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.

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.

Stop Expecting People to be Perfect

Donald Miller WP

I have written many times that leadership is a people business. It’s about motivating and challenging people to accomplish big things. If you don’t like people, you shouldn’t be a leader. The truth is, people are messy. They have fears, anxieties, quirks, annoying habits, hangups, issues, and problems. Each member of your team is probably struggling with something at home or at work that is affecting them in some way. Leading people is not simple and can be frustrating at times. But that’s OK.

“When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are.” Donald Miller

Reading Donald Miller’s book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, made me think about this leadership issue again. People are amazing and they can truly surprise you with what they can do, but, if you expect them to be perfect every day, you are going to be discouraged. So, as Miller suggests, stop expecting perfection from your employees and enjoy who they are and what they bring to your team. Embrace the mess and keep motivating them towards great things.

What do you think? Why do we seem to focus on the negatives? How can we look past the quirks and annoying habits to see the best in people? If we simply accept people as they are, how much more could they contribute to the team? Let me know in the comment section below.