Tough Transitions

Advice for anyone changing roles or considering doing so.

Article by Ben Thompson / originally published on / November 6th 2018

So you’ve just started at a new company. Congratulations!

It’s a fresh start and the opportunities are endless. The team that recruited you are excited about the experience, skills and talent you’ll bring to the company, and so are you. Your new boss saw something in you they need, and the organisation needs to succeed. However, you will never get the chance to bring these skills to bear unless you make a success of “transition”– those critical first six to twelve months in your new role. The purpose of this article is to help more senior managers make a success of this phase. I won’t bore you with my credentials to write this – suffice to say that after twenty years of management roles I’ve made enough mis-steps to figure out a few of the right ones!

The first step in a successful transition is all about listening. When you start a senior management position in a new company, no one tells you really what you need to know. They may give you clarity on the vision, strategy and key goals of the company, and even on your own personal objectives – but they can never tell you the answers to the really critical questions. How can I get the best out of my team? What will really engage my customers and clients? Who will be my supporters and who will I need to win over in order to succeed? What’s the culture – in the wider organisation and in my department?

The answers to all these questions and more are in the heads of a handful of people working around you, with whom you must quickly build a meaningful relationship so they trust you enough to tell it like it is.

If this sounds incredibly trite, please remember that when you begin a new role you are under enormous pressure to prove yourself to those around you. If you are like me, there is a little voice going off inside your head saying “I know the answer, I can tell you how to do that, listen to me, listen to what I’ve got to say!”. It’s just a natural part of joining a new business – the urgent need to demonstrate your worth – and it runs completely contrary to what you actually need to do to fulfill the potential that everyone sees in you. So listen carefully, and actively, asking questions to try to get to the root of what is going on, and reserve judgement of people and organization until you have a fully formed picture.

As you start to listen, and develop a basic idea of what is going on and what top do about it, there are two important teams with whom you must build high quality relationships. The first is what Patrick Lencioni (“Five Dysfunctions of a Team”) calls your “first or primary team”, meaning the direct reports of your immediate line manager. The second is your direct team of reports – the people with whom you have to deliver the business for the wider organisation.

It’s useful to acknowledge to yourself that as soon as you step into your “first team”, you are a potential threat to some of your colleagues. This sounds a bit over the top but bear with me, there are a few good reasons why I say this. Firstly, if you’ve been hired by the current boss of the team, as is likely, then everyone knows that your boss specifically recruited you into the team. You are the physical embodiment of what he or she wants. So folks look at you and work out what you’re all about, and then the little voices in their heads start to ask, “what is it that this person has got that I haven’t?”.

Most people know that external hires are usually only brought in to a business if they have potential for the next level up – this is standard HR practice. So not only is this person exactly what my boss is looking for (and I’m not?), they are also going to get promoted faster than me!

Now clearly, this is irrational thinking. But believe me this is exactly what goes through the thought processes of many senior managers when someone new joins. The more mature will dismiss this quickly from their minds and focus on the task in hand, but not everyone will.

So what do you need to do? First you need to make clear by what you do and say that you are committed to this group of people as your “first team”. You will have your own team and targets to manage, but your personal and emotional commitment is first and foremost to this group. This means prioritising team meetings, being well prepared, listening and focusing hard even during long, dull discussions you can’t add to, and volunteering to take on work on behalf of the team. Again straightforward, but remember the little voice in your head saying “my boss is in the room, I need to look good…I need to get a good profile here…I need to get the best of any opportunities for my department!”. What I’m saying isn’t complicated, it’s just not easy.

Second, you need to be prepared to suffer some of what the rest of the team know is the painful side of the job you’re all doing. Call it “taking one for the team”. It may be getting on the wrong end of an irascible boss, it may be missing a target and having to explain why you didn’t hit it to the board, it could be any number of things. The key is to show that you are with the team in the stuff they find hard – and by doing so show that you are one of them.

Thirdly you need to abide by the unspoken rule of business conduct; when it’s just you and your first team in the room, the gloves are off and it’s open dialogue, criticism has its place, as does heated debate. As soon as another group are in the room however (the sales team if you’re in marketing, or the finance team if you’re running the factory) you stick together. I don’t mean you become like a Roman phalanx, being obstructive and unhelpful to people – that would be unprofessional. I mean you stand up for each other when under unfair attack, you make sure you’re whole group is being adequately represented, and you do not at any cost make yourself look good at the expense of your team-mates.

Just as important is your relationship with your direct team. You need your team to be with you, but you’ve also got to take tough decisions (up to and including performance management) depending on what kind of people you inherit. You’re the new boss, paid to give direction and leadership. But in a brand new role they know far, far more than you do about the intricacies and nuances of working life in the new organisation.

There is a fine balance to be maintained therefore, with humility, through the tough decisions that must be made, the need to establish yourself as leader, and the need to establish trust. In all this I believe the importance of communication, both one-to-one and team sessions, cannot be over-stated.

This may sound like an obvious statement, but remember you are dealing with enormous change, and a high level of ambiguity – you don’t know what’s really going on most of the time. There is a fine line to be taken therefore between abdicating completely “I just don’t know what we should do in this situation” which could hand all authority over to the more outspoken in the team to the detriment of your own position, and loudly declaring that you “know exactly what to do” when you don’t. I have made both mistakes over the years! The best approach I have learned is to use 1-2-1 sessions to dig deep into the personal, team and corporate issues, to really find out the messy details of what’s getting in the way of peak performance, and to use team sessions as moments to try and draw common themes together and form consensus. This doesn’t mean you don’t have open discussion in the team meeting, just that there is always a different level of openness and honesty in a 1-2-1 which you won’t find in a team meeting – particularly when you are brand new. The “Inner Coach” comes in handy here, but more of that later.

A large part of the communication between you and your team is developing and sharing your plan. There are different views on this. I have heard some management thinkers say that it is pointless making and communicating a plan in the first three to six months, as you will get it wrong due to a lack of real insight, and this will only waste time through mis-directing people. There are also those, particularly Michael Watkins (“Your First 90 Days”), who talk about making a plan pretty much straight away, and sticking with it. My view is somewhere in the middle. I do like to make plans, and I break it into short (next month), medium (next 3 months) and long (next 6 months). The Chinese would say this is desperately short-term and I should be thinking about at least a twenty-year plan, and there is of course a clear need to think longer-term and ready your department for future challenges, but you have also got to deliver next quarter’s earnings! As one manager said to me, “you need to have one foot in the reeds, and one foot on the mountain”.

Much has been written on plans and planning and I am not going to add too much here, all I will say is that in the transition phase your plans and priorities will change, have to change, because what you write down at the end of your first month will be fifty percent wrong – and you won’t realise that until six months down the track. So make a plan, review it regularly, communicate it – but don’t hold on too tightly to it in the transition phase. By the end of your first year you will have a far better grasp of your issues and what you really need to do to resolve them.
By about the second or third month, you will have figured out the difference between the version of the job described to you in your interviews, and reality! You realise that things are far from perfect, and some things needs to change. So over the next month or so, you start off one or two initiatives to “fix” certain areas of your business. Some of these ideas work and some really, really don’t! Now if you’re human, and depending on the amount of hubris that accompanied the announcement of your great idea that has just failed, this leads you to start questioning yourself. “Have I really got this figured out? Am I the right person for this role? Have I been found out?

In your old job, assuming you were there for a decent stretch of time, you had people around you who knew you, and who could offer you honest and helpful feedback in this situation. You could road-test ideas, both before and after you start putting your plans into action. And if they go wrong or don’t work you can get an honest appraisal of why. In the new company you haven’t got this network of trust yet – but you desperately need it. This is where the Inner Coach comes in. The key in these situations (both before and after launching the grand scheme) is to regularly take time out to assess your yourself, your understanding, your relationships – your performance as a leader. You need to do this as objectively as you can, and give yourself the honest, insightful feedback that your old colleagues would have given you. I find it helpful to talk to myself in the second person singular, remembering all the great coaches I have had in the past. “What would “x” person have said to me in this situation? What would they have done? What am I trying to do, and what are the risks I need to be aware of?”. Please note – the inner coach is never perfect, you must still use your 1-2-1 times with both your team and your boss to check-in these ideas (remember your “I need to prove myself” side is fighting against this). But your inner coach can be an essential guide for making a final decision on something once all that feedback has been gathered.

Finally, let people help you; your peers, your boss and their colleagues, your wider stakeholders – people generally love to help so allow them to, but don’t let them take the reins away from you. Don’t get so caught up in what all these wise, experienced people all think you should do in a situation that you forget to sit down and do your own thinking, come to your own conclusions and then act. There is something of a “cop-out” to be avoided here. In the transition period some managers are desperate to grab hold of solutions, quick wins, and easy fixes. If someone with more experience than me tells me I need to cancel a particular initiative, and start up something else, which will then lead to a major upswing in revenues, I would be foolish not to listen. If someone tells me the real issue in my department is a dysfunctional team member who I need to move on – I need to listen to that. A lazy manager who doesn’t want to do the hard yards, or a manager desperate to prove themselves by delivering a quick win may grasp at these so-called “silver bullets” and go after them without doing the proper thinking.

Get in a quiet place, close the door, and think. If you’ve been following the steps I recommend, starting with listening and building relationships – you will know better than anyone else what the truth of the matter is, and what value these suggestions really have. After all the listening and observing, your job is to make up your own mind, share your thinking and your plan with the team so they will come with you on the journey, and then get the team and the organization completely lined up and energised to deliver it. Go for it!

Ben Thompson is the founder and CEO of 9 Degrees West

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