I was recently reminded of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the military change of command ceremony. The ceremonies I’ve attended almost always relate a version of the following:
The change of command ceremony is rooted in military history dating back to the 18th century during the reign of Frederick the Great of Prussia. At that time, organizational flags were developed with color arrangements and symbols unique to each particular unit. To this flag and its commander, the soldiers of the unit would dedicate their loyalty and trust.
When a change of command took place, the flag was passed to the individual assuming the command. This gesture was accomplished in front of the unit so that all could see and witness their new leader assuming his dutiful position. He who held the flag also held the soldier’s allegiance. This tradition has survived throughout military history.
The ceremony, and the festivities surrounding it, provides an opportunity for outgoing commanders to say farewell to their troops, but more importantly, it allows incoming commanders to begin to set the stage for their tour of command. Taking charge of a unit is no trivial task; after all, not only are you assuming responsibility for accomplishing the mission and goals of the unit, but as a leader you are also assuming responsibility for the people who accomplish them.
While civilian organizations typically don’t have formal “change of command” ceremonies, the task of “assuming command” is no less important. As the saying goes, you only have one chance to make a first impression and your first few weeks in the positon will be full of first impressions. First impressions also tend to be sticky in nature and therefore hard to overcome if they are negative. So, what are some things you can do to help make this a smooth transition? Here are a few tips:
Have and use a personal leadership philosophy. Your personal leadership philosophy, your Leader's Compass, answers many of the questions your new team will want to know about the new boss and is particularly useful for this situation. If you haven’t looked at it in a while, take the time to update it as necessary for your new situation. While the highlights probably haven’t changed much, your expectations and priorities may need some work. If you used your personal leadership philosophy to help get the job, then you are probably a step ahead here. If you need a refresher on how to present your philosophy, we’ve written several articles on that topic.
Begin to get to know your people...immediately! This obvious step often gets forgotten in the excitement of taking on a new mission and the desire to start to implement all of your great ideas. Whether you schedule individual meetings or hold informal mixers, don’t short-change this step. The temptation is to think that there will always be time for this “people stuff,” but the longer you put it off the more likely is the risk of earning the reputation of being standoffish or that the job is more important than your people. Don’t get me wrong, you do have a job to do, but taking the time upfront to build a motivated and engaged team will pay dividends in the long run.
Consider the possibility that one of your new reports wanted the job also. Ask your new boss if this is the case and who that might be. If there is someone on your team who came in second place, look for ways to leverage their strengths and show them that you value their contributions. Watch for signs of resentment. If it gets out of hand, have the discussion sooner rather than later and ask directly if they can overcome their emotions and contribute to the team. I had this situation in my first command tour with the individual who was assigned as my second in command. Ultimately, we found a position for him elsewhere which turned out to be a win-win for all involved.
Learn the battlespace. This tip makes me cringe, but knowing the politics of your new situation is unfortunately a necessity. If appropriate, schedule time to discuss the situation with the person you are replacing. Where are the pitfalls, who are the trouble-makers, what would they do differently if given the chance. Fore-warned is fore-armed. Get to know your new peers. What kind of culture are you inheriting? Making assumptions about your new team based on previous experience may be natural but can cause trouble. For example, good-natured ribbing may have been acceptable with the folks you previously worked with, but until you find out if your new charges don’t have a tendency to take things too personally, you might want to hold off on the joking around.
Learn your job. Even if you were THE subject matter expert in your field, I can guarantee that you have a lot to learn about your new position. Ask questions, lots of questions. Doing so not only reduces the amount of unknown unknowns, it also shows your people that you aren’t one of those unapproachable know-it-alls but rather that you are someone who values their experience and expertise. In fact, in the early stages of your new position you should make a point of over-communicating which includes that all important LISTENING.
Taking over as the new boss doesn’t have to be traumatic; for you or your people. Following these tips as a minimum and communicating much more than normal should get you off on the right foot.