Tuesday, 13 October 2009

5 Steps to Maximise Leadership Success

Have you ever been thrown in the deep end of a new role and asked to work miracles?  What are the first things you do when you're asked to take on a poorly performing team, department, or project in chaos?  Do you leap in like the caped crusader to save the world or are you overly consultative in an attempt to make friends and influence people?

We know how challenging these situations are and we also know that they can be exceptionally rewarding.  To help you swim through the mud we've put together a list of the 5 practical steps that we know work.  Why do we know they work?  Because they're what we do and we've proven their success time and time again. These 5 steps will help you set the scene, quickly establish credibility, build trust and maximize the chances of success.

Try them and let us know how you get on.

1. Get clear
If you're not clear on what it is you're being asked to do how will you be able to do it?  Forget about the rumours and forget your own thoughts and opinions for the moment because the first step is to have absolute clarity of your role by asking the following:
  • What is it exactly that you're being asked to do? Do not presume to understand from the first explanation.
  • What role are you being asked to play? Tough guy, motivate, sort-out, clean-up, delivery, or all of these.
  • Why are they asking you? What is it you do that makes you the choice for this role?
  • What's the timeframe? Constraints? Dependencies?
  • What is the line of accountability, level of authority, and scope of responsibilities?
Important Note - if the person asking you to take the role cannot answer these questions find someone who can.  Get clear on your reporting path and purpose.  Without this success will be severely limited.

2. Agenda(s)
Find out who has what agenda and why.  What are the motivations behind this need and how do they relate to the scope of the challenge at hand?  Having this information will help you identify and fill any gaps in the brief and round-off Step 1.

3. Initial thoughts
Based on Steps 1 and 2, and the various bits of gossip, grapevine hearsay and corridor conversations you've picked up, it's time to begin forming initial opinions, ideas and thoughts.  Many of these will be questions, which you'll work to answer in Steps 4 and 5. It's important to reserve judgement and for any opinions to remain fluid until you've got all the input because at this stage you've only been spoken to by a higher authority and you haven't yet spoken with your new team.

4. Active Listening
Critical to a successful outcome is consulting with those you'll be working with. The best way to do this is with 1-on-1's.  Preparation is imperative:
  • Clear your diary and make 1-on-1 times with everyone
  • Set expectations via a communication:
    • Why you are the chosen one. Set the scene about your role. Stick to the facts
    • Purpose of the 1-on-1
    • Input expected from each individual.  Make it clear that this is a collaborative session and is their opportunity to contribute.  You want their input on:
      • What works well now
      • What doesn't
      • What they see as issues and risks
      • Which things they believe can be improved, why and how
      • What level of involvement or contribution they're prepared to have / give
      • What expectations they have of you
  • Conduct each session of a base of integrity.  Approach each one as a blank canvas and with an open mind. Be firm yet fair. You want to create a collaborative atmosphere. One where trust can be built through honesty and transparency.  Let the team know that this is a level playing field and that they have as much, if not more, to contribute as you do.
  • Let them talk getting their frustrations out while making sure to bring the session back on track if necessary.  It's their opportunity to be constructive and proactively contribute, not just a moaning session.
  • Make lots of notes.  Paraphrase back what they say to ensure you have understood their meaning correctly.  Where you know something is not possible or never going to happen, tell them.  There are things you can and cannot influence so don't lead them up the garden path.
  • Keep asking 'what else?' until you see in their body language and hear in their words that all is out and on the table.
  • Wrap up the session with a definitive statement about what will happen next.
5. Plan for Action
Now it's time to consolidate what you're actually going to do, what you want / need others to do, the milestones that need to be achieved and their timeline, and what approach you're going to take to deliver it all.  It's important to invest time and effort here as:
  • you don't want to destroy the momentum created in Step 4 by paying lip-service to your new team
  • everything you plan needs to remain aligned with the original brief you've been given
Taking all the gathered inputs you can now add your own ideas and opinions to develop a truly collaborative plan.  Your delivery style is also critical, though if you've approached Step 4 using the information you received in Step 1, this should already be established and not change radically going forward. Always start how you mean to continue while also being prepared to adapt as situations change.

Don't forget to share the plan!  Maintain the momentum you've created and maximise the opportunity for success by communicating what is to be done and the part everyone has to play in it.  This clarity of purpose ensures buy-in because everyone in your new team needs you to specify their Step 1.

These 5 Steps are repeatable and work every time.  Use them with each new role or situation and we know you will maximise both your and others success.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. This is great stuff. Earle reminds us that the light at the end of the tunnel (the project outcome) can only be reached by going thru the dark tunnel and along the way there is help or hinderance. Clarity about the journey and traveling companions are a MUST. Thanks for these words to remind me about my current and future projects and success.

  3. This is good information. I'm printing it out to start using it with my next project that I'm planning and leading.


  4. It's tough starting a new gig. Somebody pushes you in the deep end, and you feel that everyone's staring at you. My first instinct on day one is often to look at all the people staring back at me from the table and burst into tears, which probably won't inspire a lot of confidence.

    There's some great insights here that can help folks get organized, get focused, and start delivering (as opposed to running around screaming like a long distance runner at a tent revival).

    I particularly like what Deanne has to say about active listening!

  5. Geoff,
    That's definitely not a good thing to do on day one. If you apply the steps I've outlined I guarantee you'll get better results.