This is my son Ben: He’s an SQL programmer and he brought up a cool sports analogy the other day that really applies to the leadership role in team dynamics – especially the scenario where a “new boss” is asked to take over a team or a project. As we talked, Ben brought up the football concept of “out-kicking your coverage“. For novices to American NFL football, let me explain…
At several points in each game one team will kick (or punt) the ball down the field to a lone return man. His teammates will block potential tacklers as the returner tries to advance the ball back up field.
The kicking team will cover the field in a tight formation to deny the returner any avenue of escape. But in some cases, the kicker will blast the ball down field so far or so fast that the returner gets it with plenty of time to identify blocks and exploit seams in the oncoming formation.
That’s called “out-kicking your coverage” and it can result in a disaster for the kicking team if the returner scores a touchdown.
The New Boss is Impressive
When a leader takes on a new job or a new team challenge, it can be tempting to try and make a big splash. You want to get everyone’s attention in a positive way and hit the ground running, right? Well, not so fast… you may want to chill out and give your team a chance to show you what they can really do.
I have seen new bosses walk in the door and lay down the law on Day-1. Especially common in troubled organizations is the scenario where the “New Sheriff in Town” walks in with all guns blazing and lops off the heads of long-time employees to replace them with their own people.
Another common approach for the new guy is to make an impression by radically shifting the direction of the team, shaping it in their own image, emphasizing entirely new goals or dropping some unpopular team norm or part of the process. This approach can result in an instant wave of temporary popularity for the new boss. (…think Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty).
The New Sheriff approach will certainly get the team’s attention – but it’s not always the best thing to do for the long term health or loyalty of the team. The radical shift idea may work for a while too – as long as you do a lot of ground work to explain the new way and get buy-in for what was broken about (their) old way. I compare these methods to taking an axe into surgery or hunting for internal dissidents a la Senator Joe McCarthy. Instead, I’d like to propose a more thoughtful way to approach the “new boss” challenge…
Make the Right Impression
Just as important as making an impression as the new guy is making the right impression. I once had a boss who spent the first two weeks of his new tenure just observing his team, understanding their mission and dissecting the current work processes. He didn’t make an announcement that he would do this… (that might encourage people to try even more overtly to impress him). Instead he met with each of the new subordinates one-on-one in casual situations. He spent a few minutes with each person “on their turf” – in lunch rooms, hallways, conference rooms after meetings and most impressively – in their offices. He read up on the organization’s commitments and touched base with our customers as well.
By doing this casual reconnaissance, he was able to find out what mattered to each stakeholder and how clearly they were tied into the current process and the current understanding of the organization’s strategy and goals. This knowledge proved to be valuable later to avoid dropping a key commitment, unnecessarily confronting potential resistors or ignoring key potential allies. It also pointed out which resistors should be confronted, which customer expectations were not reasonable and which voices were probably dominating the conversation more than was warranted.
During this listening period, the new boss also built out his plan for the fresh direction of the team. He set updated goals and re-emphasized the old ones that still made sense. He adjusted our strategy and set out a clear, challenging new vision for us. Best of all, he kicked us off with a fairly good understanding of the natural talents, tendencies, strengths and weaknesses of the team. The re-launch was very successful and he became known as one of the best bosses our shop ever had.
Questions for Chatter:
- Have you ever been the new boss who accidentally steps on a few toes when you first took over?
- Describe a time when you sensed that your new boss was trying to make an early impression at your expense.
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