It’s hard to get started, as the saying goes. Not only for a manager.
I’m not talking about the situation when you take on a leadership role for the first time as a manager, but about switching between different leadership roles.
As a rule, you don’t remain the leader of the same team for the rest of your life—you change. You get promoted, quit, then start somewhere else. You get a new team. A change can happen relatively often, usually every three years.
When you change, you are the new person and not only as a manager.
You don’t know the others. But they know each other. That is the problem. Now, of course, you can start out the way a lot of executives do, and the way I definitely used to do:
“I know it. I can do it. After all, I’m a leader, I’m the boss, and I’m going to tell you how it’s done.”
I posturize a little bit. Of course, not all of us do it that way. But I have made this mistake a time or two.
Fortunately, at some point, I changed the procedure.
If I’m honest, I don’t even know why or how I came up with it, but after my predecessor introduced me in the team meeting or in the division meeting and I said a few warm words about myself, I then added:
“And with each of you, I will have a personal conversation.”
I think I learned that was a good idea from a leadership training session. I thought I’d try it out. That was about ten years ago.
“So, I’m going to talk to each of you personally. That’s why you’re all going to get an invitation in the next few days.”
My recommendation is to have no more than two to a maximum of four conversations per day. Granted, this takes a relatively long time with 150 co-workers, but I still wouldn’t recommend more interviews.
Why? Because you’ll be flat. At least, that’s how I feel. After the fourth interview at the latest, you’re no longer truly receptive, and the interviews last between 45 and 90 minutes.
I wouldn’t shorten them either; I have never done that. The interview always begins in the same way and then proceeds differently, depending on the person.
As a manager, I always start with a brief introduction of myself.
I include who I am, where I come from, that I will ask two questions at the end. Also, I explain that this is why there are Post-it notes and a Sharpie here. I then explain that I would now like to know who they are, how long they have been working here, what they do here, and why they do it at all.
For example, if I’m interested in my colleague who is a controller, I’ll ask:
- How long have you been a controller here?
- Why did you apply for this position with this company?
- What is it about controlling you like?
- Why didn’t you become a programmer?
These questions help us understand why people are the way they are.
Of course, I always add: “We don’t need to talk about pure business—I’m also interested in personal interests.”
However, I don’t want to be so nosy that people feel pressured to tell me private things they don’t want to say, either.
There is one thing a co-worker once told me that stuck with me. Two sad incidents happened in one year. Both her father and her mother-in-law passed away. Since they all got along very well, she said, that it resulted in a very interesting combination over time: Her mother is now married to her husband’s father.
These are things that life writes and that you would probably only find out in such a conversation.
It’s exciting, as you can see. I remembered this interesting incident, and it felt like an excellent example of how these questions can bring us closer to our co-workers.
Then, as a manager, I always ask the two questions I mentioned at the beginning:
- What is the company’s strategy? In one sentence, please.
- The other question is: What two things would you change if you could?
- And write all three things down on two pieces of paper, please.
I’ll need these later.
- so I don’t forget anything
- because I also want to cluster them
- because I want to present them again and again in the following team meetings
- so I can give an update on what feedback I’ve gotten from my colleagues and what I want to do with it
As you see, strategy is extremely important to me.
You’ll always find that if you have 100 people, there are 50 different strategies. And that tells you there’s either no consistent strategy, it’s not communicated properly, or it’s not understood properly.
That’s when you know what you need to do as a leader.
The second question tells you what your co-workers think is needed to make things better.
You get feedback, of course, like, “I’d give myself a raise,” or “I’d give myself six weeks of vacation right now.” That does happen, but I usually delegate those kinds of things, if it’s not my direct co-worker, to their direct supervisor. That’s where it belongs.
However, if I’m their direct supervisor now, which happens in these conversations, then we discuss it at the appropriate time. In a get-to-know-you meeting, no one is promoted, nor do they get approved for vacation or training.
But you learn things like:
“We should introduce remote work,” or “the air on the second floor is so bad,” or “the windows are leaking, and it’s always cold in winter and hot in summer.” We need new company cars, new computers, everybody should have laptops, and so forth.
Why is that fantastic? Because here, as a leader, you get an insanely good list of things that need to be done, or at least that your co-workers think need to be done. You can now put them in order. You have a reasonable plan right at the beginning that you know your co-workers support.
Now, you will probably say: “They want a lot from their manager. You can’t fulfill all of that.” That’s true.
But by asking, by them telling you, and by communicating and giving an update in the coming weeks—and this is my recommendation—you’ve shown them:
- you can listen
- as a manager, you are appreciative
- you can implement things
What I always do as a leader then:
I take the list to hand and directly implement the easy things that also seem logical to me.
Of course, you need to deal with the things that you think are good but not easy to implement. Reevaluate those items to decide whether you can, should or even want to do them. Place those in the “We’ll have another look at that” category. Give feedback to your co-workers.
Finally, there’s the “Great ideas that we’ll unfortunately never be able to implement” category—because sometimes there are things that you have to admit aren’t possible.
“Everyone should get laptops right now” is a kind of in-between thing. Yes, we will do that in the future, but not now.
This is because if you have 200 co-workers, you’d have to buy 200 laptops in one fell swoop—they’re not in the current budget, and in this case, everyone has a desktop PC. You would have to write them all off. Of course, that doesn’t make sense either. You can explain that very well.
This information helps you as a manager
This information helps you as a leader in the next team meetings or in the area meetings and stand-ups (or whatever you do) to give an update on what you’re doing with the feedback that your co-workers have given you.
You get to know the co-workers, you get to appreciate them, and it gives you a great start with enough time to understand how this works the way it does.
Before you intervene, think about where your intervention is needed.