It’s Best for New Leaders to Adjust to the Organization (Not the Other Way Around)


I was reading an article that stated that when you get a new boss, you get a new job. The point was that when a new boss shows up, things change. I experienced this in one of my jobs. A new boss came in with his own agenda and his own way of doing things. At times, a big change may be what is needed (for example, if the organization is under-performing). However, in most cases, it seems strange to me that everyone needs to adjust to the new boss.

I feel the best leaders take time to adjust to those they have been hired to provide leadership to. After all, most employees will likely still be with the organization after the new boss leaves, especially if the person is in an executive position. In the U.S., the average tenure of an executive is 4.9 years, according to M&A Executive Search. CEO tenure is higher, at 6.9 years.

In my experience, the best leaders take time to know the people and the culture. (Again, this is assuming the organization is not in a perilous position.) As I’ve written many times, one of the hardest items for an organization to achieve is consistency. It does not help when turnover creates inconsistency at the top.

Too often, a new leader comes in and announces their program. It will have a name, and there will be lots of excitement around it at the top. Of course, the new leader is a believer in the program and believes it will be helpful to the organization. There will be the typical head-nodding from others in leadership, and many will see the value of the program. But what about the rank and file? Often, they are less enthusiastic.

Most likely, the employees have lived through similar announcements and programs before. They may listen to (and even enjoy) the announcement and accept the giveaway items with the name of the program printed on them. Yet often there are some covert rumblings and perhaps some rolling of the eyes. While the program sounds good, there is doubt that the changes will last. One can feel a pervasive sense of “here we go again.”

It’s not hard to understand why. It seems every new leader comes in with a new program. However, when the leaders leave, so can the program. Then, the next new leader will bring in their new program. Those individuals who are not in a leader position (which is most of the organization) have seen it all before. It is natural for them to be skeptical. They may be thinking, Why buy in when the program probably will not last?

Some suggestions for those who are new to a leadership role:

  • Start by asking and listening. Survey the workforce. State that you are new to the role (even if it is an internal promotion) and ask these questions: What one to three things do you feel the organization does well? What are one to three opportunities to improve? What do you recommend I focus on these next three to six months? What questions or concerns do you have?

This helps the person who is new to the role in many ways. First, they get credit for asking. People always appreciate being allowed input. It also provides the leader with a quick lay of the land, which will help in making future decisions. The final win comes when they roll out the survey results and the follow-up plan.

  • Center new action in items that already exist. Most organizations have a mission statement and written values. Connect to those items. For example, most of the changes the initiative will impact will most likely improve the organization’s performance. This helps fulfill the mission.
  • Be careful of sizzle. Creating excitement is nice; however, too often the sizzle is followed by fizzle. In his bookGood to Great, Jim Collins shared that organizations that make a lot of sizzle in announcements are more likely not to achieve the results they are seeking. It can even push things the opposite way. Frontline staff are thinking, If we are financially challenged, how are we affording all this glitter? As Jim Collins writes, those organizations that achieve greatness do so due to their consistent methodical approach based on an understanding of what they can be the best at.
  • Don’t rush into a name. When I was president of Baptist Hospital in Pensacola, Florida, during my initial town hall, we discussed that our mission would be the same as it had been for years. The values were good and would help guide all actions. I then shared that, as always, our goal would be to create a great place for people to receive care, to work, and to practice medicine. The biggest adjustment would be investing more heavily in skill-building for everyone. A person raised their hand and asked, “What are we going to call this program?” I replied that there would be no name. It is called being part of a great organization. The point is not that a name will not work; just be very sensitive about it.
  • Never talk negatively about the past. Ninety-nine percent of the workforce were there before you. Being negative about the past takes away from their work. It diminishes them.
  • Be careful not to bring in lots of new people right away. Again, this diminishes those who are there. Most of the time, the will is there, even if more skill-building is needed. After a few months, those who cannot move forward become evident. The transition will take care of itself.

Taking the time to adjust to the talent, versus expecting them to adjust to you, shows humility and a sense of appreciation for what others have accomplished. People will respect and appreciate this approach. There will be plenty of opportunity to introduce and implement your new ideas…and employees will be far more likely to buy in and support them because you built a strong foundation first.

Quint Studer
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Quint Studer’s Wall Street Journal bestseller, The Busy Leader’s Handbook: How to Lead People and Places That Thrive, is filled with tips, tactics, and need-to-know insights. It functions as a desk reference, pocket guide, and training manual for anyone in a leadership position. His newest book, The Calling: Why Healthcare Is So Special, is aimed at helping healthcare professionals keep their sense of passion and purpose high.

Quint is the co-founder of Healthcare Plus Solutions Group, a consulting firm that specializes in delivering customized solutions to diagnose and treat healthcare organizations’ most urgent pain points. He also serves as Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the University of West Florida, Executive-in-Residence at George Washington University, and Lecturer at Cornell University.