Back when I was a 23-year-old, newly minted pilot, the Navy put me in charge of my first flight squadron division. It was a role that called for leading a team of about 40 highly trained aviation technicians. Like any first-time leader, I was thrilled with this opportunity and could hardly wait to greet them with an inspiring talk.
While I prepared this speech, which would surely rival anything from John F. Kennedy, the leader of this team of technicians — whose rank was chief petty officer — stopped by for a visit.
“Lieutenant Ryan,” said this man, who was 14 years older than me, with nearly 20 years in the Navy, “the guys have heard good things about you as a person and a pilot. They’re excited to work with you.”
“Me, too,” I told him, already a little curious about what the chief might want to convey.
“I want you to get off to a good start, so if you don’t mind,” he said, “could you tell me what you’re planning to tell them?”
Now, a little off balance, I tried to explain, rather inarticulately, what I had in mind.
The chief petty officer listened and then offered some sage advice. “You’ll be our third boss in 5 years,” he said, “so I can tell you what they would like to hear and, even more importantly, see.”
He proceeded to offer many great insights on the things I should do and shouldn’t do — and probably would have done if he hadn’t provided his thoughtful feedback. For the next 2 years, we worked extremely well together as a team, and the chief petty officer became a great unofficial mentor. Things might have worked out quite differently if he hadn’t shown the leadership he did in coming forward.
This story came to mind recently as I read Be the Boss Everyone Wants to Work For: A Guide for New Leaders by my former CCL colleague Bill Gentry. As Bill accurately notes in this book, which was recently released, most leaders are promoted into managerial roles because of their contributions as individual contributors.
But, because nearly two-thirds of new managers never receive any leadership training, they don’t know how to shift from standing out as an individual to leading a team. What they need to do, as Bill advises, is “flip their script,” moving from a “me” mindset to a “we” mindset. He provides 6 practical steps for doing this, based on his extensive research and work with clients.
Lacking access to a book like Bill’s early in my career, I developed some of my own guidelines for first-time leaders, and they are closely aligned with his.
First, Ask the Chief: This is a principle that’s taught at the U.S. Naval Academy. When we take a leadership role for the first time, we’ll likely be puffed up with our own importance and focused on showing how smart we are. That’s a recipe for derailment.
Instead, find the person on your new team who is the most respected and ask them a series of questions: What has gone well? What hasn’t? What can be done better? This approach can be used in any organization and is effective for all leadership roles, not just first-time ones. And be sure to ask these questions and others frequently going forward, so you continue to get the feedback you need to remain aware of the challenges and opportunities for your team.
Second, Check the Ego: Our research shows that 50% of all leaders are ineffective. Why? A lot of it has to do with leaders thinking they have all the answers instead of simply wanting to get better. As leaders at every level, we should start with the assumption that we don’t know as much as we think we do — because, in reality, we don’t.
Be humble and curious, posing plenty of questions before making any big moves. In any new leadership role, we should ask ourselves, “What can I learn from my team before I show them how little I know?”
Finally, Do No Harm: One of my brothers is a pediatrician, and this is the first rule of medicine. It’s also a basic principle of leadership. Don’t try to change a situation until you have the facts to determine if it needs changing. After asking the chief, we should solicit feedback from everyone else on the team — not necessarily formally or immediately.
And to honor Leadership Rule No. 1 over time, it’s also critical to get to know everyone you’re leading and to convey to them the importance of each person owning the responsibility for their personal development. Your vital role is to give them opportunities for training and development that will ultimately lead them to better performance, recognition, and promotion.
Becoming a first-time manager and having the opportunity to develop new leaders can both be great adventures. The journey will be smoother if we remember, as Bill Gentry’s book reminds us, that in both cases success is not about us — it’s about staying focused on the people we’re privileged to lead.
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