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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

The New Boss in Town

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New managers are expected to implement changes and improvements. But there is a fine line between making clear that things will be different and setting fire to what is familiar to employees. A manager who successfully toes the line between a new regime and a scorched-earth policy can set the tone early without alienating subordinates.

The balancing act requires paying attention to the existing attitudes in the organization and determining how much change people can handle-and how quickly. Peter Fischer, author of The New Boss: How to Survive the First 100 Days (Kogan Page, 2007), identifies seven building blocks of successful leadership transition: managing expectations, building key relationships, analyzing the situation, clarifying objectives, creating a climate for change, initiating change, and using symbols and rituals.

According to Fischer, experienced managers know that even the best arguments in favor of change will fall on deaf ears if the proper climate does not exist among employees. And employees who view the new boss as the long-awaited hero of the organization can be as destructive in the long run as employees who resist change.

Before you can foster a climate for change, you must gather what Milo and Thuy Sindell, authors of Sink or Swim!: New Job. New Boss. 12 Weeks to Get It Right (Adams Media, 2006), call "company knowledge." This includes the organization's history, culture-why it does things a certain way-internal operations, strategy and financial situation. "It is important to understand the rules because it ensures that you operate within the limits and boundaries and do not step on any toes in your first weeks on the job," they write. "Unknowingly crossing boundaries doesn't usually leave a very good impression."

Once you have the lay of the land and made it clear that you respect the culture of the office, it's time to articulate your vision for the organization to your employees and help them understand and appreciate their roles. Morey Stettner, author of The New Manager's Handbook: 24 Lessons for Mastering Your New Role (McGraw-Hill, 2002), writes, "By defining a new direction to move forward, you reassure employees of the benefits of change."

One approach is to identify the advantages of the changes from your employees' point of view. "Appeal to their self-interest and specify what's to gain in both the short- and long-term perspective," Stettner notes.

And while you're leveling with employees about what is coming down the pike, skip the platitudes. Clichés such as "We must change or die" or "Change is a constant around here" ring hollow with employees, he says.

Stettner writes that being accessible for informal, face-to-face chats with team members helps dispel rumors and foster trust about what is in store. And when you don't have all the answers, be honest. "Saying, 'I don't know, but I'll find out and get back to you' works better than barricading yourself in your office and becoming aloof," Stettner advises.

He quotes the late leadership consultant Peter Scholtes saying, "Employees don't resist change. They resist being changed." By showing respect and understanding for the culture of your new organization when you first arrive and by being honest and accessible in announcing and implementing your new direction, you make the changes a team effort, rather than an infliction.

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.

 
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