Best Practices

Best Practices


As we watch the first days of a new president, it is sobering to reflect on how many early tests of his leadership there may be. This is not unique to this president-it has been widely observed that an incoming president often faces a test designed by a foreign government, whether to elicit a specific response or merely to learn about how the new administration responds.

So it also pertains to any new leader. You will likely be tested early on, whether by your own leadership, your competitors, your suppliers or even your staff. What kinds of tests might you face? Here are some typical ones from my perspective:

If you are in sales or sales management, look for competitors to threaten your business with some customers or challenge your companys pricing in some key product area.

If you are in supply chain functions, look for suppliers to try to take the opportunity to raise pricing or settle some long-standing dispute. Watch for changes in supplier contracts or treatment.

Watch for your team to test you on budgets and resourcing. Expect that they may seek to enact personnel or organizational changes that may have been discouraged by your predecessor. (Recognize that maybe your predecessor had his or her own misperceptions, and you now have the opportunity to see things in a new light.)

Watch for your leadership to throw you a challenge such as a request for a five-year strategic or resourcing plan, or ask you to carry out a study of some strategic importance. Recognize that you need to give such requests high priority and appropriate resourcing, and prioritize your own functional objectives accordingly.

There are some important things to consider as you formulate your response to the test. The first thing to recognize is that this first test of your leadership is likely the most important one as it will be highly watched, and how you do will leave an important impression both within and likely outside your company. This level of scrutiny requires that you demonstrate some key behaviors in your response to the test, such as:

Clarity. Recognize that you are working with a new team within your company, and depending on the type of test, you may also be working with unfamiliar people from your suppliers, customers or community. Be sure to lay out clear steps as you respond to the issue and ensure that those you are interacting with understand what you mean. This is not a time you can tolerate any confusion or delay in responding.

Alignment with strategy. Ensure that your response stands up to examination from the viewpoint of overall company strategy, as well as your own functional strategies and practical constraints such as budgets and resourcing. If you think your response could be perceived as conflicting in some way with strategy, procedures or guidelines, be sure to explain why you are doing it and how it aligns with the bigger picture.

Understand past practice. Then decide whether you want to break with it and why. Discuss with your team how the previous leader would have responded or what norms may exist for issues of this type. How high or broad in the organization would the communication go? What was the typical decision process? Once you understand past practice, you can decide whether to follow it or break from it. Breaking from past practice can be the right thing to do and can set you up for an early win, but recognize that it may also carry higher risk. Be sure to explain why you are taking the chosen course.

Consistency and fairness. Ensure that you are consistent in your treatment of similar circumstances, and if you veer from this, explain why. For example, if your team is complaining about budget cuts, either maintain a consistent cut across all areas or clearly explain why you are increasing in one area and cutting more deeply in another. Avoid any appearance (or reality) of being arbitrary or biased.

Maintain a calm demeanor. People will be watching closely not only what you do but how you do it. Demonstrating strength and calm when dealing with a test or a crisis will be remembered and respected, and will inspire similar behaviors in your staff.

Communicate to peers and your own leadership as the crisis or test progresses. This gives you the opportunity to describe the issues as you see them and put them in context with regard to potential impact on the organization. Once the issue has been resolved, you have the perfect opportunity to showcase how you and your team performed and leave a great impression. If things are not going well, you need to bring this forward early and get more help for the problem, whether in budget, people or ideas.

Keep in mind that an early test of your leadership may not be a manufactured event but rather something significant that happens as a result of a changing macroeconomic, competitive, regulatory or supply environment. This shouldnt change any of the above advice with regard to the desired behaviors. Of course it might raise the stakes even higher with regard to your success in dealing with the challenge, depending on the impact it could have on your company. Make sure that you dont underestimate the potential impacts of such an event. Confer with your predecessor, your colleagues and your team to ensure you understand the size and scope of the challenge.

If you are in a new leadership position, also recognize that you may wish to challenge your team early on so that you can understand how they organize, collaborate and respond. For example, you might want to ask them for that longer-term strategic or resourcing plan, or to examine some industry trend. If you do so, ensure that you understand the work that is already on their plates and adjust priorities or timelines accordingly. Keep in mind that you want the people reporting to you to succeed, so ensure that whatever challenge you assign them, either individually or as a team, is of appropriate level of difficulty and is relevant to the current reality.

Sara Lefcourt of Lefcourt Consulting LLC specializes in helping companies to improve profits, reduce risk and step up their operations. Her experience includes many years in marketing, sales and procurement, first for Exxon and then at Infineum, where she was vice president, supply. Email her at or phone (908) 400-5210.

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