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Your first 365 Leadership Days

So you have just taken over your first leadership role, and truth be told, it is extremely hairy isn’t it? Whereas you previously had to only handle your own productivity, your own output, your own quality, you now have a whole team to take care of. Suddenly, the issue is no longer about how YOU are going to deliver, but how you are going to help YOUR TEAM deliver. You are called to become bigger than yourself, and for some of you, that can be very scary! So for first-time leaders, this article may well help you power through the next 365 days!

Your first month

During the first month, you might still be a little shell-shocked. Everything is coming at you in a flash and you may be scrambling to connect all the dots and getting things done. If you have been promoted from, and continue to contribute, within the same department – though not necessarily in the same team - there might be some familiarity to the processes. However, you are expected to think along a higher plane, and you are given more information about the way things are run, about decisions, and you are expected to bridge departmental leadership's intent with your team members'. It is extremely crucial at this stage not to make any changes. Instead, let things flow as how they have been doing, even if they seem irrational to you. This is because you need to get a handle on what your boss expects of you, what your team expects of you and what you expect of yourself and of your members. Hence, in the first month of leadership, you should be spending time to get to know your boss and your team, and create a line of communication that will help you smoothen rough edges that will inevitably arise when challenges hit, rather than improving processes.

Your second month

You will probably have survived your first departmental meeting, and while your department head cuts you some slack as you get yourself up to speed, she does not expect that productivity and output will fall. In fact, there is an expectation that things will be better than it was before, since you are the bright new star coming in to lead your team further. It is during this time that you see how your team plugs into the larger scheme of work, and you also understand even more of how the system operates. You might be called upon to answer certain things that you might not have full knowledge of, or worse, didn’t happen during your watch. As the leader, you have to take the responsibility to look into the matter, and even to resolve it, regardless of who was the leader then. Here, you must resist the urge to jump in with a solution without digging deeper; even if you have an inkling of what the solution is. This is because there are many issues that look obvious on the surface, but have systemic issues that can only be uncovered through more deliberate thinking. It is also at this time you start to think about what you want the team to achieve, aligning it with corporate objectives.

Your third month

It is important that by the second department meeting, you can outline your team’s goals, and how they are aligned with your department’s and, ultimately, with your organisation’s. This means that you would have to run your own internal meetings, your own internal planning, your own internal training. You need to review how the team has performed over the last few quarters, where they have done well and where they were lacking, and co-create a solution with your team members to move forward. This is an important point – you need to work out the solution with your team members together, while you lead the discussion. This is your first major contribution as a leader, and how well you do here will determine if you will get a cohesive team, or a disruptive one. The keys to leading your first planning session are:

  1. Do not prescribe

  2. Decide on a process and work the process

  3. Ensure that there is full participation from all team members – do not accept anyone's preference to pass, or to defer to the majority. Say to all that their views are important and you would like to hear what they have to say

  4. If you have a better solution, put it out there in the planning session and allow the team members to agree or disagree with it. The last thing you want is a passive-aggressive team – one that agrees in front of you, but privately subverts your plans. Better to have a good plan that everyone agrees with, and carries out wholeheartedly, than a better plan that everyone tries to sabotage.

  5. Get everyone’s buy-in by asking them to reiterate their contribution to the plan, raising any doubts, and getting all questions answered.

  6. Put it down in writing, and get every team member to sign off on it.

Your fourth and fifth months

These are your two relatively quieter months as you allow the plan to work, and the results to unfold. Where there are areas of poor outcomes, you dive deeper to understand the contributing factors, and identify solutions. You are also monitoring both the individual output and team output, verifying the success metrics, ensuring that you are proceeding along the right path, and pivoting the team’s direction if it is straying off course. You are, all this while, engaging with your team, as you are keeping your department leaders apprised of goings-on. And this latter part is crucial. While you build rapport with your team members, you must also build a good connection with your boss. You must show to her that you are both a good leader and a team player. Being a team player to her may sometimes mean that you will do things that your team members might not support. You cannot allow your boss to think that your team will not support the departmental effort, even if, on the surface of it, this effort doesn’t sound totally logical. Ultimately, if the departmental leadership has decided a course of action, everyone in the department must support it. And that, therefore, means that you play the bridge between departmental goals, and team goals; and you need to exercise your influencing skills.

Your sixth month

Ah! Half a year! Time to review how well you have done! At this point in time, you need to speak to each member of your team and ask him/her how you have done as a leader. You must create a space of relative safety so that they can provide you their feedback with all honesty without you having to justify for yourself, nor feel slighted for it. The whole intent of asking for feedback is to make sure that you are leading the team well, creating the right conditions for progress, and supporting each of them in achieving their personal intent on the job. You will also be engaging with your boss, understanding what she thinks about your progress, asking for specific feedback to get things better.

Along the same time as you are seeking feedback, you would also be providing your sixth-month feedback for your team members. By this time, you would already have identified the different personalities in your team, knowing what motivates each of them, what dreams they have, what priorities they have and who are your greatest allies. You would also start coaching both weak and superior performers, so that the team is levelled up.

Your seventh to ninth month

So you’ve gotten to stretch your leadership legs and you received your first feedback sessions, providing coaching, and starting your team on a developmental track. Hopefully, all is going well for you, and you and your team are on the right path. The next quarter would be one of great productivity for you. During this time, you can start to initiate team projects. Projects are a great way to allow your team to stretch itself, develop its own identity, and pull itself away from the pack. Do not try to bite off more than you can chew; start small and working on low hanging fruits. Try to complete the project within a 3-month time frame. This will help you keep the focus sharp, the project narrowly defined. The intent is to give your team members an opportunity to show their mettle without having to feel that it is a chore. After all, their daily KPIs must still be met! This, in a sense, is an outside-of-office-hours-KPI, and hence must be both clear and succinct. Of course, not all members of the team will be sold on this project idea, and this provides another great opportunity for you to flex your influencing muscles, pulling everyone together, and working the best win-win solution for all members.