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Management advice for new leaders

Russ Kathrein


Ask anybody who ever moved as a child, being the new kid in school can be both terrifying and exhilarating. On one hand, you don’t know everyone, and all eyes are on you. On the other hand, it presents an opportunity for reinvention. The same opportunity occurs when you are a new leader taking over a department, location, division, or company.

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As a new leader, on occasion, you follow someone who was promoted or  retired,  and they hand you a well-oiled machine, but not everything has been done exactly the way you would have done it. These can be challenging situations, but they can be  quite  rewarding when you successfully work your way through them. Here are a couple tips I can pass on— many of which I had to learn the hard way:

Listen, Plan, Act. This is the leader’s version of “ready, fire, aim.” You may think you know the problems coming in, and you may think you know the answers, too. Spend time with the people you will be leading and ask them questions. They will probably do a good job of defining the problem, and chances are they have some pretty good ideas on how to solve them as well.

If they are thirsty, let them drink. I came into one situation years ago, where the previous leader wanted everybody to like him. He was very ambiguous and avoided confrontation. Consequently, the team told me what they really wanted was to know what the rules were, and then wanted everyone to be held accountable to those rules, including themselves. So, I worked with them on finding out what areas needed to be defined, then I threw myself into leading the team as we tackled every tough or uncomfortable situation my predecessor had avoided. Sometimes this involved talking to demanding or problem customers. But often it was more about not letting some people live by their own set of rules. You would have thought this would have made me unpopular or disliked, but even the people who had to change their behavior came to appreciate that we all were now singing from the same hymnal.

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You can’t save everybody. The worst mistake I have made over my career was thinking that I could get everybody to change and improve. It will never happen. So, you must have a plan or process with realistic expectations. I have found that if you are in a big turnaround or culture change, about 25% of the people will be gone from their current position within 18 months. Some will quit, some will retire, or some will need to be decruited. Some will transfer to a different area of the company because they aren’t ready for change or are not willing to drink your Kool-Aid. And some will need to be moved into a different job where they can be more effective. Jim Collins called this “Getting the right people in the right seats on the bus.”

For me, the process starts with identifying the 20% of the team that is ready for change, even excited by it, and make them your evangelists. Often this is a team or department you can get some initial quick wins. They will, in turn, affect the next 60% of the team that are waiting around to see how you do. The last 20% you just need to leave alone, so long as they are not being disruptive to the process. Some of this last 20% will never change or buy in. You have to decide if you can tolerate them as an outlier for the duration of their employment, or if they need to go. In most cases, you need to make the hard decision to let them find greener pastures elsewhere.

When you find yourself leading a new situation, don’t be afraid to change up your process so that you can accommodate the surroundings and improve upon your process. You will only be the new kid in town for a while, so take advantage of the opportunity while everyone is curious.

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Russ Kathrein is with the LBM Division of Do it Best Corp. based in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

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