So you've just landed your first leadership role--congrats. Or perhaps it's not your very first opportunity to lead, but you've moved into a more high-profile and demanding role within (or atop) your organization--great. What the hell do you do now?
A resource you'll find helpful is 42 Rules for Your New Leadership Role (the latest entry in the 42 Rules series), by my friend and colleague Pam Fox Rollin. (Disclosure: Pam asked me to read the book and provided me with a copy of the manuscript, which mentions me in the acknowledgments. While Pam and I are friends, if I didn't think I could be objective about her work I wouldn't have written this post. I certainly want Pam and the book to do well, but not at the expense of my own credibility.)
I was first introduced to Pam through the network of Stanford MBAs working as executive coaches and organizational development consultants while making my own transition from management into coaching. I've greatly appreciated Pam's insights and encouragement over the past 6 years, and the book feels like a conversation with her--high-energy, thought-provoking and enthusiastic, but also informal and easygoing.
Pam organizes her 42 rules into seven chapters:
- Set Yourself Up for Success: How to prepare for your new role before it starts and how to hit the ground running once it begins.
- Map the Terrain: Major issues you're likely to encounter in your new environment in the first few weeks.
- Show Up Wisely: How to better understand yourself, and how to insure you're presenting yourself effectively.
- Start Your Wins and...
- Create Your Management System: Tactical tips and hands-on advice for new leaders.
- Stay Smart: How to keep growing as you settle into your new role.
- Set You and Your Team to Thrive: Insuring sustainable success over the long-term.
While the book's greatest strength is its detailed guidance and advice, I found this structure a really useful framework that helped me refer back to specific rules and other concepts in the text. As you look over this list of chapter titles, you may be thinking to yourself, "Hey, this isn't rocket science--I already know this stuff." And that's precisely why Pam's book is so useful: These are the basic steps that we often ignore when starting a new job, either because we assume we'll address them in the ordinary course of events or because we get caught up in "urgent" responsibilities that "require" our immediate attention. Pam's overarching point--the whole premise of the book--is that when stepping into a new leadership role it's essential that we be intentional and systematic about the little things, that we never assume they'll take care of themselves, and that we take a longer-term view at the outset, prioritizing what's important over what's urgent.
I also appreciate the balance Pam stikes between building upon the latest leadership research while making her own original contributions. Her extensive footnotes--all too often absent from current management literature--direct you to sources for original research or further reading, and highlight connections between Pam's work and that of other writers and theorists. Even better, a page on Pam's site includes resources related to each chapter and direct links to additional articles and research--it's an open-minded approach that makes Pam's own work all the more relevant. (Two additional elements that aren't in the book but would have been fantastically valuable are a bibliography and a subject index--perhaps they'll be added to Pam's site or will make it into the second edition.)
Here's one rule each from most of the chapters noted above that I found particularly helpful:
Rule 5: Take Charge of Your Start
Pam points out that most official onboarding processes may provide some helpful logistical guidance but are inadequate when it comes to the things that really matter--relationships, culture, history. Compounding the challenge is the fact that "anything unfamiliar takes substantially more brainpower... Expect your productivity to tank until your brain learns to [execute new routines] without attention from your tiny, precious pre-frontal cortex."
The solution is to write your own onboarding plan: Figure out who you should meet and get on their calendar, familiarize yourself with the surrounding culture, and do some due diligence on recent organizational history.
Rule 9: Figure Out What to Prove by When
Pam writes, "On no topic was there less agreement among the executives I interviewed," than on the question of how much time new leaders have to demonstrate their value. Her response:
There's always something to prove, and faster than you'd like. To keep focused rather than frantic, start with two categories and three time horizons:
- Categories: What does my team need to deliver? What do I need to prove about me?
- Time horizons: immediate (typically one to two months), near-term (two to five months), first year (six to twelve months).
(I firmly agree with Pam on the importance of choosing the right time horizons.)
Pam also quotes OD strategist Bart Fisher:
Figure out if you need [to be] a firefighter or a weatherman. Is it smoke because there's a problem, or fog because there's uncertainty? If smoke, fight the fire. If fog, take the time you need to figure out what's going on.
Rule 16: Get Over Yourself
Throughout the job search or promotion process, Pam writes, "you've been focusing on YOU. However, focusing on yourself is a quick road to failure as a leader. Now's the time to turn it around and focus on your team." She identifies a short but compelling list of things you need to learn about each of your team members--you can't learn everything at once, but dedicate yourself to completing this list over time as you get to know everyone:
- What are you working on?
- What do you enjoy the most and the least about your job?
- What is going well on this team? What's going less well?
- How could this group be even more successful?
- What do you do well? What do you want to do more of?
- What do you do less well? What do you want to do less of?
- What helps you be most productive?
- Where do you want to be professionally in five to ten years? One to two years?
- What do you think you need to get there?
How many of these questions can you answer for your team right now? Assuming you know less than you should about them, what regular practices can you put in place that will allow you to learn more?
Rule 20: Communicate Early and Often
"Human brains pay attention to what's recent, what's repeated, and what's communicated with passion and clarity," Pam writes, and as a result, she encourages the use of this framework for presenting issues and positions:
- Here's what I'm seeing
- Here's how I interpret it
- What am I missing?
- Here's what I think that means for us
- What do you think?
I'm reminded of a similar "leader-communication checklist" from Karl Weick's "Managerial Thought in the Context of Action" (which I first encountered in Gary Klein's "Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions"):
- Here's what I think we face
- Here's what I think we should do
- Here's why
- Here's what we should keep our eye on
- Now, talk to me
In both cases, there's a consistent emphasis on concision, transparency and curiosity. Be concise--make your points quickly and get out of the way. Be transparent--assume that people don't know your intentions or understand what you're seeing or how you're interpreting it, and fill in those gaps. And be curious--once you've framed the conversation, it's about getting other people's candid input, not about getting them to agree with you.
Pam goes on to note that "Many leaders are reluctant to repeat themselves. Consequently, they say it once or twice, maybe at a team meeting or in an email, intending their message to stand for all time." But this approach runs up against the neural "hard-wiring" that Pam mentions at the outset. Instead, she counsels, "When you care about something, say it often. Even better, ask about it often."
Rule 27: Adjust Your Approach
"Lighten up on talking about 'your leadership style,'" Pam counsels, "and think more about what you could do that would be truly useful for your team members and colleagues." She continues:
I've developed an easy model to help you remember three useful ways to be flexible to differences:
- Appreciate: always look for value in the differences people bring to teamwork...
- Adapt: sometimes adjust your behavior to help other people get what they need to be more productive...
- Adopt: occasionally draw on less-used/less-comfortable behaviors so you can be more effective...
Much of my work with MBA students at Stanford involves experiences that intentionally push them slightly out of their comfort zone in group settings. This process allows them to recognize three things: First, we all have default interpersonal settings, ways of interacting with others that feel most comfortable to us. Second, those default settings aren't fixed and in many cases can be easily adjusted with a little conscious effort (and honest feedback from others.) Finally, any new or modified behaviors we adopt with the intention of improving interactions with others needn't seem unnatural or inauthentic; we can readily internalize them and build them into our repertoire, thus expanding our comfort zone.
This process comes to mind when reading Pam's advice about adjusting our leadership style to accommodate the needs of our team members, and I think it's particularly important for new leaders to be aware of their default behaviors and of their impact on others.
Rule 35: Ferret Out Feedback
As we say regularly at Stanford in courses focused on interpersonal skills and leadership capabilities, feedback is a gift. And yet, Pam writes, new leaders "can't count on informal feedback, as many people fear annoying anyone in power. You may not even receive formal feedback, as review cycles are disrupted by job changes--including yours." So Pam suggest that it's your responsibility to "Forge your own feedback channels" through the following steps:
"What am I doing that's helping you accomplish X?" "When am I a roadblock to you and your team?" "How might I screw this up?" "What issues or people should I be giving more attention?" The higher up you are, the more you have to ask for it...
- Initiate it yourself.
Don't wait for an annual process to receive upward feedback. If you can't hire an executive coach, arrange for a trusted peer to interview your team and summarize key messages back up.
- Respond tremendously well.
Fastest way to kill your feedback channel: downplay the feedback, even slightly, verbally or non-verbally. [Emphasis mine--I think this is spot-on and tremendously important.]
- Make sure your team members are also getting feedback--from you and others across the organization... By showing your appetite for hearing feedback and using it well, you shift your company's culture from "pretending I know it all" toward "let's learn how to be more and more successful."
The single most popular elective at the Stanford Graduate School of Business is Interpersonal Dynamics (known universally as Touchy Feely), a time-intensive and emotionally demanding course that's taken by over 80% of each graduating class at the GSB. Why do so many of our students take it, and why do so many alums--including me--call it the most valuable class we took in business school? Because of the rich feedback you get from 13 peers over 10 weeks of intense interactions--it's an incredibly valuable asset that makes the investment in the experience well worth the effort. But to Pam's point, you're going to have to ask for, initiate, and respond well to feedback in order to enjoy its benefits in your new leadership role.
I do have a few quibbles with the book. As noted above, I really would have liked a bibliography--the footnotes are great, but a summary of all the references consulted would be a tremendous resource. I haven't read other titles in the "42 Rules..." series, but while I'm glad it's providing Pam with a platform and a megaphone, it feels more like a marketing concept than an organizing principle that can be extended to any book-length topic. Finally, I don't know anything about publishing margins, but I wish they'd invested just a little more in the quality of the actual paper and printing--I'm sufficiently old-school that I like to hang on to hard copies of books I enjoy, and I often make extensive notes in the margins, and that's easier to do with a book that's a bit more substantial.
But those concerns aside, I found 42 Rules for Your New Leadership Role well worth my time, and I want to thank Pam for such a concise, well-organized and readily accessible book that offers new leaders a great deal of valuable guidance and advice.