When things go wrong in your command, start wading for the reason in increasing larger concentric circles around your own desk. – General Bruce D. Clark
Standing on the platform in front of troops and family for the fourth time to take command, this time of a Mission Support Group, I was following a popular and successful commander. I’d be leading a very talented unit of 2,600 Airmen, civil service personnel, and contractors. They had a tremendous reputation for excellence.
In the previous three months, I’d prepared as best I could and now it was “go” time. Under the big Colorado sky on a stunningly beautiful summer day, thoughts about both the mission and people I was now responsible for leading circled my mind. All my previous leadership experience, all my networking, all my preparation had come to this moment. When it was my turn to speak, I stepped up to the mike and began my command.
In this series, I’ve written about how to exit gracefully and how to handle the first 100 days in the macro. This month we take a look at what it takes to be the “New Guy” and we’ll focus in on the first crucial 30 days in “command.”
Before You Arrive
Changes in leadership like the assumption of command I described above are often planned and announced in advance. Retirements, promotions, and the like create openings in leadership positions in all organizations. Even when someone gets the sack, there’s usually time for some limited preparation. That time is important because every team is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach that works. Even experienced leaders will need to make adjustments to their own style to suit the new team and mission.
If you have a good transition, your predecessor will have sent you plenty of information and planned a Left Seat-Right Seat time. If the transition is short or unplanned, your prep time is limited. No matter how long you have, spend it learning as much as you can before you arrive. Mission statements, public financial records, customer reviews, press releases, and anything available on the personnel. You’ll get two opportunities to speak to the team, once in public and once to your senior staff. Plan those talks carefully: first impressions really matter and it will be obvious if you haven’t done your homework.
At the “Change of Command”
The military conducts a change of command ceremony where the outgoing and incoming commanders exchange the unit’s flag as a symbol of passing the leadership of the unit. Those ceremonies and their civilian equivalents are all about the farewell for outgoing leader. As the new guy, your job is to thank everyone, give a brief version of your priorities, and get off the stage. Give your predecessor the room to bask in the adulation of the team one last time; it’s your team now and you’ll have plenty of time with them in the coming months and years.
During your speech, be gracious to the outgoing leader–even if he/she doesn’t deserve it. No matter what the circumstances that required a change in leadership, it’s not your place to pile on or take issue with the outgoing guy’s style or achievements. They know him–they don’t know you–so being gracious will make a good impression. It’s just good manners. I assure you no one will remember the “bumper stickers” you talk about at the ceremony, but they will remember if you’re snarky, rude, or go long. Get up, say your piece, and get off the stage.
The First Month
On your first day in the seat, you’ve got only two things to do: meet with your senior staff one and one and as a group. Use that time to get to know them better, get a sense of their professionalism and proficiency, and lay out your strategy and priorities. If you have an office or administrative staff, give them your expectations on how you expect work to flow. They’ll want to know how you like to organize your day and about any pet peeves you might have regarding the logistics of running the office.
Once you’ve met with your senior team–we call it a “command team” in the Air Force, it’s time to meet with the larger senior staff as a group. Plan to spend about an hour, and lay out your priorities and guiding principles, your expectations, and let them know where you’ll be focusing your attention. A few Powerpoint slides or a handout is a good idea since it allows them to listen better rather than taking notes. Allow them all time they need to ask questions–few of them will take you up on it anyway–and then give them a preview of what you plan to publish to the entire team. This is the first step to gaining their trust and getting them on board for where you’re planning to lead them. Set some achievable goals for the first 100 days and ensure your new team is on board.
During the first month, commit to spending time looking around and listening to your new team. As a rule of thumb, and unless something is badly broken, dangerous, or illegal, don’t make any changes for the first 30 days. This gives your team some breathing room to get used to you, and more importantly, time for you to understand why things are the way they are in the first place. Rare is the case where a leader or an organization is completely incompetent. Understand the context of your predecessors’ decisions before you begin making changes. Doing so will help avoid unwanted second and third order effects, and it will give you a better chance of finding root causes of problems rather than just symptoms.
Make time in the first few days to have an “all hands meeting” and address the entire team. If your team is geographically separated, then record your session and make that recording available to them. During that all hands meeting, lay out your priorities and principles Boil down your priorities and principles into 2-4 easy to remember phrases. You want your “slogan” to be memorable and easy to repeat–you’ll be repeating it often. Give the broad strokes to the whole organization, and spend some time with the senior staff to be sure they understand clearly who you are and where you intend to go.
Lastly, get a thorough orientation to your new organization unit by unit. Resist the temptation to spend that entire orientation in a conference room reading PowerPoint slides. Whenever I take over a new organization I spend that first week or so walking through each unit and learning as much as I can from the people doing the actual work. You can read slides on your own–you need to see where people are working and let them tell you what they’re doing. Believe me, you can tell a lot about an organization by asking questions and observing the work environment. The morale will be self-evident and you’ll gain important insight into what needs to be changed on day 31.