First class coack

FIRST CLASS COACH - I was delighted to be given a new role as head of a department that was in trouble, but I'm finding it impossible to deal with all the demands on my time and to decide on the priorities - everyone seems to want a piece of me, to sort out their projects and problems.

by Miranda Kennet
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Taking on a leadership role for the first time is tough. There is always the pressure to do things, the right things, and to be seen to be doing them, and a lot of this pressure is in your own head. But unless there's something obvious that needs sorting out, your first few months in the role will be better spent in understanding the people and the situation rather than doing much.

One easy mistake to make is to think that, as leader, you have to solve all the problems, and it is convenient for others to aid you in this delusion, since it takes the pressure off them. Instead, rather as the judo black-belt uses his opponents' weight and strength to defeat them, try using existing resources to identify the current position and the ways to change it for the better.

Start by consulting widely, beginning with the people who now report to you. A series of one-to-one meetings, though time-consuming, will be worthwhile, especially if they are structured to provide you with the information you need to make subsequent decisions. Two useful preparation questions are: 'What do you see as the biggest problem facing the department now?', and 'What one change would make the most difference to our success?'

From their answers you'll begin to build up a picture of your people, as well as the issues. Some will have taken on the challenge of considering the needs of the department as a whole, while others may be stuck on their particular concerns. You will also have had personal contact with each person and will be able to judge who you can work with most fruitfully in the future.

If there is overlap in their responses, this will be a useful pointer to the priorities for your attention. If there is no duplication in problems or solutions, it will be clear to you that you've inherited a disunited group, which will need some team-building and perhaps restructuring. If no clear picture emerges, it will be evident that your people are part of the problem; you'll need to do something to bring to their attention the common threats they face.

At the same time, consult with customers, external and internal, to gather their views. Be open to criticism, and to praise. Comparing the views of your department with this external perspective and seeing where the biggest gaps are will help pinpoint areas for action.

While you are data-gathering, have a good hard look at the figures, possibly applying measures that differ from the standard ones. A client of mine, in a similar position to you, perplexed by the lack of knowledge about which of the products of his new division were profitable, and recognising that staff costs were a key determinant of profitability, asked for a simple analysis of profitability per employee. Though there were grumbles that the new figures required extra work, the output gave very clear comparisons between the products and enabled some new thinking about how many of what sort of staff were really required.

You mention the difficulty of deciding on priorities. Your research will have turned up a number of areas for action. Some of them will be easy to implement. Others will take time, money and additional resources. One thing is certain: you'll be unable to do them all personally. You'll need to harness such resources as are available in the department to make progress on them.

Here I suggest bringing your senior team together and debriefing them on the findings of your research, both the problems and the suggested solutions. Then, together, plot the solutions on a big graph, with one axis relating to the amount of difference the action would make and the other to the ease of implementation. This will prompt useful discussion on the issues and means of resolving them, which will give the opportunity for shared understanding of what needs to change. In selecting priorities, you might well gain volunteers to tackle some of the identified tasks.

Agree actions, assign responsibility and establish dates for completion and for the group to review progress.

Once you've got the department identifying and solving its own problems, you'll have more time to think about your own issues and how you can manage upwards and sideways successfully, as you'll need to do if you are going to excel in your new role.

Miranda Kennett is managing coach at The Coaching House ( and a founding partner of The Management Due Diligence Co. If you have an issue you'd like this column to cover, e-mail:

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