The following post is a preview excerpt from Chapter 9 of Becoming the New Boss by Naphtali Hoff.
About a year or so into my principalship, I attended a leadership seminar together with my board chair. The session was for independent school leaders and board chairs, and focused on matters of governance. While I do not remember the overwhelming majority of the content presented that evening, there was one slide that got my attention. I remember it to this day because it captured a critical leadership concept in one vivid, ominous message.
The slide was entitled, “Hills that heads die on.” On the slide was a list of ostensibly insignificant decisions that had been made by different school leaders, such as changing the direction of the carpool line or clearing out older artifacts from the trophy case. To our collective surprise, the presenter shared that this was not a joke. In fact, these were primary contributing factors to actual school leader terminations.
While the concerns that were listed on that slide may have appeared petty to the casual observer, they were important issues to the respective local school populations. The leaders in each case had not taken the time to learn the culture and find out what really mattered to their people before making what they thought to be innocuous, constructive changes. Never would they have imagined losing their jobs over these decisions.
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During your transition period, you want to learn as much as you can about the existing workplace culture. Take time to study the important traditions, symbols, events, and even behaviors that hold meaning for your people. Ask lots of questions, but be sure to do so in a way that suggests interest, curiosity, and nonjudgment. Consider introducing questions as follows: “Just curious,” “How have we historically,” and “Can you help me understand?” Tell people that you are genuinely interested in finding out the insider’s view of how the organization works. The answers to these questions will help you to avoid pitfalls.
Perhaps you can identify one or more official chroniclers who have been around for a while and possess a balanced, informed view of the organization’s history and cultural development. Such people can be a tremendous resource as you seek to understand existing mindsets and behaviors. They can also offer perspective when you are ready to consider new ideas and want to get safe feedback.
Once you better understand the culture, seek to embrace it and become part of it, even if it feels a bit awkward at times. One of the hardest cultural components for me during my tenure as head of school was morning lineup. My predecessor had a unique routine that he used for years to get things started. It had become part of the school fabric and everyone—students, teachers, and parents—knew it by heart. For me, the practice was strange and awkward, but I knew better than to try to mess with it. For my entire time at the school, I followed that time-honored tradition exactly as I had inherited it, and did the best that I could to roll with it every day, with maximal energy and engagement. I even added a few of my own wrinkles in, which nobody seemed to mind.
Of course, the role of the leader is to help continue to mold and shape the culture. Over time, it may come to look very different than the culture that you inherited. We will talk about how to drive such changes in a later chapter. Still, your short-term goal in most cases is to familiarize yourself with the existing culture and not step on any time bombs as you get acclimated. By working to kick things off positively, you will greatly increase your likelihood of gaining colleagues’ trust and support from the outset. This will hold you in good stead as you become better acquainted and establish yourself in your new role.
Leadership effectiveness expert Naphtali Hoff is the author of the book Becoming the New Boss: The New Leader’s Guide to Sustained Success which you can purchase here. If you would like to learn more about Naphtali and his work, you can visit his website here.