How to handle your first leadership role

You’re new into a senior management role and you are now a leader. All your hard work has paid off and you have secured that promotion – so where do you go from here? Manley Hopkinson is on hand with some savvy ideas

There is so much going on in your head when you take up your first real leadership role. You are buzzing with the recognition and responsibility but shaking with the unknown and the expectation that not only others will now have of you, but that you have of yourself too. Don’t muck it up, this is your first big chance to show the world what you are made of.

So much advice from so many quarters – all well intended but now your head is foggy with conflicting thoughts and possible actions: “You need to establish some credibility”; “You need to assert your authority”;  “You need to get to know the lay of the land first”; “First impressions are key”.

So what should you do? What should your number one priority be? This may sound a little leftfield, but I believe your number one priority should be to do nothing. I’ll explain where I believe new leaders go wrong: they go wrong by trying to do too much too early. As soon as they get their foot in the door they come out with grandiose plans to change the world, or they fire the existing leadership team and bring in a new one (mainly of those with a tendency toward sycophancy).

They stand up on the stage and proudly talk about the legacy they intend to leave, the changes they intend to make and the decisions they have already made. But based on what knowledge, what understanding and with what impact? This leader has fallen into the classic trap driven by ego that tells them people are looking to them for all the ideas, that need to burst on to the scene with a grand plan. No. A leader’s role is to facilitate ideas, to enable their people to achieve the extraordinary and to align all intent to a common vision. A leader’s role is to gain commitment and take away any barriers to their team’s success; to enable greatness. Their legacy is in their people, not in their product.

Your number one priority is to be a compassionate leader and start by shutting up and listen. According to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, compassion is “understanding with positive action”. In that order. First you must understand, and then and only then do you have the chance to act with positive intent and impact. As a new leader, I urge you to listen with a deep intent to understand as your first priority. When you first arrive, go listen to your people. Get to know them. Get to deeply understand their motivations, their needs, their fears and their concerns. You need to spend the time to get to understand their ideas too – they know better than you, they are closer to the coal face.

Get to know everybody. Spend time at reception to get a true feel of the culture of the place. Talk with the janitor; they get to meet everybody and know what’s what, they have their finger on the pulse. Be open with your intent. “Hi team, I am your new leader. I want to spend some time to really get to know you, to get to understand what it is like to work here and to listen to your ideas on what it is we need to do to be even better.” Wow. How many leaders start their leadership journey with that statement?

More often than not we hear our new boss tell us all about themselves, their experience, how good they are and what they want to do. A leader’s tenure tends to be much shorter than that of the workforce for many reasons, so the impact of each new leader coming in with their own self-centred pet project is devastating on the morale of the team – “Oh no, here we go again – all change.”

But think about it. What if a new leader did spend their first few days or weeks in touring the business and listening to the thoughts of all, before coming up with a plan? Think about your own experience in life. How do you feel when you know you are heard, you know you have a voice and that the powers that be value your input? How do you feel when a leader is clearly trying to really understand your views and your concerns? And how do you feel when you see that your experience and wisdom has been influential in some key decisions? Awesome, yes? You are on fire. They have lit the fire of commitment deep in your belly by feeding your self-worth. And that is what leadership is all about.

Your number one priority is to be a compassionate leader, to first understand and then act on that knowledge with positive intent. We define compassionate leadership as to “secure the best for all”, so if you are to secure the best for all, then first you need to understand what it is that they need to excel at. And the “all” word is key too. It means all stakeholders. Not just your immediate team, but the whole value chain, the whole organisation, from the top to the bottom and from one side to the other and if you can do that than just imagine what can be achieved.

Be open, be honest and be vocal with your intent to be compassionate. “Team, I may have lots of ideas of what I think needs to be done, but I want to hear from you first.” Wow, that is powerful stuff from the mouth of a new leader. It is humility and confidence combined. It is trusting and so delivers trust. It involves and empowers. It is a win-win philosophy that delivers the commitment you desire.

And you know what? Another massive benefit of this approach is that it takes all the crazy pressure off you to come up with a half-baked plan based on limited knowledge in the first place. It removes the worry of what to say when you first meet everybody. It takes away all of the stress of trying to make decisions based on the unknown.

Resist the temptation to crash into the room and immediately burst into full flow. No, your number one priority is to enter the room and… slow down, feel the pulse, get to know and then the power of commitment becomes your legacy. Leadership is an honour and a pleasure when you listen first – enjoy the journey.

Manley Hopkinson is the founder of leadership consultancy The Compassionate Leadership Academy, author of Compassionate Leadership (Hachette, £12.99) and is a judge on the panel for the 2022 AMBA awards

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