From outsider to insider: three watch-outs for senior leaders joining a new company

Joining an organisation is a stressful period for anyone, but particularly so if you’re in a senior leadership position where it can feel like there’s almost a forensic examination of your every move.

New colleagues will be eager to understand you as a leader, a manager, and as a person, and many will also be quick to judge you on what you do in those early days; what you get wrong and what you get right. So, how best to approach a new role as an outsider coming in to a new organisation? How can you give yourself the best chance of success in the long term?

I see it as a three-stage process: ask the right questions; understand the role you’re in; and nail the initial tasks.

Ask the right questions

Curiosity is a leadership ‘must have’ skill, and while every leader should be continually asking questions throughout their tenure, coming into a business is a great opportunity to dig deep into the organisation. For example, that means asking how does the business work? That can be as simple as understanding where the money comes from, where does it go, and how much money is there in the bank. But there will be other parts of the business – perhaps outside your specialism – where you need to have a grounding in how they work. Find out all you can.

As a newcomer you will see things that those within the organisation miss. They will be suffering from ‘Experience Blindfold’ – the acceptance that the current situation and the way we do things are the norm and impossible to challenge; use your lack of experience as an insight superpower.

You will need to discover what defines the culture too: what are the company’s true values? Who is valued and why? And, how do decisions really get made?

Understand what your peers require from you and your team, and how you can help them succeed. And you’ll need to ensure your team is executing effectively on the right work. How does work get assigned? Who steps in to handle emergencies? Other team competencies will have to be tested to ensure the technical quality of their work is high and there is inclusivity with high morale. Who is successful within your team and who isn’t finding success?

You will also need to understand whether the pace you set yourself is sustainable for the long haul. What do you need to do to stay engaged and energised? What are the lines you’ll temporarily cross that you’ll walk back from after you’ve ramped up? 

Understand the role

Those are some of the questions you need to ask, but as you do so, you’ll also have to make sure that you fully understand the nature of the leadership role you’ve taken on. Different leadership roles have different characteristics.

A ‘business manager’ – or product/division manager – for example, combines being a business’ strategist, architect of its worldwide asset and resource configuration, and the coordinator of transactions across national borders. Their overriding responsibility is to further the company’s global-scale efficiency and competitiveness.

As a ‘country manager’, you will need to be sensitive and responsive to the local market. It’s often a role that often comes into conflict with the business manager who has more of a focus on global scale, but negotiation can resolve these differences.

Then there is the ‘functional manager’ – an often under recognised role – who frequently has to serve as a linchpin, connecting their areas of specialisation throughout the organisation. That means they’re often scanning for information worldwide, then cross pollinating leading-edge knowledge and best practice, and championing innovations that may offer transnational opportunities and applications.

Finally, the ‘corporate manager’ plays perhaps one of the most vital roles, leading in the broadest sense while developing talented business, country and functional managers as well as balancing negotiations among the three.

Nail the initial tasks

The third critical area is to make sure you cover off key areas in your first few months. These tasks, based on research and decades in the industry, can be distilled into five areas:

  1. Assume leadership early
    Good early decisions on the ground will have a material impact on your reputation as an effective leader. Demonstrate awareness of important operational issues, swiftly solve urgent problems, and achieve quick wins.
  2. Focus on the team
    Focus on your direct reports at the outset and quickly confirm or adjust the team’s compositions and goals. It’s often easier to decide whether to retain people in that team at the beginning of your time in charge.
  3. Work with your stakeholders
    You will need to gain the support of people over whom you have no direct authority. Identify those stakeholders and develop a plan for how and when to connect with them. Arriving with little or no relationship capital means you will have to invest energy in building these connections.
  4. Engage with the culture
    Get up to speed on the organisation’s values, norms and guiding assumptions that define acceptable behaviour. There’s also a fine line to tread between working within the culture and seeking to improve it.
  5. Define strategy
    Start to shape strategy. You must be clear about the way ahead whether you are developing an existing strategy or have been hired to develop and implement an entirely new approach.

Start before you start

These tasks, together with understanding the role and asking questions, can be daunting which means a good place to begin is before you take up the reins. Effective integration is much more likely when leaders understand before they start in their new roles how much progress they’ll need to demonstrate in each area during their first few months. If you know that, you’ll be in a much better position to prioritise your time effectively when you hit the ground.