3 Ways to be the Best Freshman Leader

Meet Sam.

Sam is an experienced leader who just joined a new company. He's not new to leadership, but to this organization he's practically a freshman.

In Sam's first 90 days on the job he's already made a big impact. The bad kind. Where did he go wrong?

He made mistakes common to many freshman leaders.

Being new in a company is like being a freshman in school all over again. Despite the obvious differences - like one is an institution of higher learning and the other provides goods and services for a fee - the rules for success are very much the same.

  1. Be a Good Student
  2. Honor the History
  3. Carry the Flag

Be a Good Student

In school your first job is to learn. The same applies at work, because before you can contribute anything of value you need to know what you're doing.

True, in many cases you come to the table with an abundance of previously-acquired knowledge and skills. But those'll go to waste if you never learn how to apply them in your new surroundings. That takes adopting an attitude of learning and healthy study habits.

Aside from the usual things to learn - like the products, services, customers, processes, and policies - the most effective freshman leaders spend time learning the people.

Being a student of people requires first taking stock of your network. Identify your boss and your boss's boss. Your team. Your peers and partners. Your internal service providers and customers. Your external customers and vendors. And so on.

Once you know the players, your next priority is getting to know them. You can decide where to start, but I highly recommend starting with your team.

If you expect your team to follow you then you need to win their hearts and minds and gain their trust, and that takes getting to know them on an individual basis. This is where we apply the old adage, "No one cares what you know until they know you care."

Do you want to connect with your colleagues on a personal level, but not sure what to talk about? Try my favorite question:

What do you do for fun?

What about Sam? Well, Sam squandered any chance to know his team. Whenever he spent time with them he talked about himself or work, and the many ways his team needed to perform better.

He won no hearts and no minds. Worst of all, he lost their trust before it was ever gained.

Honor the History

Schools do a tremendous job of teaching their histories to new students. It is what makes the school special and fun. It inspires unity and camaraderie.

Similarly, every organization has a history. A reason they were founded. Their purpose. Their mission. These are taught in new hire orientation and reinforced through corporate culture.

Organizations also have tried and true "ways we've always done things." Sometimes these are effective, and many times they're not. Many leaders are hired to make changes, like improve a process, set a new vision, or transform a team. In these cases, change is necessary.

But before making a change, the successful freshman leader starts from a place of seeking to understand. She asks questions and studies why the company does certain things. She then asks for input, socializes recommendations, and strategically makes changes. She starts with small wins and accelerates from there.

This is where Sam floundered, once again.

Sam came in guns blazing. He told the team he was there to make changes because they were "doing it all wrong" and they needed to either "fall in or fall out."

For one example, Sam quickly retired an old product that was generating low revenue, which happened to be the brainchild of one of the organization's founders, still a member of the board. He stepped on a land-mine with that decision. Had he asked around and studied the history, that career-limiting-move could have easily been avoided.

It may not always feel this way, but your organization existed before you joined. Respect the people, the traditions, and the history and be respected in return.

You can only know where you're going if you know where you've been. - James Burke

Carry the Flag

We demonstrate our school spirit in many ways. Carrying the school flag is one literal way of doing that, and in a professional setting it bears a metaphorical meaning.

It means that you support your organization, both in words and actions. It means you're a good corporate citizen and that you believe in its people, its purpose and its product.

As a leader your team needs to see you rooting for them, fighting for them, and standing with them. When they see you "carrying the flag," your team will fall in and follow you anywhere.

Sam did a great job of carrying the flag. His own.

At every opportunity he regaled his team with stories of his accomplishments, of the people he knew and the places he'd been. He was even more skilled at bragging about his past company and the way they did things. "At my last company, we..." he often said to a room of rolling eyeballs. He was clearly still carrying their flag.

When you join a new organization, carry their flag. And no one else's.

Best Freshman

People talk about the importance of quick wins as a way of gaining credibility and establishing yourself when you're new. I absolutely agree. But I also believe if you get this other stuff wrong, the equity of your quick wins will soon be lost and you'll be left with a zero balance.

Don't be like Sam.

You got in the door because you worked your way to the top, but now you're a freshman leader and it is time to start over at the bottom. The secret to your success is winning over the hearts and minds of the people. Be a student. Honor the history. Carry the flag. Soon enough you'll be voted your company's freshman leader of the year.

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