According to a report I read somewhere, four out of 10 new managers fail in their first year. The primary reason, the report said, is that they are not able to build a good support system. That corresponds to my own experience. When you take over a new job, you will encounter some enthusiastic support — but mostly what you’ll get will be skepticism, cautious cooperation, and in some cases outright resistance.
This will come from all quarters — your new employees, your new supervisor, your new clients, and even the “outside” world of vendors, support staff, and/or consultants. The best way to handle the situation is to come in slowly. Before you do or say anything, make individual appointments with everybody whose cooperation could help you. This should include all your staff members. Invite each one to sit down with you for a short, informal chat.
When you meet with someone, make an effort to put him at ease. Start by saying at least one positive thing about him. It can be something you’ve heard about his abilities (such as “I hear you are a wizard at getting our suppliers to work for you”). If you can’t come up with anything else, say something semi-personal (such as “I like that tie”). Ask a lot of questions — about the business generally, his department, his supervisor, his colleagues, and (if applicable), his employees. (This will give you material to use later on to say something positive to the other people you’re going to be talking to.) Ask him what he likes best about his work and what he could live without. Ask his opinion about something that’s “been on your mind.”
In short, let him do most of the talking. That will accomplish several objectives. It will make his feel that — if nothing else — you are a good conversationalist. (The person who asks questions and says very little is usually thought of as a good conversationalist.) It will give him a chance to vent his frustrations, which might start him down the road to trusting you. And it will give you a lot of good information. You may be surprised at how much good stuff you get from such informal sit-downs.
Every time I’ve been in this situation, I’ve found people not only willing but actually bursting to tell an “outsider” all the company scuttlebutt. Very important: At this first meeting, make no judgments and say nothing about anyone else. At this point in time, anything you say will probably be held against you. When you’ve completed all the interviews, send out a simple memo — a handwritten one is best — thanking each person for his thoughts and mentioning (if you have taken some notes as you should have) some specific comment he made that you found “helpful.”
Then spend some time thinking about how you want to proceed. Talk to trusted friends and advisers. Get some feedback, but keep it between you and your outside, confidential world. When you are sure you know what needs to be done, you can take action. But before you do anything, you’ll have to explain your plans to your new supervisor. And you’ll have to do that in a very diplomatic way. You want to impress him with your good judgment and willingness to move forward, but you want to make him feel very comfortable that your interest is in making things work better for HIM, not you.
When it comes time to implement the changes, call in the affected people — individually, if feasible — and tell them what you intend to do and why. (On rare occasions, this is not possible. Most of the time, however, it can be arranged.) Be sure to tell them how the change will benefit them, even if it means they will be free to find a better job. Before the discussion ends, ask them to summarize the conversation to make sure they understand what was said.