Coaching New Leaders Part 6: We’re Not Mind Readers

Jerry Murphy has been our  guest blogger of a series of six posts focused on coaching new leaders. 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.

The new leader you’ve been coaching is now getting settled in. She’s taking charge, but there still seem to be a few rough edges around her team’s expectations…and hers.

She tells you, “I’ve made it clear to the team what our mission and goals are. Everyone seems to be on board, but there are a few things that still bother me. I can’t put my finger on it, but it doesn’t feel like we’re all in sync. It feels like they’re holding back. Do you know what I mean?”

Who are you?

You could challenge her statement that “everyone is on board” with the team’s mission and goals. It may be true, but a whole team being truly on board at this early point in the new leader’s tenure would be exceptional. The advent of a new leader automatically re-boots a team to some version of Bruce Tuckman’s “forming-storming-norming-performing” sequence. The team will reach the level of performing much faster if they really know who their new boss is. In fact, it’s the first thing a new team wants to know.

The big question is: has she presented herself fully and clearly to her new team? Here are some coaching-based questions that might help her: How well do you think they know you? Do you think they believe what you tell them? How do you know? Have you been clear in telling them what you believe in? What can you do to build on how you’ve introduced yourself? How can you model the kinds of behaviors you want to develop in them?

As Kouzes and Posner clearly demonstrate in The Leadership Challenge, a leader’s credibility and convictions are the foundations of effective leadership. She has to tell them—and show them—explicitly from the start and over time who she really is.

Who are they?

At least your new leader senses that things aren’t entirely in tune. But how well does she know her new team in terms of their aspirations and fears? In establishing himself as CEO of Amgen, Kevin Sharer posed several questions to his new senior team: What are the three things you’d like to make sure that we keep? What three things would you like to change? What is it that you would like me to do? What is it you’re afraid I’m going to do? And then, finally: Is there anything else you want to talk about? (quoted from Adam Bryant’s NYTines “Corner Office” column)

I’ve suggested to many new managers that they take a page from Kevin Sharer and have that probing conversation to get to know their teams. (See also Part 3 of this series, Listen to Learn.)

What are the rules of engagement?

We all tend to do things in ways that have been successful for us. The new manager will surely have a personal style and a set of preferences about how and when things get done, how people should behave, etc. But because she is a new manager, she may not have had the experience of laying her cards on the table to make these things clear to her team. She may even be unaware of some of her own preferences.

The celebrated executive coach, Marshall Goldsmith, states as the title of his book, “What got you here won’t get you there.” That may or may not be true in the case of the new manager you’re coaching, but at least she should make it clear to her team what did get her here, how she plans to get “there,” and what the team’s rules of engagement will be.

Some of the toughest situations we can have with a boss are around his or her assumption that we are mind readers, that we know exactly what they expect of us. That assumption can waste a lot of time and cause a lot of friction.

The new leader may neglect to tell her people what she wants, setting herself up for frustration when she doesn’t get it. You may be hearing that in her complaint that “It doesn’t feel like we’re all in sync.”

What works for you?

The new manager needs to share with her team not only what she expects of them in terms of the team’s mission and business strategy, but her work style. It might go something like, Here’s what has worked for me in the past. Tell me something about how you do things here. Then we can see which of these ways, or some other better way, might work for us going forward.

And her preferences? These are the numerous personal work habits that can either frustrate a team or help define its new working style. Ask her how she processes ideas. Does she prefer to think out loud and talk ideas through with her team? Or is she more likely to put things in writing and entertain ideas in a more formal style, such as a proposal? When does she prefer communicating face to face? By phone? By email? Most important: does her team know this yet?

The new manager should tie her preferences to business goals, as in:  I believe that the time we invest in our weekly meeting is important enough that we protect ourselves from any interruptions, so let’s agree that email and cell phones are not allowed.

It’s also important that she keep it within reason, and so avoid the trivial: I would like your memos to be in 12-point Helvetica.

Everyone will be watching the new leader as she takes over, especially her team. She will need to introduce herself authentically, model the behaviors she wants, and even state them explicitly at first. She will need to know her teammates, their experience, their style, their hopes, their fears.

She will need to show them, tell them, and at times negotiate with them and demonstrate flexibility when the situation warrants (flexibility may also be one of her preferences). And as in everything else between her and her team, she will need to reinforce desired behavior when she sees it and express her appreciation for accommodations and adjustments the team makes in the service of meeting their mission.

As her coach, you can be her mirror, helping her gain a greater level of self-awareness, as well as success at a critical moment of professional growth.

What actions have you seen managers take to introduce themselves to their team and learn about each member themselves?

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.