Leading Change When Taking on a New Executive Role

Jennifer was thrilled about her new job. Going to a new company, she was moving into an expanded leadership role with increased responsibilities. It was a big, exciting step.

However, Jennifer also knew that she was going into a situation that needed “fixing.” Team behavior was dysfunctional, financial performance had fallen below expectations, and cutbacks were imminent. During the interview process, Jennifer’s new employer made it clear that she was expected to make significant changes.

Jennifer’s scenario is not unusual. New career opportunities often come out of situations where an organization has struggled, underperformed, or is in disarray.

What’s the best approach for leading and building (or re-building) a team, department, or division in such circumstances? While executive coaching provides outstanding tools and insights for leading, Arden Coaching’s president, Maren Perry, emphasizes three essential elements for leading change as you step into a new executive role.

1. Be Honest.

“You are stepping into a situation where everyone knows what’s been going on,” said Perry. “You’re not going to fool anyone by sugarcoating things. In fact, people will know you’re lying — they’ve been living through the dysfunction and poor performance that you are taking on. Apologize for the trauma and the difficulty of possible changes to come, but be as transparent as possible and acknowledge what’s going on. Let people know where things are heading, and what needs to change.” 

2. Communicate (a lot).

Leaders can’t barricade themselves in their office to “figure things out” before connecting with their employees. “Executives in new leadership roles must communicate immediately, openly, authentically, and regularly,” said Perry. “You need to keep people up to-date as things evolve. Repeat your messages consistently, but avoid sounding scripted. That comes across as being insincere and untrustworthy.”

3. Listen (and respond).

It is essential to open your door and get feedback from people. “Find out what people have to say. Let people get things off their chest. Remember, they were there. They know more than you do, and you need that information. You can’t just come in and lead off of a spreadsheet.” 

Two elements of listening are critical. First, you need to accept what’s being said — at face value, with no defensiveness. Second, you must let people know that they’ve been heard. “This is a step many executives leave out. Find ways to demonstrate that you’ve heard their feedback. What are you doing with the feedback? If you don’t take this step, people will assume that their feedback is unimportant and that you are not really listening.”

Perry touched on one more aspect of listening: dealing with repetitive, negative feedback. “If people keep circling back to the same topics, questions, or complaints, that tells you that the issue continues to be unresolved — even if you feel you have addressed it. You need to consider that and communicate differently. Try using different language and communicate about that topic more frequently.”

Team performance and development training can be invaluable in leading change. Explore Arden Coaching’s Leadership Academy and their new partnership with The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™. To learn about other approaches to leading change, read an earlier Arden Coaching Blog, “Three Steps to Leading with a Mandate for Change.”

To learn more about leading change, team performance, and executive coaching, contact us at [email protected] or 646.844.2233.