10 Steps to Survive and Thrive in Your First Leadership Job

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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.

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.

The 7 Best Employee Gifts

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This is the time of the year where we think about gifts. We gather with family and friends and exchange gifts that we hope will be meaningful.  It’s also the time of year where we begin to reflect on the past year and plan for the next.

As you think back on this past year as a leader, what gifts did you give to the people who work for you? I’m not talking about physical gifts but the things you did that will leave a lasting impact on your employees.

A 2013 study by Glassdoor found that 66% of employees believe their direct managers had an impact on their careers. 52% said the impact was positive while 20% said it was negative. Whether we like it or not, leaders affect the careers of the people who follow us.

As I look back at all the leaders I have worked for, I can think of many gifts I have received that have helped me grow in my career but these seven stand out as the best:

  1. The Gift of Trust – As a junior officer assigned to my first submarine, I had a commanding officer who regularly chose me for the toughest assignments. Even though I doubted my own skills, he trusted me. That trust gave me confidence.
  1. The Gift of Appreciation – I once had a boss who sent a large basket of cookies and snacks to my home after he hired me. He included a note that said, “I’m looking forward to all the great things I know you will do.” It was a simple gesture that said he appreciated me as a person even before I started work.
  1. The Gift of Faith – The leader who selected me to run my first manufacturing plant chose me for the job, despite the fact I had never run an operation before. His action told me that he had faith in my abilities and I worked hard to prove him right.
  1. The Gift of Support – When I was going through a career transition, I had several former bosses go out of their way to provide support and advice.  Their support during a stressful time was exactly what I needed to make a successful transition.
  1. The Gift of Encouragement – As a young design engineer, I had a major failure of a new product at the test lab costing my company thousands of dollars. I had to call my boss to give him the bad news. Instead of a reprimand, he encouraged me to learn as much as I could about the failure, improve the product, and to get back to the lab.
  1. The Gift of Recognition – I have had bosses present me awards or have recognized me publicly for my actions. In most cases, it was a total surprise. Although I don’t work for the recognition, it is nice to get that type of positive feedback.
  1. The Gift of a Challenge – I once had a boss challenge a business plan I developed. Even though I had created a solid plan, he asked one simple question which changed everything. He said, “This is great, but what are you missing that could create even more growth?” That challenge was the catalyst that changed our entire thinking and business model.

As we approach the end of the year and begin to reflect, think about the gifts you have been giving. What are you doing to grow your employees? What lasting impact will you have on their careers?  What is the spark that will ignite their growth as a leader? What can you do differently in 2017 to give even better gifts?

Are you Leading a Rebellion in your Industry?

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“Rebellions are Built on Hope” ~ Jyn Erso, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Yes, I am a Star Wars fan. In fact, I’m old enough to have seen the first three movies in the theater when they were originally released. I love all the movies in the Star Wars franchise but Rogue One spoke to me as an entrepreneur and a leader.

If you haven’t seen it, the story features a character named Jyn Erso who leads a small team of rebels to capture plans which will help the Rebellion destroy a powerful new weapon the Empire has developed.

In one scene, the leaders of the Rebellion are meeting to decide on how to confront the Empire and their new weapon. Discouraged by fear and the overwhelming force of the Empire, the rebel leaders decide to disband and hide.

It’s at this point when Jyn and a small team of committed volunteers decide to do something about it. Against all odds, their tiny band of rebels takes on the Empire. Their heroic actions create a spark that ignites the rest of the Rebellion forces to join in the fight.

As a leader of a small company competing against large industry giants, I have been in those meetings where fear was present.  It’s natural to look at the size and strength of your competitors and become discouraged. What gives me confidence in these situations is to remember other David and Goliath stories.

One that I recall the most is the story of Netflix and Blockbuster Video. Back in 2000, Blockbuster was the giant in the industry and Netflix was just a small start-up. I can imagine the small team at Netflix was easily discouraged when they considered the size and strength of their rival who had 60,000 employees and 8,000 stores.

“A leader is a dealer in hope.” ~ Napoleon Bonaparte

This is where hope comes in. Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the most brilliant military leaders in history stated that, “A leader is a dealer in hope.” This is especially important in a small business facing overwhelming odds. A leader must be the spark that ignites the rest of team.

As in the Rogue One story and the case of Blockbuster Video, large and powerful competitors always have a weakness. It’s the job of the leader to find that weakness and rally their team to exploit it. We should never underestimate what a small team of committed volunteers can do against overwhelming odds.

We each have the power to lead a rebellion in our industry. So, what are you doing to lead your rebellion? Have you found the weaknesses of your largest competitor? Are you rallying your team to exploit those weaknesses? Does your team look to the future with hope or are they discouraged by fear?

As a small business leader, we deal in hope. What hope are you providing today?

5 Qualities Every Employee Wants in a Boss

Great article by Randy Conley. It seems like common sense but too often these simple leadership traits are overlooked.

Leading with Trust

I-Love-My-BossBosses…most of us have one. Some are good and some are not so good. But every one of them has an impact. The question is, what kind of impact? Does their influence cause learning, growth, and success for their team members, or does it damper their enthusiasm, discourage autonomy, and produce mediocrity?

I believe leadership may be a complex notion but it doesn’t have to be complicated in practice. There are basic, common sense behaviors that successful leaders share.

To illustrate this principle of common sense leadership, I asked my wife, two sons, and nephew to list five qualities they want in a boss. The similarity in their lists was remarkable (and pretty common sense). By no means do they represent a statistically significant population size, but their answers are valuable nuggets of leadership wisdom that any leader should put into practice.

Here are five common sense qualities every employee wants in…

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