10 Steps to Survive and Thrive in Your First Leadership Job

33956720 - hiker walking in a valley

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.

Great Leaders Aren’t Afraid to Love Their Teams

Love their Team TwitterOne frustrating thing I see in leaders from time to time is a negative attitude towards people. Many choose a career in leadership who don’t like dealing with people. Unfortunately, they usually find they are less effective as a leader with this mindset. The reason is that leadership is inherently a people business.

“Leadership is a people business.”

The entire role of a leader is to motivate a team of people towards accomplishing an objective. Great leaders know that. They also know people are messy. People have issues, problems, emotions, quirks, hang-ups, baggage, and can be unpredictable. A great leader can see past the flaws, love their people, and motivate them to do great things. In my opinion, you can’t be a great leader if you don’t love people.

“Great leaders actually love their teams more than they love themselves.” Donald Miller

Donald Miller, founder and CEO of Storybrand, sees it the same way. I like his thoughts on this subject as he reflects on the culture he built at his company. One of the core values he put in place was to “make his employees’ dreams come true by serving clients faithfully.”  I thought it was interesting that he purposely intertwined serving customers with the dreams of his employees. In his view, loving your employees means helping reach their full potential.

“Great leaders can see the greatness in others when they can’t see it themselves and lead them to their highest potential they don’t even know.” Roy T. Bennett

Miller credits the growth of his company to the “secret ingredient” of love. Things changed at his company as they started to live out these core values. As he loved and respected his employees, they loved each other, and they worked as a team to better serve customers. He built a culture of respect with a foundation in love.

He explains that love can be quite scary, though:

Love doesn’t give you complete control over people. Love means you can’t disrespect them when you’re frustrated. Love means you really understand that people aren’t just a cog in a wheel. Love means you have to allow people to hurt you and let you down, and they will, just as you will them. But love also means you forgive, you don’t keep score, you show grace and you protect each other at all costs.

 And sometimes, protecting people means you have to let some people go. People that don’t fit into the culture or try and take advantage of the environment need to be dealt with. The sooner you address it, the better it is for that employee and the rest of the team.

He has two fundamental rules which has helped him create a culture of love and respect:

  1. Hire people who are better, smarter and faster than you.
  2. Never mess with their hearts.

What do you think? Does love belong in the workplace? Can a culture of love and respect boost a company’s performance? How will employees react when they feel their boss truly cares about their hopes and dreams? Why don’t more leaders practice this? Let me know in the comment section below.

Remembering 9/11: Lessons in Crisis Leadership

Patriot Day

The world changed on September 11, 2001. And as a leader, I changed too.

I was seven years out of the Navy and leading my first manufacturing plant. My time in the military was over and I had started a new career running a factory which made products for the electric utility industry.  The world was relatively peaceful and, as a former Cold War submarine officer, I felt like I had done my small part to make it that way. My life was business and manufacturing now, military life was in the past.

On that fateful morning, my assistant came into my office and told me I needed to get to the cafeteria quickly. I wasn’t sure what was happening but I ran down to see. I had recently installed TVs in our break room so employees could watch the news during their down time. I arrived to see the first World Trade Center tower burning from an apparent plane crash. Like many, I watched in horror as the second plane hit the other tower on live TV.

I was trying to come to grips with what I was seeing when I was suddenly struck with the realization that none of my 160 employees even knew what was unfolding in New York City. Something bad was happening and I needed to let them know right away. Maybe my military training kicked in or maybe I just knew people needed to hear this terrible news directly from their boss.

I didn’t have a 1MC loudspeaker system like I had in the Navy to inform the crew of critical information, so I improvised. I had the supervisors gather all the employees to the front of the plant where we had some extra space. I climbed into a scissor lift and raised myself up so everyone could see me.

I proceeded to tell them everything that was happening and all the limited information I knew. I saw the shocked faces and the looks of disbelief. I was struck with emotion and I asked everyone to bow their heads. I said a small prayer for the people of New York. I then told everyone to go to the cafeteria to see for themselves. I went as well.

In the days and weeks following, I saw amazing examples of leadership and I learned the importance of crisis communications. I saw New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, everywhere. He held press conferences, met with reporters, and talked to people on the streets. Still covered in dust from the towers, he told the world what he knew and what the city was doing in response to the attack. When asked how many were feared dead, he responded emotionally, “The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear ultimately.”

A few days after the attack, I watched President Bush tour ground zero. I watched his emotion as he grabbed a bullhorn and climbed a pile of rubble. With an arm around firefighter Bob Beckwith, he probably gave the best speech of his life. “I can hear you!” he declared. “The rest of the world hears you! And the people – and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”

I never thought much about crisis leadership before 9/11. The events of that day and the weeks that followed made me realize its importance. When everything goes wrong, people look to their leaders for answers, guidance, and reassurance. In an instant, the leader’s role changes when a crisis occurs. If you find yourself in this situation, remember these three simple principles:

Be present. The most important thing is to be there. Like Rudy Giuliani, people need to see us. We need to be where our people are. They need to talk to us. We need to answer their questions and let them know what to do. In a crisis, a leader’s role changes. Like President Bush, we need to get out of our offices and go to ground zero.

Be honest. In the middle of a crisis, when very little is known, people have a lot of questions. As leaders, we often don’t have the answers and that’s alright. The most important thing is to be honest and tell people what you know and what they need to do. In most cases, the information will change. So, like Giuliani, provide regular updates to let your team know what is going on.

Be real. Crisis communications needs to be authentic. When things are going bad, you need to have a real dialogue with your team. This is not a time for polished speeches. Let them know how you feel and don’t be afraid to show your emotions. The last thing people need to see in a crisis is an unemotional, uncaring leader.

Patriot Day is a National Day of Service and Remembrance where we remember and honor those who were lost on 9/11. We honor the heroes who ran into burning buildings, the passengers who stormed the cockpit, the men and women serving their country when the Pentagon was attacked, and all the innocent lives who were lost.

Like many, I was forever changed by the events that day. As America was pulled into a war against a new global enemy, I learned I was underprepared to handle a crisis as a civilian leader. I discovered how important crisis leadership is. I know now that, in an instant, a leader’s role can drastically change. I observed great examples of crisis leadership and I learned what to do when the next time a crisis hits.

What do you think? Do you know how you will react as a leader in the next crisis? Do you train for crisis management and communications? What other leadership lessons can we learn from the events of 9/11? Let me know in the comment section below.

3 Reasons Why Leaders Need a No Whining Policy

5226742 - of nine month baby crying, isolatedWhen Pope Francis tells you to stop whining, you know there is power in the message. Since becoming the new pope, Francis has been a model of humility, empathy, and compassion. It’s obvious he cares deeply for people, especially the poor and oppressed. But a few weeks back, he did something that made headlines. He installed a sign on the door of his private apartment at the Vatican that essentially says, “No Whining.”

This powerful statement from one of the world’s most influential leaders made me think about the concept of “victimhood.” As leaders, we know the importance of listening and empathy. We know that caring for people and their needs creates a better work environment. But, what if we allow it to go too far? What if, out of compassion, we allow whining and complaining to get out of control?

The answer comes from the fine print in the Pope’s new sign. According to Reuters, the sign warns that continued whining leads to a mentality of “always feeling like a victim and the consequent reduction of your sense of humor and capacity to solve problems.” It then reminds the reader that “to get the best out of yourself, concentrate on your potential and not on your limitations…stop complaining and take steps to improve your life.”

“Be grateful for what you have and stop complaining – it bores everybody else, does you no good, and doesn’t solve any problems.” Zig Ziglar

Leaders need to be good listeners but, as Pope Francis reminds us, we need to watch out for excessive complaining. We need to avoid situations where people become victims, losing their capacity to solve problems. A “no whining” policy will help our organizations in three distinct ways.

Whining drains energy. Valid concerns from employees who care and want to make things better are good. But constant complaining from those who seem to be perpetually unhappy drains the energy of the team. Whiners want to be heard but they don’t necessarily want things fixed. Their negative attitude affects everyone around them and hurts the team’s morale. Leaders need to recognize this and intervene.

“Complaining not only ruins everybody else’s day, it ruins the complainer’s day, too. The more we complain, the more unhappy we get.” Dennis Prager

Whining reinforces a victim mentality. A victim mentality is formed when someone sees themselves as a sufferer of the negative action of others. Victims feel powerless to affect their circumstances. As leaders, if we accept the constant whining and complaining of employees, we help reinforce their condition. They will lose the capacity to solve their own problems. Instead, we should challenge these employees and ask them what they are going to do to get out of their situation.

Whining is selfish. Whiners are focused on themselves and their negative circumstances. Their “woe is me” attitude leaves little room for them to care about others and the job at hand. In an organization, this is detrimental to good teamwork. It’s the role of the leader to observe this behavior and confront it. Focus the whiner on tasks that will help others or the goals of the organization.

Leadership is a people business. We know that caring for people and their needs creates a better work environment. But, as Pope Francis points out, we can’t let whining and complaining get out of control. Perpetual complainers, if not confronted, will drain the energy of a team. We also run the risk of prolonging their victim mentality. In the end, whining and complaining are selfish acts that run counter to good teamwork and goal achievement. A “no whining” policy is essential to a well-run organization.

What do you think? What’s it like to work around people who are constantly complaining? What happens if that behavior is not confronted? Have you confronted whiners? How did that affect them and the organization? Let me know in the comment section below.

To Bring Your Plans to Life, You Need a Dedicated Crew

USS TEXAS (SSN 775) COMMISSIONING

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Roadell Hickman

“Officers and crew of the United States Gerald R. Ford, man our ship and bring her to life!” commanded Susan Ford Bales, daughter of President Ford and sponsor of the newest U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford.

The command was answered by sailors in crisp, white uniforms peeling off formation and running to man the rails of the newest warship in the U.S. Navy. “Anchors Aweigh” played, horns blared, bells rang out, and the U.S. flag was raised to full mast. Within minutes, the captain was informed that “the ship is manned and ready and reports for duty to the fleet.”

As I watched this emotional ceremony play out this past weekend, I couldn’t help but think about the powerful message that was being delivered. The imagery, the speeches, and the commands all communicated one point, the crew brings the ship to life.

“A ship is only as good as the people who serve on it.” Donald Trump

As a business leader and former Naval Officer, I know this to be true but sometimes we forget. It’s easy to get caught up in the importance of our business plans, strategic initiatives, and stretch goals. Often we forget, it’s people that bring these plans to life.Without her crew, the $13 billion state-of-the-art nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is nothing but a hunk of cold steel sitting in the harbor. Without a dedicated crew, all our plans our dead as well.

So, how do you get a dedicated crew to bring your plans to life? Let me suggest four important things to consider.

Get people involved in the planning. When people are involved in creating the plans, they have more ownership. Annual off-site planning sessions are a great way to do this. If done right, these sessions can create energy, excitement, and bonding in the team. It also helps to focus the team on the key objectives for the year. To learn more about how to conduct a good annual planning session, see my article 10 Step Guide to Lead your Team into the New Year.

Communicate your plans in a straight-forward manner. I’ve worked for three global companies and one of the things that frustrated me is how they communicated plans. Global companies are complex and their plans are complicated but the communication process shouldn’t be. Using 100+ PowerPoint slides to communicate your vision is not effective. Focus your plans into a handful of important points and use stories to illustrate your message. Doing this will get more people on board.

Seek feedback and be willing to adjust your plans. Rolling out new plans in small groups is an effective way to let teams absorb the message and provide feedback. Listening to feedback is critical for two main reasons. It allows teams to internalize the plan and it allows you to learn things you hadn’t considered. Seeking feedback will help get even more people on board.

Corral the naysayers. Despite your best efforts, there will always be those on your team that don’t buy into the message. It’s important to identify those individuals and meet with them individually. If they have constructive feedback, hear them out. Everyone deals with change differently. If they are simply unwilling to get on board, it might be time to part ways. Naysayers can have a negative impact on morale and can hurt the overall team’s performance. It’s better to deal with the problem than ignore it.

A ship is nothing without her crew and a plan is nothing without people to implement it. If you spend a long time developing a plan, spend twice that amount of effort getting people on board. Without a dedicated crew, your plan is going nowhere. Take the advice from this article and get more people involved in the planning process. Work on a straight-forward communications plan and seek feedback. And most importantly, corral the naysayers. If you do these things, you will bring your plans to life.

What do you think? Have you used these principles in the past? What were the results? What other ideas have worked for getting your team on board? What are some examples of great planning and poor execution? What went wrong? Let me know in the comment section below.