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Taking on a New Role

| August 29, 2017

by Jim Bruce

How to Get Up to Speed in Your New Leadership Role 
Today’s Tuesday Reading is the Harvard Business Review Whiteboard Session (video) “How to Get Up to Speed in Your New Leadership Role” featuring Michael Watkins.  Watkins is President of Genesis Advisors, a leadership consultancy that supports companies and leaders coping with transition.  He is also author of The First 90 Days and Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, Switzerland.  And, he has also held faculty positions at the Harvard Business School and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
So, you’re in a new role.  Perhaps, you’ve succeeded your team lead, or your manager, or perhaps you’ve taken on a new role in another part of your university, or perhaps even you’ve moved on to a new employer.  Watkins argues that your success will be directly proportional to how fast you learn and come up to speed.  His experience indicates that at higher organizational levels, if the new hire doesn’t come up to speed rapidly, there is a 40% likelihood that he or she will fail, though not necessarily be removed from of the position.  Learning and coming up to speed rapidly reduces that likelihood to 10%.
So, what do you need to do to succeed?  Watkins says that the new leader needs to come up to speed on the work, which he divides into the job’s technical aspects;  it’s culture, the way “things are done here;”  and the associated political landscape.  (This is similar to John Van Maanen’s three perspectives – organizational design, political, and cultural.)
When you are stepping into a new role, no matter the role, starting out is a challenge.  You may know the content of the job from beginning to end, but the culture and the political dimensions will be different.  Not paying attention to them from day one is a mistake.
Watkins notes that there is always much to learn and your tendency will be to take on too much too soon.  This will lead you to rush off in all directions, believing that if you do, you will inevitably get an early big win.  Likely not!  What you’ll do is spread your effort out too broadly, not focusing on any one of the major tasks you have.  The result is that little will be accomplished.
A better approach is to determine the three to five major foci of your responsibilities and focus on the most important of these and really nail it.
Watkins also notes that too many times we fall into the “What got me here” trap.  (You may recall Marshall Goldsmith’s book: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.)  It’s entirely possible that the skills and approaches that made you very good in all your previous roles may not be what you need in your new role.  However, your tendency may likely be to stay in your comfort zone and that may not be where you need to be in the new role.
On the cultural front, Watkins emphasizes the importance of learning the new culture, the subtle norms and values that define how everything gets done.  He notes that if you don’t understand the rules of the new “game,” you’ll offend people, you may run roughshod over the group’s values, and you’ll be seen as not connecting or fitting.  He also points out the danger of arriving “with all the answers.”  Having all the answers when you’ve just come into an organization is not a virtue since you don’t yet understand the problems or the “rules of the road.”  If you do appear as if you have all the answers, people will be reactive and resistant.
On the political front, while it’s important to form a solid bond with your new boss and your team members, it is also crucially important that you build relationships with your peers and your stakeholders.  As you are doing this, there is danger that you’ll be “captured” by the wrong people.  Work to be studiously neutral until you learn the organization and who “matters.”
During the early weeks in the new role develop and follow a “Transition Roadmap:” 
1.  Accelerate your learning.  Develop a plan to understand your job, the culture, and the political view.  And, then, execute the plan.
2.  Match your strategy to the situation.  What’s going on in the organization needs to drive the “what” and “how” of your learning.
3.  Seek alignment with those you report to and your key stakeholders – their expectations, the challenges you face, and the resources you have.  Make an impact. 
4.  Understand how people want/need to work with you.  How do you build alignment and communicate with them?
5.  Build your team.  Yes, you’ll most likely inherit a team.  Individuals in the team may be in the wrong position, may need training, etc.  Shape, align, accelerate.
6.  Think about the early wins you need.  What will they look like?  How will you identify one to focus on?  How will you organize to reach them?  How do you build the support to make that happen?
7.  Build alliances to get it done.  These alliances may need to range well beyond your direct span of control and influence to include all that you need touch to get the new job done. 
I think that the video is well worth the 10 minutes to watch for anyone who is in the process of change now or who anticipates one in the next year or two.  There’s good, helpful “stuff” there.
Make it a great week.  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 
Michael Watkins, The First 90 Days Transition Roadmap Animation (video), Genesis Advisors December 2016.