Starting a new role, whether it is in a familiar organisation or somewhere new, is an exciting time but it can also be a nerve wracking one. “What if this is the time I get found out?” you might ask yourself. “What happens when people realise I don’t know what I’m doing?”, “What if I make a mistake?”. No matter how you are feeling, it is ok, it is normal and, despite your beliefs to the contrary, everyone else in a leadership role has either felt that way in the past or is still feeling that way now! I spent my whole first year as a headteacher feeling like a Scooby Doo villain, waiting to be unmasked at any moment not just by those meddling kids but by my colleagues and peers too – “See, I told you he didn’t know what he was doing!”.
On the basis of my experience and from my time coaching leaders, here are ten tips that may help you navigate the first few days, weeks and months in your leadership role. I hope they are useful or, at very least, they trigger your own thoughts and ideas:
- “As soon as you are promoted, you are immediately deskilled!” This was taught to me by Tracy Smith, then Executive Headteacher of Seven Kings High School. You may have been brilliant at your last job, and that is probably why someone has given you this opportunity to step into your first or a new leadership role, however, you aren’t expected to be immediately brilliant at this one. You were promoted for the leader that you will become so, be patient, learn from others, invest in your continued professional learning, build your network and read widely. If you can, get a mentor/ buddy/ coach to support you through the first year and, if possible, make this someone other than your line manager. Have the self-awareness to know what you don’t know and ask for help. Far from being a sign of weakness, this is a strength and will help to prevent you making unnecessary mistakes.
- Spend more time and energy on how you will ‘be’ as a leader rather than what you will ‘do’. Who is the type of leader you want to be? How do you want others to perceive you? Why should anyone be led by you? Who is the best leader you have worked with or for? What is it they did differently and how did they make you feel? Experience, knowledge and skills will come over time but asking these questions, amongst others will help you become a more ‘Conscious Leader’ (more about that later!).
- Be seen! When I became a Deputy Headteacher I was lucky enough to visit Ani Magill’s school (St John the Baptist in Woking). She told me that the first item on every senior leader’s job description was ‘Presence’. As soon as I became a headteacher it was one of the first things I changed on our school’s leadership roles and responsibility document and we lived and breathed it for six years. A key role of a leader is to be out and about, be seen, interact with people, get to know colleagues and students on a human level through ‘corridor conversations’ and serve those that you lead. In those first few days and weeks this is almost the single most important thing you can do to establish yourself.
- As the saying goes ‘Two eyes, two ears and one mouth for a reason’. It is understandable that you will want to have an impact as a new leader but take your time. You have a unique opportunity, especially in a new organisation, to look at everything with fresh eyes. Within two months you will have ‘gone native’ and will have begun to blindly accept the way that things are done round here. Ask naïve questions to challenge why things are done the way they are in order to help you understand how decisions have been made. Live in the organisation a while, breath and feel it before you commit to big changes. That said, if your gut really tells you something is fundamentally broken, unsafe or a significant risk to the organisation, have the confidence to act. Just use your network/ mentor as a sounding board first.
- Steve Radcliffe (Leadership: Plain and Simple) talks about being a ‘Conscious Leader’. Understand what gives you energy and what takes it away as a leader? What are you like as a leader when you are at your best? What about when you are just surviving? How do your leadership behaviours show themselves at these times and crucially, how do they make others feel? Be conscious of your ‘impact intended’ and ‘impact felt’ as a leader. As you begin your new leadership journey just have your antenna acutely tuned so you can keep check of whether you are ‘being’ the leader you set out to be.
- How will you know you are having an impact/ being successful one week, one month, one hundred days and one year from now? What do you want to be up to as a new leader (Steve Radcliffe)? Write it down, share it with your team, line manager and peers. Steve Munby (Imperfect Leadership) talks about the importance of making public promises to help keep you focused on the bigger prize and to hold yourself accountable. Dame Julia Cleverdon talks about the importance of not just telling people your vision or writing it down in a nice shiny document but ‘painting a picture of it’. What will it feel and look like when you get there? Paint a high definition picture of what success will look like for your team and be ambitious. Whether you call it a Wildly Important Goal (PiXL), a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (Jim Collins), a Moonshot (Google) or any other term you wish to use, aim high and get others excited about what might be possible.
- What is the greatest risk to your team/ organisation this year? For new leaders, I think this is one of the most important questions you can ask yourself at the very start in your new role. It is quite right that you should be optimistic and deal in the art of the possible as a leader but time is also well spent on considering the most likely source of failure. Is it a human resource issue such as skill, competence or the experience of members of your team, or are physical resources such as equipment, facilities or finance a potential threat? Are there external change factors forecast that may be out of your control but which can be mitigated with appropriate planning? You can’t tackle everything but you can identify the most significant risk(s) and then work with your team to reduce the impact of these risks now rather than using them as a way of explaining away the negative consequences at the end of the year.
- I once listened to an interview with Richard Curtis, film director, talking about his role in leading Comic Relief. He said “I’m driven by the big numbers but I’m obsessed with the small ones”, in reference to the overall total donations versus the £3.78 raised by a 6yr old for a sponsored silence. It is possible, as a leader, to be both driven and obsessed by the big numbers but also find joy in the small things. The personal interactions, developing others, the minutiae of the day to day and the everyday behaviours that, brick by brick, build the culture of the organisation. At some point in the future you will look back on the culture you have developed and you won’t be able to comprehend all the small things that got you there – enjoy them now and revel in them.
- Be kind to yourself! Leadership is hard but it is worth it. Remember:
- Sustainable change takes time so don’t be hard on yourself if it doesn’t materialise in the short to medium term. Maintain your belief, focus and commitment to the long game.
- You will make mistakes and get it wrong. We all do. Own them, admit to them and learn from them. A wise Headteacher (Bob Elsey, Edgbarrow School) once gave me a sound bit of advice ‘Things are never as good as you think they are and they are never as bad as you think they are.’ Be humble, be gracious to others and be kind to yourself!
- There will always be things that are out of your control that will blindside you on a wet, Friday afternoon. Ask for help from your network and maintain your perspective.
- Being a new leader in that first year can feel like submerging in a submarine, only coming up for air for the occasional holiday. Book in ‘you time’ and time with family and friends now. Have things on the calendar that you can look forward to, which allow you to step away from the day to day and rejuvenate. If you burn out, its not just you that suffers, so will your team, organisation and loved ones.
- Finally, allow yourself to be vulnerable. The best leaders are fallible and imperfect (Steve Munby). The best leaders recognise their vulnerability and use it to make themselves better leaders. See my recent TEDx Talk here for more on the ‘Courage to be Vulnerable’ https://www.ted.com/talks/james_heale_the_courage_to_be_vulnerable_lifting_the_mask_on_leadership
This is an exciting time for you and I hope you will find it a privilege to lead others. Good luck!