve already forgotten it, ask for it again at the end of the introduction. Then write it down as soon as possible, and take time afterward to review your list of names. Periodically test your recall until you’re confident you have them all down in long-term memory. Go back to your list before meetings and other events to get those names back into short-term memory for quick recall.
Looking back, many new leaders wish they’d asked more questions right from the start. Some are reluctant to ask too many things of people they don’t yet know. Others fear asking about things they feel they should know already will make them look incompetent. But most of the information and advice new leaders need to be successful is in the heads of their coworkers, and taking the initiative to learn as much as you can makes you appear humble, proactive, and ready to work collaboratively.
Solution: Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and imagine your reaction if a new leader approached you with the question. If you’d be okay with the interruption and happy to provide an answer, then assume the same for the other person and go for it. Don’t feel like you’re asking for something without providing anything in return. You get information and advice, and the other person at a minimum gets the satisfaction of knowing they are “that kind of person” who’s helpful to others.
To be sure, there are many things new leaders need to do right out of the gate in order to be successful in their new roles–developing a vision, motivating people, managing conflict, and so on. But none of those big-ticket things are possible unless the leaders put themselves out there and build the relationships they need to accomplish them in the first place.
This article is adapted from What to Do When You’re New: How to Be Comfortable, Confident, and Successful in New Situations by Keith Rollag, associate professor and chair of the Management Division at Babson College. It is reprinted with permission.