Starting a New Leadership Role

Even the most experienced leader starting a new leadership role, who walks into a new organisation has to consider how they are going to hit the ground running. There are high expectations on you from the hiring manager, from the peers and stakeholders around the organisation and from the staff that will report to you in the role.

A number of books and articles have been written about preparing for a new role, establishing a 30, 60 or 90 day plan but that is just the beginning. A successful transition takes into account preparation before you commence, establishing and building your team and laying out a clear plan.

Preparation Before You Commence A New Leadership Role

Connect with peers to get a strong sense of what is going on in the organisation, what challenges are you going to face on day one. Do you know who is going to immediately be in your corner and who is likely to be put out by your appointment. Do as much research as you can to get to know the team you are going to be working with, it will help you build stronger stakeholders from day one.

Start considering how success is going to be measured, you will be working with your manager on establishing your Key Performance Indicator right as you start, do you know which are going to be easy to achieve and which are going to be a significant stretch? Your plan will need to change as you build knowledge about the role, team and current performance but if you can establish a framework for performance and benchmark what you think success should look like you will be in the best position for observing, learning and leading.

Just as entrepreneurs need people and institutions with money to invest in their start-up ideas, leaders and managers need people with social and human capital to back them. How much support they get directly influences their effectiveness.

David Sluss (HBR 2020)

Your success in the role is going to have a lot to do with how effective your team is and that will require you as the leader to motivate them. Just because you have the title does not mean they will automatically follow your lead, rather you must win them over by demonstrating your leadership strategy.

A recent HBR survey (Sluss, HBR 2020) found that there are two main groups of concerns that teams have about a new leader coming in. The group types are ‘warriors’ and ‘worriers’.

Warriors – rapidly evaluate your hard skills (relevant experience, achievements, capability) and soft skills (leadership acumen, emotional intelligence, stakeholder management) to decide if they belief you can handle the job and help them do their job better.

Worriers – are looking to be part of the clan and feel secure in the team. They want to understand any potential changes on the horizon that might impact them. Worriers are much more concerned about soft skills, what type supervisory style does the leader have? Most are keen to have clarity over job expectations.

Establishing Your Team

In order to establish a highly effective team there needs to be alignment around a common purpose, values and vision for the future. While most teams accept these as critical for shared success

According to McKinsey research (Bergeron, De Smet & Meijknecht – McKinsey 2020) there are four characteristics of effective teams:

  • They configure the team around a clear mandate and precise roles, understanding which roles drive the most value and securing the right talent for those positions.
  • They align on a value agenda, set of priorities, and way of working together, which helps forge a distinct identity.
  • They execute under a governance system that allows them to make decisions quickly and effectively, collaborate, and challenge one another.
  • They take time to renew—evolving, innovating, learning from the broader context, and investing in individual and team-wide development.

Every leader has people in their team who play different roles figuring out who you have in the team, which roles are their strength and preference and any gaps that you might have is one of the first tasks as you establish the way of working between you and your senior team.

Laying Out The Plan

In the first week you are going to be meeting a lot of people but think about how your team are going to perceive you Jean-François Manzoni, Professor of leadership and organizational development at IMD (Lausanne, Switzerland) suggests the following questions to ask in the first week:

  1. Before your first day: How will you introduce yourself to the team? What will you say about your work style, your expectations, and the criteria you will be judging them on?
  2. How many of your direct reports have you spoken to face-to-face? What do you know of their strengths and weaknesses and what makes them tick? A good question for you, as boss, would be: “What do you hope to get from me?” It also paves the way for you to be explicit: “And now let me tell you what I hope to get from you. . .”
  3. Have some labels already come to you? If they’re negative, can you identify someone who highly rates the person in question? Talk with him to see what you’re missing.
  4. Have you expressly invited your direct reports to help build your working relationship and let you know when your actions are standing in their way?

In his book ‘The First 90 Days‘ Michale Watkins lays out a structured approach to establishing your plan


To do this effectively you must be clear on the business situation your firm or organisation is in and the role you have. There are four types of business situation:

  • Start-up: Assembling a new team and resources to get the initiative, product or business off the ground and launched.
  • Turn-around: Getting a business or initiative that is in trouble back on track.
  • Realignment: Revitalise a team that is drifting and needs focus.
  • Sustaining Success: Preserving the vitality of a high performance team.

When you are clear on the business situation you are entering focus your energy on the highest priorities. Watkins proposes that you need to make choices and set your own targets for (1) how much time you will spend learning versus doing, (2) how much emphasis you will place on offence versus defence and (3) what you need to do to get some early wins.


Moving in to a new organisation you are going face a huge amount new information, it is also the only chance you will get to look objectively at processes and performance and not have your experiences prejudice your perspective. A learning agenda establishes your learning priorities it consists of a focused set of questions that will guide your inquiry. As you learn more, you’ll make conclusions about what is going on and why.

Watkins suggests that a good start is to meet with each direct report and ask them the following five questions:

  1. What are the biggest challenges the organization is facing (or will face) in the near future?
  2. Why is the organization facing (or going to face) these challenges?
  3. What are the most promising unexploited opportunities for growth?
  4. What would need to happen for the organization to exploit the potential of these opportunities?
  5. If you were me, what would you focus on?


In the first 90 days your key goal is to establish your leadership credibility and drive organisational momentum. Establish the organisational cadence that reflects the changes in behaviour your leadership brings to the organisation. Set the key metrics that will determine success assigning the what, how, who and when – make these a key buy-in for the team to own the collective achievement.


  • Don’t trash the past – nothing to be gained and much to be lost in criticising what ever took place before you arrived.
  • Don’t stay away – if your boss does not reach out to you then you need to reach out to them. Build the communication channel early.
  • Don’t surprise your boss – no one likes bad news especially if it is a surprise, communicate early with clarity and perspective.
  • Bosses are not going to change for you – everyone has their own idiosyncrasies, so learn to work with them.
  • Don’t only bring problems – you are being paid to lead, so have a plan on how you intend to go forward with potential solutions.
  • No one wants to hear your checklist – don’t go to a meeting with your boss and run down the checklist, that is for you not for them.
  • Clarify mutual expectations early and often – manage expectations right at the beginning, if there is bad news get it on the table and talk to the progress. A key point to this is don’t try to solve the problem in the room, negotiate a timeline for diagnosis and action planning.

When leadership teams have a shared, meaningful, and engaging vision, the company is nearly two times more likely to achieve above-median financial performance.

Bergeron, De Smet & Meijknecht (McKinsey 2020)


The key aspects of your STRATEGY is going to be about how to align your team to the purpose and vision of the organisation while achieving your key remit and performance metrics. The STRUCTURE is how you form and group teams to achieve working together. RESOURCES are the financial, human and physical resources available to you to get the job done. Make note of what you need, what you have, gaps and surplus – most plans are going to be driven to achieve performance efficiency. PROCESS is how things are done, does anything need to change? are you transforming how work is being done and modifying a system? CULTURE is the set of values, norms and assumptions within the team – it is the way things are done and often includes a lot of unspoken rules.


Get to know key players both in your team and across the organisation. Assess your existing team as you form impressions look at the strengths that each individual brings. It is likely the team may have its own dynamics and politics so seek to understand what is going on and take time before making snap judgements.

Ask your boss for the list of 10 people outside your immediate group that you should get to know and meet with them to determine how important they are to you and your teams success.

Map the landscape of key players, in your own team, across peer groups, up and down the organisation. In every organisation you need to work out how to get things done and who you need to work closely with to ensure that you can achieve your teams goals. Build the coalitions of influence, the informal bonds across your colleagues that will help you generate support for your initiatives.

Starting A New Leadership Role

Now you have a plan, a purpose, you have assessed and motivated your team, you have met your stakeholders mapped your influence and are clear on where you are aligned (and any gaps).

How do you keep establish and retain your executive presence as you go from shiny and new leader to one of the leadership team. Executive Coach and Professor at Kellogg Northwestern, Brooke Vuckovic explains that Executive Presence is the balance of your credibility plus your ease / divided by your ego.

  • CREDIBILITY – comes from expertise in your role, some will refer to this as hard skills. They include deep domain and subject matter knowledge and previous achievements.
  • EASE – comes from the softer skills. Confidence, Resilience, Emotional Intelligence and Preparation convey a sense of ease in the role
  • EGO – Ego is important but it must be a balance of confidence and humility. With ego being the denominator in the executive-presence formula, Vuckovic points out that you don’t want to have a miniscule ego, nor do you want an oversized one, since both a negative number and a giant number will mean an erosion of the credibility and ease that you’ve worked to convey. 

Key Takeaways

  • Effectively starting a new leadership role requires you to be solidly prepared.
  • Build a 90 Day Plan that agrees mutual expectations and demonstrates you are on track
  • Create a communications plan to introduce yourself to your new team
  • Build your network and map your influence
A DIGEST of articles from

Harvard Business Review
Stepping into a Leadership Role? Be Ready to Tell Your Story.
By David Sluss
Published: 16th April 2020

INSEAD Knowledge
The Two Faces of Leadership
By Benjamin Kessler
Published: 9th July 2020

Improve Your Leadership Teams Effectiveness Through Key Behaviours
By Natasha Bergeron, Aaron De Smet, and  Liesje Meijknecht
Published: 27th January 2020

Executive Presence Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All. Here’s How to Develop Yours
By Brooke Vuckovic
Published: 27th February 2021 

The First 90 Days
By Michael Watkins
Published by Harvard Business Press

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