Coaching New Leaders Part 1: Showing Up Isn’t 80% of Success

Jerry Murphy is guest blogger of a series of six posts focused on coaching new leaders. The series will run consecutively.
Read about Jerry below.

One of a manager’s most challenging and rewarding situations is working with someone who is becoming a manager herself—either a first-time manager or taking on a new leadership position.

In this series of posts, I identify opportunities for you to use a coaching orientation to help you facilitate this transition for any of your people. This will help you to frame powerful questions, calibrating your “listening radar” for common issues, and offer appropriate suggestions for their consideration.

Getting up to speed in a new leadership position is a unique challenge. Many helpful resources are available, particularly for senior execs (e.g. Michael Watkins’ The First 90 Days). But this transition can be much the same at any level.  A few big themes to listen for and explore when you’re coaching a new leader are:

  • Taking charge
  • Identifying key stakeholders
  • Listening/learning
  • Recognizing one’s strengths and weaknesses
  • Developing good working relationships with new colleagues
  • Communicating openly and clearly

Today I’ll focus on taking charge. Despite Woody Allen’s famous quote about success being mostly a matter of “just showing up,” someone who’s becoming a new manager or is taking on a new leadership position needs to take control of her start-up as much as possible.

It’s tempting for someone in transition to just let it happen…meet and greet the new colleagues, go through the onboarding program, figure out how to log onto the network and use the new phone, etc. Even this much can be an overwhelming experience for many people (remember that first day of school?) and all these new and different experiences can impose a heavy cognitive load, reducing productivity.

To be sure the person you’re helping develop takes an activist role in her own start-up, you can ask what items she would put on a checklist. The list should include all the steps necessary for her to introduce herself and get the critical information she needs to be productive as early as possible. (Another great resource is The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande.) Encourage her to dig deep to consider all actions she can take, and then to make  a “strategic checklist” of the items she’s identified.

Here are a few basic steps for you—as manager/coach—to listen for and questions to ask as you’re coaching a transitioning manager to take charge.

  • Frequent meetings with the whole team
    Even if she already knows them, ask, “How do you plan to introduce yourself? How do you define your role? In what ways can you establish the style and cadence of your leadership? How is your group performing? What’s their ‘vibe’?”
  • Individual meetings with each direct report
    “How can you learn more about the individuals in your group as people, about their aspirations, and their performance, potential and motivation?”
  • Probing questions for the team
    Ask her to offer samples of incisive questions she put to her team. You can offer suggestions such as: What are three things they’d like to keep? What three things would they like to change? What would they like you to do? What is it they’re afraid you might do?”
  • Conversations with other key leaders
    Learn as much as possible about their priorities and their expectation, near-term, mid-term and long-term. Ask them the same questions you asked your team. “What else would you like to learn from them that could help you in your performance?”
  • Meetings with functional heads
    She should have a talk with support functions like IT and HR, as well as the business functions that interact with her unit or team. “What kinds of information could they provide that could help you?”
  • Additional conversations
    If she now has P&L responsibility, suggest she meet with the finance people. Advise that she get her arms around the numbers ASAP, and is clearly aligned on the key performance indicators for her unit. Ask her where there may be gaps in her understanding or additional resources she needs.  As far as possible she should also meet with key accounts and key internal stakeholders, managers of important projects, etc. if she’s in a  customer-facing  position, she will obviously have many stakeholders in the marketplace as well. Discuss this. If she will not be dealing directly with customers, ask, “is there a colleague who can take you out to meet with some customers?”

By the end of this process, the individual you’re coaching should have developed a map of stakeholders, issues, and resources that can be her platform for a successful start. Literally mapping this network on a large sheet of paper (or by using mind-mapping software) is a valuable exercise tht will create a living document that she should update regularly as her network and influence grow.

What tip(s) can you add to help a transitioning manager “take charge?” (Enter your answer below.)

If you found this post helpful, check out “About the Book” on this blog, and order yourself a copy of “What could happen if you do nothing?” A manager’s handbook for coaching conversations.

Jerry Murphy is president of Giraffe LLC, a New York-based consulting practice, and Giraffe Business Publishing, a multimedia publishing venture. He serves an international client group of business leaders, teams, and organizations in improving their performance through coaching, leadership development programs, and organizational learning and development.