New Leader – Figuring Out What to Do
By Wally Bock
When John was promoted to his first management job, his boss gave him a book about twelve traits a leader must have. His father gave him a different book about the characteristics of great leaders. His sister sent him an article about the new leadership. And his brother-in-law sent him a different article on the same subject, but with different advice.
When John’s wife, Susan, walked into the den that night, she found him grimly staring into space. The books and articles were scattered around him.
“I can’t make sense of this,” he groused, “One book is telling me that good bosses have integrity and values. The other one says that great leaders have vision. One article says that command and control is dead and I should let people control things but the other one talks about using technology to monitor behavior. I liked it better before I was promoted. Then, I knew what to do.”
“Maybe that’s the answer,” offered Susan, “You’ve said you want to be a boss like Karen, the woman you worked for in your first job in marketing. What did she do?”
“Gosh,” John paused and thought. “To start with, she was always touching base with us. Even when I was on the road, she was checking in to see how I was doing and if I needed anything and if I understood what she wanted. What are you doing?”
Susan looked up innocently. “I’m taking notes, darling. When this is over you won’t remember a thing you said and you’ll ask me and I won’t remember either. Remember what the Chinese say, ‘the palest ink is stronger than the strongest memory.'”
“So what did you write down?”
“Touch base a lot. Why do you think that worked?”
John leaned back and stared at the ceiling. “Well, every time we connected I think we learned about each other. I could make sure I understood what she wanted. She asked about a lot of things. As I think about it, though, the conversations were different in the beginning.”
“When I was new, there was a lot more instruction. She told me what to do and how to do it. Later we discussed things. And during the end of the time I worked for her, she’d just assign things to me. I never thought about that till just now. It was a gradual thing.”
“You always knew what Karen wanted.”
Susan broke in, “That’s nothing special. I know what my boss wants, even though he never tells us.”
“I think that’s different.” John was leaning forward now, gesturing with his hands. “Karen made a point of telling us, as a group and one at a time. We didn’t have to guess. It was all out in the open.”
“When I started working for her she sat me down laid out her expectations. There were her ‘Three Rules’ that we were never supposed to break. We joked a lot about them, but we all knew the rules and we followed them. She also told me how she liked to be briefed and how often. She gave me guidelines about how to know when I could make a decision on my own and when I should check in with her.”
“Then, every week we sat down and discussed what had to be accomplished. And she was always checking to make sure we understood. And …”
Susan held up her hand. “Whoa. I get it. I wrote down: ‘Lay out clear expectations over and over. Check for understanding.’ Is that about it?”
“Yeah. But there’s one more thing about that. She treated everyone a little differently. New people got more instruction. Some of us, like me got lots of contact, I think because we like it, but other people, like Arnie, got left alone except for Karen’s ubiquitous check-ins.”
“Arnie was the guy you called ‘The Hermit?'”
“That’s him. He did great work, but he didn’t like people checking on his progress all the time. Karen used to joke that she just slipped assignments under his door and waited to get his excellent reports back.”
“So she treated everyone a little different, depending on their experience and on the way they liked to be dealt with. Is that right?”
“Yep. It was different strokes for different folks and different strokes for the same folks at different times.”
Susan smiled and wrote that down. “Anything else that she did that you think is worth doing?”
John thought again. “There is, and it’s got a kind of funny name.”
“And that would be?”
“She called it the ‘Dinosaur Principle.’ I guess she learned it at a seminar someplace. Anyway it was that problems are like dinosaurs. If you get them small, they’re easy to deal with. But if you let them grow big, they can eat you.”
“You’re right, it’s kind of funny, but it makes sense. So does everything else. Want to hear my list?”
Susan smiled. “Here’s how I got it down.”
“Touch base a lot.
Set clear expectations.
Check for understanding.
Treat people differently based on their performance and preference.
The Dinosaur Principle.”
“That’s it. You’re right. I do know what to do. All I really need to do is think about Karen and how she did things and then adapt a bit for my own style and situation.”
“Good plan, John. In fact, what I think you’ve done is identify what we call a ‘role model.'” They both laughed.
John stood up. “I think I’ll save these books and articles for inspiration and ideas.” He leaned down to pick up the books.
“I’ll take care of those. You need to go write a think you note to Karen.”
“I sure do. And, maybe, if I’m lucky she’ll be willing to be a mentor for me and I can keep learning from her.”
Wally Bock helps organizations improve productivity and morale. He is the author of Performance Talk http://www.performancetalk.com/ which tells the story of Karen’s process of learning leadership skills.. Wally writes the Three Star Leadership blog http://blog.threestarleadership.com/ coaches individual managers, and is a popular speaker at meetings and conferences.