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My last boss was regarded as a failure. He's left and I've been promoted. Now I'm the leader, I know expectations of me have changed, but I'm not sure what I should be doing.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

What do good leaders do? One shorthand answer is that they create the context in which others can perform to the best of their ability, in the direction that will most benefit the organisation.

So the first thing to do when taking over as leader is to try to get some perspective about what's going on. Is the organisation headed in the right direction? You will need to look at results internally and externally to decide. If not, what would need to change to correct your course? Have you got the right people in position to achieve the results you need? And are they achieving them? If not, what's getting in the way?

In the first 100 days, listening to others and thoughtful reflection will get you much further than precipitate action. However, one of the key responsibilities of leaders is focusing people on priorities, so using this time to decide what the overall direction needs to be and finding ways to communicate it are important tasks. Clearly, there will need to be some changes after the last boss and, in times of change, one of the truisms of successful transition management is that it is impossible to over-communicate. As Steve Foote, an American management trainer, puts it: 'The first 50 times you tell them, they aren't paying attention. The next 50 times, they don't believe you. It's only the last 50 times they really get what you're driving at.' Perhaps 150 messages is too many, but the point is that it's important to find different ways of conveying your intentions and expectations so that people understand the required change.

One of my clients has recently become the CEO of a FTSE-100 company.

He was an internal candidate and had spent time considering what he'd do differently as leader. Even though there was much to admire in his previous boss, he saw ways in which performance could be further improved.

So, early in his tenure, he was able to state clearly to his staff and to other stakeholders what will be the key planks of his agenda. He's used different methods with different groups: a speech and follow-up letters and meetings with his senior team; intranet messages to his staff; presentations to senior managers. Now he is engaged in making a key appointment that is in keeping with his agenda and symbolic of the revised direction for the company.

Another key role for leaders is to set the pace of the organisation, or their part of it. Providing a challenge that is a stretch, and the support to ensure it is achievable, is the balance they need to strive for. Knowing when it is appropriate to push and when to be tolerant of human frailty is also important. Understanding your personal impact on others is a vital element in the equation. By virtue of your position, you now have legitimate power, whatever your personal style. To this you can add in the elements that make you as an individual most influential.

Consider the ways in which you are most effective in getting people to do things for you. What is it you do and say that seems to make the difference?

In these early days in your new position, review your actions at least once a week and assess what seems to have gone well and what you might do differently another time to get a different, and better, result. Don't be too hard on yourself if not everything you do is perfect: you are new to the job and you can only get better.

Most of our actions have results, some we intend and some other, unintended results. Keeping an eye on unintentional results is one trait of the good leader. Having trusted eyes and ears within the organisation, to give you reliable data on how people are acting and feeling, can be very helpful, even when the news they bring you is bad. It is difficult to lead in a vacuum. Feedback bursts the bubble and injects some healthy reality of cause and effect.

Establishing some markers so that you know you are making progress is an invaluable activity. If you have inherited a business in bad shape, it is particularly useful to have milestones by which you (and others) can know things are moving in the right direction.

A word of caution: one audience you ignore at your peril is your own bosses. One of the most common reasons new leaders fail, apart from not delivering on the bottom line, is that they neglect to manage upwards.

Make sure you spend some of your time keeping positive communications flowing to those who put you in position. These people can also relieve you of your job if they don't feel you are making a difference.

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