I had all the wisdom of a 23-year-old and all the experience of a junior officer who spent the past year in Naval training schools. In other words, I had no idea what I was doing. But I was in charge.
My first leadership job was taking over the Reactor Controls Department on the nuclear submarine, USS Tennessee. I had 6 or 7 guys reporting to me including a Chief Petty Officer who had joined the Navy when I was still in elementary school. My team knew vastly more than I did, yet in the wisdom of the U.S. Navy, I was assigned to lead them on our next deployment.
This same scene plays out countless times each day in businesses across the country when a new leader gets their first leadership assignment.
So how do you do it? How do you lead when you’ve never led before? How do you lead people who are older and have more experience than you? How do keep from looking foolish?
After leading men and women in the military and in business for the past 28 years, I believe there are some things that are essential for a young leader to do to earn the respect of their team. These techniques work for an experienced leader taking on a new team as well.
Get out of the office. The most important step is to get out of your office and go to where your people are. This allows you to observe your team and their work environment. It also makes you visible as well.
Set the tone. Do something very early to set the tone. In one manufacturing plant, I eliminated the reserved parking spaces for managers. In another, I addressed an obvious safety problem. Show your team what your values are early by taking a stand on something that doesn’t meet your standards.
Listen to employees. This is simple but it is often overlooked. Meet with your employees both at their work stations and privately. Get to know them and find out how things are going. Listen to them. Observe what is working well and what needs to be fixed. You will be surprised by the common themes you hear.
Visit customers. Seek out the people that your business or department considers a customer. Depending on your role, they could be actual customers or another department. Learn what your customers like about your team and listen to their concerns.
Evaluate your team. Begin assessing your team members. Who are the thought leaders? Who are the influencers? Who has the most respect from their peers? Who is going to be an early adopter to your leadership style? Who is going to resist you? Understanding your team and the potential dynamics will be important as you begin to roll out new initiatives.
Find a senior advisor. Look for someone on your team who will give you honest feedback on your performance and how it is impacting the team. This is often a senior employee who is not looking to be a manager and is well respected by their peers.
Fix the biggest problems. As you get to know your people, you will find a general consensus about several big problems they are facing. Attacking and fixing these issues early will garner their respect. As a leader, there are some problems only you can address.
Cast a vision. As you understand the directives of your boss, the capabilities of your people, and the feedback from customers, it is important to cast a vision of where you want your team to go. Leaders need to establish the vision and direction early. Even if the details are not firm, cast a vision to inspire them.
Look for early wins. Look for opportunities to gain an early victory to demonstrate your vision can be achieved. As an example, I had a manufacturing plant that shipped 80% of its revenue in the last week of every month. It was chaos in that last week and, I was told, it couldn’t be fixed. I set a goal to level-load the plant and ship 25% of the monthly revenue each week. It took several months, but we finally hit the weekly target. After that, there was an overall feeling we could finally fix the problem.
Celebrate successes. Confirm the importance of goal achievement by celebrating successes. Have a party when you hit your big goals. I once promised a lobster and steak dinner to a workforce of about 250 people when we reached a million hours without a lost time accident. When we hit the goal, we flew 500 lobsters in from Maine and had a big party to celebrate.
If you follow these steps and use a little common sense, you can be a great leader despite having no leadership experience. Leadership is a people business. Getting to know your team and listening to their feedback is critical. It’s also important to lead by example by being on-time, working hard, and showing respect.
What do you think? Have you used some of these techniques? How did it work? What is some other advice that can help young leaders? Have you seen young leaders fail? What did they do wrong? What are some pitfalls to avoid? Let me know in the comment section below.