A few years ago I was interviewing someone for a leadership position. As we neared the end of the interview, I asked, “Describe what you will do in your first six months on the job.” The response took me back because of its simplicity and brilliance.
“Listen and learn” was his response. As I said, I was taken back by the simplicity of the response. I asked him to explain.
It went something like this, “I have a lot to offer and I have a lot of ideas. But none of my ideas will be worth anything if I don’t first listen to the people who are already doing the work.” Brilliant.
As you might expect, the candidate had done fairly well during the interview up to this point. And his thoughtful response to a fairly utilitarian question tipped the scale. At that point, I knew I had heard enough. I am reflecting on this experience because there’s a huge lesson in the response that I described for all of us, or anyone aspiring to move into a leadership role.
Transformational leaders understand that new programs, practices, policies and so on rely on people. To be an effective change agent, leaders must have an effect on the behaviors and mindsets of the people in the organization. This takes time, requires relationships to be built, and has to be cultivated.
Effective leaders, by nature, lean into the work. Because that is the case, new leaders often dive into their roles so enthusiastically that they don’t have a chance to fully assess what has been done before them. As a result, they inadvertently dismiss earlier successes, prior work and effort made by people still in the organization.
My advice to anyone taking on a new leadership role (learned the hard way) is as follows:
- Temporarily set aside your agenda. It is perfectly ok, if not expected, that the leader will have a vision and ideas about how to get there. However, new leaders should avoid making big arm movements for just enough time to adequately acknowledge and value the current people and systems in place.
- Listen and learn from everyone in the organization. The best way to get to the heart of a problem, or to develop possible solutions, is to talk with people who are on the front lines every day. In addition to obtaining insider information, spending time with people and asking for their opinion is (I think) the best first step to building relationships.
- Celebrate mini-successes. Organizational change and growth is a process. It cannot occur immediately, and sustainable improvement happens incrementally. While it is easy to get caught up in the fervor of reaching the long-term goal, it is important to remember to celebrate, or at least be grateful, for any step in the right direction.
Regardless of the type of organization, and regardless whether we are leading or following, we are all simply caretakers of the work of others that came before us. Our ability to make a difference is limited to the time during which we are given the opportunity. Therefore, it is critical that we be humble, recognize what has been done before and then build upon that work.