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Lucy Ball is an executive coach, pairs coach and team coach.

Mar 2017

10 tips for leaders joining a new business

Some of my clients are moving on, some have recently moved. Here are 10 tips from my experience of coaching leaders as they establish themselves somewhere new.

When you join a new business your ego may feel a little fragile because you don’t know how you will perform or fit in. Evidence suggests that just because you have been successful in one organisation doesn’t mean you can repeat that in your next. This is a useful state in some ways because it makes you hyperaware of your new environment and careful not to mess up. It can also be a dangerous state that leads to behaviours that are unhelpful. Here are some things to watch out for.

1 Pay attention to endings as well as beginnings
You are a new beginning for your new organisation and this is a new beginning for you. But don’t forget that for your new team your arrival is about the ending of something else, for example a relationship with a much loved predecessor or a time of leader-less transition. Give people a chance to talk about what is ending and to let go.

2 Do not criticise your predecessor!
It’s natural and expected that your focus will be on what needs fixing in the new job. Be careful that this does not come across as criticism of your predecessor or the organisation as a whole. Be aware that your predecessor will have had loyal peers and followers and you will demoralise them by calling that loyalty into question. Respect that decisions made before your tenure were made in a context that was different and with the best intentions at the time. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but your predecessor did not see what you see now.

3 Do not be a knight in shining armour
Your ego may tempt you to act as if you are arriving to save everyone from their plight/poor performance/engagement scores/NPS/technical or cultural issues. Your new team may even project this onto you and treat you like their saviour. But if you play the Rescuing Hero, you disempower your team and attract competitive behaviour from your peers. And even if you were a star in your last business, it doesn’t mean your formula is repeatable. Aim instead for a sense of yourself as interdependent and interconnected; learning how you will work with others in this new context to deliver performance.

4 Resist the urge to remove all uncertainty
You will be under a lot of pressure to provide certainty. Below you in the hierarchy, many people may well have their plans on hold pending your arrival and be eagerly waiting an answer to their question what do you want me to do?. Above you in the hierarchy your solutions to business issues will be hotly expected. Some of what you find in your first 30 days will be problems that have known or knowable solutions – it’s OK to make promises about these. Other issues may not have an easy fix. On these issues try to establish what is knowable and what is not. Your ego and your followers will prefer certainty but it’s your job as a leader to sit with some uncertainty and to build your colleagues’ ability to do the same.

5 Don’t please or prove
When we are the new boy or new girl we are very susceptible to triggers that bring out unhelpful behaviour from our past. We all have childhood experiences of being new and it’s not uncommon for grown men and women to feel unconsciously child-like on joining a new organisation. This might bring out nervous pleasing or proving behaviour, it might also bring out rebellious or mischievous behaviour. Notice when you are slipping out of adult mode particularly with your new bosses and authority figures. Use your body to support you – breathe, stand tall, smile. Fake confidence until you feel it and never be afraid to say nothing.

6 Immerse yourself and listen
Your job for the first 30 days is listening, respecting and appreciating where people are. This does not mean you are not formulating your plans and strategies at the same time. It’s about forming those strategies based on insight that you have gained from being alongside people from the shop floor to the boardroom. Each meeting in this period is a chance for you to show that you intend to lead but not without listening.

7 Build bridges from the past to the future
You will be most concerned with the future of the business. Your stakeholders will be pressuring you for your strategy and plans and this will keep you awake at night. However, don’t forget that the story you tell about what comes next needs to link to what has gone before. You will be focused on the future for your new bosses but your people need to see an appreciative link to the past.

8 Don’t underestimate culture
Culture is powerful and, like a huge rolling boulder, has momentum. Even if you are joining as the CEO, the culture in the organisation will not change overnight to your bidding. Symbolic acts early on can have a big impact on culture but sustaining change takes weeks and months of communication, repetition and backing up your expectations with actions and consequences.

9 Be just weird enough
In order to make an impact in a new organisation you need to be just weird enough. This means that you need to be bringing something different that the business needs but not so different that the new culture rejects you. You don’t want to be entirely confluent with the culture but you don’t want to be spat out either. Notice how you are landing with people. A bit of friction means that you are making a difference, too much friction for your new stakeholders to bear will likely not end well for you.

10 Get support
Your first 90 days is a time in which you need support and sounding boards. Use mentors, coaches, your PA, your team, your new boss, your old boss, your family, your friends and your industry network to support you. Test your plans and judgements with people and allow others to nourish you, energise you, organise you, challenge you. Don’t be a lone warrior. Take care of yourself.

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