When You are the New Boss
Steps to follow after being promoted into a management position
One of us (Foltz) recently started a new job at the Ohio State University — after 26 years at the University of Idaho. Starting a new job with a new employer (even though he had two degrees from Ohio State and worked there previously — it had been 36 years!) is a real change of pace and a bit of a challenge. Getting ready for this change led him to develop a plan and also led him to a book written by Dr. Michael D. Watkins — a former Harvard Business School faculty member, titled “The First 90 Days (Harvard Business School Publishing, 2013).” It is an excellent read, and Watkins shares some great ideas for anyone moving into a new position of authority (an internal or external move) in a business. His suggestions and ideas are research-based and provide some of the background for our column this issue.
Do the right things — essential transitions tasks
Watkins outlines 10 areas which help create momentum for success. We will touch on them below, and incorporate some applications to the grain and feed industry.
As you embark on a role as the new manager or owner of a feed or grain business, you need to take a “mental break” from your old job — and prepare to take charge in your new position. Watkins makes a unique point here —
“Perhaps the biggest pitfall you face is assuming that what has made you successful to this point will continue to do so. The dangers of sticking with what you know, working extremely hard at doing it, and failing miserably are very real.” The point is that you may have received a promotion or been hired to head a new firm due to your past performance. However, your new position may require a different set of skills, and/or tactical ability to work with and manage people.
If you are promoted to a higher level within your existing feed or grain firm, Dr. Watkins makes the case for “influencing differently.” Decision making becomes more political — less so about authority and more about influence. When you move up a level or two, the issues that you are dealing with become much more complex and ambiguous. Decisions are shaped more by others’ expert judgment and who trusts whom, as well as by networks of mutual support. Additionally — at a higher level in the business — the other players are more capable and have stronger egos. You were promoted because you are able and driven — not surprisingly, the same is true for everyone around you! At this level, you need to become more effective at building and sustaining alliances.
Accelerate your learning
You need to move up the “learning curve” in your new position as quickly as possible. In your new business, this means understanding the markets, technologies, products, systems and structures as well as its culture and politics. You need to become extremely familiar with your new organization (if you are new to the business). It is advisable to be systematic and focused about deciding what you need to learn and how you will learn it. A possible suggestion here is meet with all of your new employees — either individually or in small groups and get to know them (Foltz found this very helpful in his transition). You might even prepare a questionnaire — to ask them about their background, family, education, what they think are the strengths and weaknesses of the business, and what they might change if they could. Such an approach can be time-consuming, but it can provide great insight and give you the credibility of listening broadly.
Specifically, in the grain and feed business, this accelerated learning might include visiting with your state Grain and Feed Association Executive, key people with the State Department of Agriculture, and/or faculty in the Agricultural Economics Department at the state Land Grant University. All of these folks can give you key insight on changes in the industry, current drivers and key competitors.
Match your strategy to the situation
Watkins outlines four scenarios that managers typically find themselves in, when you are hired into a new position (which he calls the “STARS” model). These scenarios are: a Start-up, Turnaround, Accelerated growth, Realignment and Sustaining success. We will discuss each of these scenarios in further detail below. His point for this area is that different situations require different strategies and methods of execution. A good diagnosis of the situation into which you are entering, is a key prerequisite for developing a plan of action.
Start-up: In a start-up, a new boss is brought in to assemble the people, financing, buildings and equipment and right location — to get a new business off the ground. Challenges here include putting together the strategy, structures and systems from scratch; recruiting a new team of employees; and sometimes making do with limited resources. Opportunities in a start-up can be found in “doing things right from the beginning”; people are energized by the possibilities of the new business, and often there are no preconceptions about the way to accomplish goals and objectives.
Turnaround: A turnaround can be defined as “saving a business acknowledged to be in serious trouble.” Challenges here often include: re-energizing demoralized employees and other stakeholders; making difficult decisions, often under time pressure; and going deep enough with painful cuts and difficult financial and personnel choices. There are definitely opportunities with a turnaround. These can include the fact that almost everyone recognizes that change is necessary! And, many times, affected constituencies can offer significant external support; and Watkins states that “a little success can go a long ways.”
Accelerated growth: Coming in as a new boss with a firm facing accelerated growth means managing a rapidly expanding business. Challenges in this arena can involve putting structures and systems in place to permit scaling things up to meet the increased business; additionally, business growth typically means integrating many new employees. Accelerated growth tends to motivate people, and this motivation often means that employees will be inclined to stretch themselves and those who work for them.
Realignment: Realigning a firm in the grain or feed industry can be defined as re-energizing a previously successful firm that currently faces problems. Some of the challenges which can be faced in this scenario include convincing employees that change is necessary (this is kind of akin to boiling a frog — if you start with cool water and heat it up slowly, the frog never sees the problem coming -- they don’t jump out and it ends up being too late; in the case of the employee they just don’t “get it,” and need to be convinced there is a problem). You as the new boss need to carefully restructure your top team and refocus the organization. There are opportunities in realignment scenarios — your organization likely has significant pockets of strength which can be drawn upon and expanded; your employees and stakeholders want to continue to see themselves as successful — and this provides a good place to build upon.
Sustaining success: Perhaps you have been hired to lead a firm, where your opportunity is to not only preserve a successful business, but take it to the “next level.” Watkins identifies challenges in this realm: sometimes living in the shadow of the founder of the business and managing the team they put together; the need to play defense before striking out on too many new initiatives; and finally taking the business to that next level. You may find that an opportunity here includes inheriting a strong team. In addition, people are likely motivated to continue their history of success and that a foundation for continued success may already be in place.
Secure early wins
Continuing with our list of 10 key areas for the new boss, Watkins states that securing early wins builds your credibility and creates momentum. He goes on to say that early wins create virtuous cycles (rather than vicious downward cycles) which leverage the “energy you put into the organization to create a pervasive sense that good things are happening.” These wins can be projects or investments you can make that set the stage for future plans; or perhaps they are in the marketing arena where you bring a new major customer onboard or bring a new partner to your new business; or a win could be had in the employee policy area — for example a change in vacation options or overtime pay which energizes your employees.
Planning and execution here takes some thought and may involve some risk. However, with careful study and input from some key people, you can likely seek out some of these opportunities that can be springboards to further success.
If you report to a senior executive or if your feed and grain business is set up as a cooperative where you report to a board of directors, no other relationship is more important than this one. Thus, you need to determine how to develop a productive working relationship with these people. Professor Watkins states what may be obvious, but he emphasizes how to build this relationship, by planning for a series of “critical conversations.” He makes the important point that you can help direct these conversations by outlining the situation, setting joint expectations, discussing your working style; talking about the resources available at your disposal; and then outlining thoughts related to your personal development.
We really like Watkins’ characterization of this next key area for your role as new boss. He states that “the higher you rise in an organization, the more you must play the role of organizational architect.” As the new leader this means figuring out whether the organization’s strategic direction is appropriate, and then bringing its structure into alignment with its strategy.
Build your team
This next area is one that many folks really like, and as the new manager you are the key person responsible for building “your” teamand putting your fingerprint on the business. If you are inheriting a team, you need to critique them to determine their fit with your style and vision. Your willingness to make tough early human resource calls and your capacity to select the right people are among the biggest drivers of success — both during your transition and beyond.
As touched on earlier — your success depends in large part on your ability to influence people outside your direct line of control. These supportive alliances (both internal and external) are absolutely necessary to helping you achieve your goals. Identify those who can support you and work to put them on “your side.” One group that should not be overlooked here are the informal influencers (influential individuals that others will follow). It is very helpful to get these folks on your support team and make sure they are onboard for important strategies or decisions.
Keep your balance
Watkins states that in the personal and professional upheaval of a transition, you must work hard to “maintain your equilibrium and preserve your ability to make good judgments.” He cautions against losing perspective, becoming isolated and making bad calls during this transition. Here is where a good advice and counsel network can be a great resource. Use these people as a sounding board and seek their input.
The final area Watkins lists in helping you become the “best new boss ever” is to help those in your new feed and grain business — direct reports, bosses and peers — to all accelerate their own transitions. The quicker you get your new direct reports up to speed — the more you will benefit your own performance. What comes to mind here is one of the definitions of management: “getting things done with and through other people.” Your motivation, guidance, vision, leadership and other key qualities are why you were hired into your new position. Mapping out your first 90 days is a great approach to assist you in making the transition and ensuring your success.