New Leader: Take the Reins

Taking a leadership position in a large organization can be both exciting and terrifying. How you handle yourself early sets the overall tone and, probably more than is fair, goes a long way toward predicting a likely outcome.

You don’t need an MBA to do a good job, but having the attitude of a “learner” is crucial to success. You don’t need to be a people pleaser or a brown-noser, but tuning into the basics, the elementary principles of human relations, ensures that you can’t get too far off track.

As in most things, preparation is the hallmark of someone who meets the challenge.


Walk around

Take a walking tour, unless that somehow isn’t feasible, of the entire physical space that contains your area of responsibility. Convey that you’re glad to be there, and that you’re going to continue to come around.

Meet your people

Meet with each person who reports to you individually. Ask them for their current “take” on the situation, any history a new supervisor should be aware of, unaddressed problems that should be taken on right away, and what kind of help a supervisor can provide that person specifically, as well as the department generally. Ask each person how they best like being communicated to and with. Ask each person what they’re striving for, what stimulates them, and where they’d like to go from here.

Learn what everyone does

Not only should you know what all of your employees do, you should also know how each job connects to the others, and at least theoretically be able to perform them yourself. It’s flattering to your employees that you know what they do, which means you also know what they need – as well as what constitutes an impediment to getting things done.

Understand fully how success will be measured.

Talk to your own boss, more than once, about expectations and how success will be measured. Over the course of several conversations, get a feel for the amount and kinds of pressures coming down from on high, and under what circumstances. What works and what doesn’t from where they sit? Ask for examples of past crises, and what would constitute a serious screw-up. Ask them to give their vision of your department running like a well-oiled machine, fully integrated into the larger system.

Know your own internal communications

Important. Get up to speed, quickly, on the communications system – phones, pagers, Blackberrys, software, email, voicemail – whatever. It may all be great, or it may be a kludge-laden mess, but, for now, it is what it is, and you need to know it cold. Use that knowledge to connect – both ways – with all of your people.

Be proactive

Head right toward problems, as soon as possible – be proactive. Be quick to want to know, slow to criticize or assign blame. Frame things as experiments toward getting it right – situations to be understood, and from which to learn.

Hold people accountable

Be diplomatic, be kind – but convey strongly that you expect people to do their jobs. In everything you say or do, even with a raised eyebrow or a long stare, people are gauging how serious you REALLY are about performance, expectations, and your willingness to go to the mat.

Set the example

Model what you expect from your employees. Appreciate and admire talent and energy. Give credit where it’s due, shoulder blame, especially on behalf of your people to upper management. Be visibly curious, be relaxed, be open to suggestions, communicate an expectation of success for everyone, accept being wrong when it’s true – say “thank you” a lot.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeff Lenertz

Thanks for the site, you provide some good insight. I am having an issue reading the dark blue on the light blue background though. Any chance you could tweek that?


As a matter of fact, my wife made almost the same comment about my choice of colors.
Stay tuned, the tweaking will be done.

Thanks for stopping by, Jeff.


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