Sunday, April 26, 2009

Take Charge (Part III)

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.
- Mark Twain

In this series of posts we are taking a look at what it means to take charge, to take command, to assume the role of a leader. As we approach the President's 100th day in command, I hope you are able to stop for a second and think about your own transition into your current position and whether you (or the Commander in Chief) have effectively taken charge. In the last post, we looked at actions prior to assuming a new position. Now it's time to...take command.

Upon assuming any new position, new leaders (and old leaders in new jobs) should embark on their respective “listening tours” as soon as possible. Learn the business. Understand the organization and its critical assets, especially its people.

Meet your new team in their work environment. Don’t make them come to your office – meet them where they work. Assess their facilities and work stations. Allow them to take you on a “show and tell” and introduce you to their respective teams.

Measure the culture while you assess the attitudes and aptitudes of your subordinates. Compare your findings to your initial assessment. Identify those things that are right (and should be praised) and those that are wrong or inconsistent with your intended vision for the organization. Ask questions. Look for trends. Identify Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and pockets of excellence. Identify top talent. Take time to walk around – and listen.

Navy Captain D. Michael Abrashoff (It's Your Ship; Get Your Ship Together) encourages leaders to take command by first seeing the ship “through the eyes of the crew...Only then can you find out what’s really wrong and, in so doing, help the sailors empower themselves to fix it.”

Southwest Airline founder and current Chairman of the Board Herb Kelleher is arguably still on his “listening tour.” Few leaders better exemplify the example of meeting subordinates where they work, in their respective environments. Herb understood the demands of every job in the company because, at one time or another, he has performed them himself. Check on the mechanics pulling the midnight shift and you were likely to find Herb right there with them, turning a wrench. Look to your right while on a Southwest Airlines flight and he may be sitting next to you asking fellow passengers about their flight experience. He built a great company by knowing every aspect of his organization, by listening to his employees and putting them first, and by “taking charge” in building and leading an organization consistent with his vision.

Start your understanding of your new position by working outward from the organizational “center of gravity.” Be sure you understand your main product and the principal contributors to the unit mission before diving in to other areas. Visit your top salesman, your best performing store, or your main project – first. Prioritize your first efforts consistent with the importance of those efforts to your organizational bottom line.

Make it an initial priority to understand emergency measures for your new position. Know your role within organizational contingency plans, emergency notification and evacuation procedures, and disaster response as soon as able. Crisis situations won’t wait until you are fully prepared. Don’t get caught short.

Identify and meet with key customers and constituencies. Ask what your organization does well and what it does not do well. Look at internal and external groupings that can expand your understanding of your new team and its strengths and weaknesses. Begin to test your vision while measuring the key assumptions upon which it was built.

Leaders understand the difference between ill-informed, hasty decisions and bold, swift, visionary action. “Take charge” leaders seek every opportunity to put their mark on the following:

-- Strategic Plan. Invest in a process that identifies short and long term goals, aligns the ends, ways and means of the organization, identifies and mitigates risk, and assigns priorities among competing organizational demands. If the strategy you inherit is not consistent with the culture and end state you seek, change it. Take deliberate actions to engage your team in a process that provides a road map for success.

-- Budget. Nothing gets people’s attention like money. Leader’s who scrub the balance sheet and align investments with the strategic plan will make an immediate, organization-wide impact. Failure to do so may result in unmet expectations or mission failure. If you are not in charge of your budget…you are not in charge!

-- Organizational charts. Ensure that the team reflects the culture you seek. If you want it “flat,” make it flat. If you need to centralize (or decentralize) control or reorient reporting requirements, make the changes. Build the team capable of accomplishing the goals and objectives identified in your strategic plan.

-- People. Leaders, according to author Jim Collins (Good to Great), not only get the bus moving in the right direction, they are uniquely responsible for getting the right people in the right seat on the bus. Watch for those trying to wait you out. Pull the trigger if required. Follow Collins’ Practical Disciplines for “rigor” with regard to personnel actions:

-- Practical Discipline #1: When in doubt, don’t hire – keep looking.
-- Practical Discipline #2: When you know you need to make a people change, act.
-- Practical Discipline #3: Put your best people on your biggest opportunities, not your biggest problems.

-- Identify and communicate your Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs). Give your new teammates a sense of the passion and vision you have for the team. Help them see the greatness you envision while providing those “stretch goals” that will signal the mark you hope to make on the organization and those whom you serve. Think big. Be bold.

A friend of mine expressed amazement in how military leaders can comfortably jump into a new job and know what to do. This is, for better or worse, a position I have found myself in every two years thanks to the way the Army does its assignments. So I know we get a lot of repetitions to help improve this skill. What works for me is to first spend a lot of time listening to others. Many of them have great ideas for how to be successful but need help with implementation. I let them know that I am passionate about excellence and that I am willing to take risks and try new things. I look for gaps – in processes, systems, organizations - and fill them. I ask a TON of questions. And then I jump in, making my mark on people, organizational structure, and budgets. I give them my vision and produce a strategic plan that aligns the team with the culture and endstate that we can all embrace. Most importantly, I do my best to lead with passion and energy -- from DAY 1.

That's what taking command is all about. And that's...Leader Business.

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