Change the role, change the rules

As we start the New Year, many of us will take on new, more challenging roles. And in the main, that will mean replacing the previous incumbent. You may be taking on your initial managerial position with subordinates reporting to you for the first time or assuming the country manager job in place of a ‘legend’ who’s moving on to higher things. One thing that’s certain is that no matter how good or not so good that predecessor was, you are always going to be judged on his or her strengths as those will have come to be defined implicitly as the key criteria for the role.  From the get-go, you’re nearly always going to look second best and this is clearly not ideal.  Therefore, from a leadership stance, one of your first actions when you change your role is to change the rules.

If your predecessor was an outgoing ‘people person’ and you’re more of an introvert but with a strong technical bent or a shrewd eye for sales, there’s no point in you trying to be the extrovert everyone likes to be around. Instead switch the focus of the business or unit to become more sales oriented and focused on technical excellence. This will support and exploit your strengths as well as highlight your value and so make it easier for you to create the time to work on the stuff where you need more help.

In more pressing circumstances, you have may been brought in to your new role as a deliberate change agent. On arrival, you look around and there’s a general panic because everything seems to need doing all at once and many people (especially those who are in denial about the problems) believe there’s little that can be done to rescue the situation. Here, my advice is to give yourself time to get to know the business and its issues (MR businesses are complex to build and easy to break), but somehow simultaneously announce and demonstrate that you intend to “change the rules”. In this case, I recommend searching around for some historical quirk (all mature businesses will have one) that is high profile (people care about it) where changes will have good internal PR impact, but is unlikely to have unanticipated ‘flow-on’ effects.  It’s often something linked to internal bureaucracy: an anachronistic HR policy or long, unfocused management meetings with overextended agendas (if this is the case, break the meeting in two held on separate days – one for internal topics, one focused on clients and sales). When you discover a couple of these make well publicised changes – this announces clearly you are in charge, while buying you a bit of time to dig down and discover what fundamental structure problems may be.

When all’s said and done, it’s probable you’re not going to be liked that much in your early days as many of your plans and decisions will go against the expected norm or the ‘way we do things around here’. Don’t let that bother you unduly, it’s part of the reason you got the role in the first place. When you’re bringing something fresh and of significance to the situation that you can communicate and pass on, you will win acceptance. A close colleague of mine once received a back-handed compliment from an ambitious young lady who went on to become the regional head for one of the major agencies. On the day my colleague left to move overseas, the subordinate said “Frankly, I didn’t like you much when you took over the team as you didn’t spend so much time with us as the previous boss. But I’ve learned more from you on design and client service in the past year or so than ever before so I have to thank you for something!”

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