Tips for a new leader

Peter is a new expat in Thailand on his first overseas assignment. He’s an outsider in more ways than one, because he is also new to the company that has posted him to this exotic tropical country.

“Coach, what advice do you give me as an outsider leader?” he asks me.

“Peter, what do you have in mind?”

“I think I will focus on people first. As you mentioned in your book Bridging the Gap, Thais highly value relationships. I plan to get to know all my direct reports individually _ background, family, working style, hobbies and interests.”

“That’s a good start,” I reply, calling to mind the quotation that’s been attributed to Theodore Roosevelt among others: “No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

“What else will you do?” I ask.

“Coach, at the same time I also want to learn more about the organisational culture. Do you have any advice?”

“That’s also a good move, Peter. From my experience, most veteran leaders who failed did so because they ignored the critical impact of an organisation’s culture.”

In The First 90 Days, Michael Watkin outlines one useful framework for analysing an organisation’s work culture by approaching it on three levels: symbols, norms and assumptions.

– Symbols are signs including logos and styles of dress; they distinguish one culture from another and promote solidarity. Are there distinctive symbols that signify your unit and help members recognise one another?

– Norms are shared social rules that guide “right behaviour”. What behaviours get encouraged or rewarded in your unit? What behaviours elicit scorn or disapproval?

– Assumptions are the often-unarticulated beliefs that pervade and underpin social systems. These beliefs are the air that everyone breathes. What truths does everyone take for granted?

“That’s good, Coach. Usually when I join the new organisation I ask, ‘How do we get things done around here?”‘

“That’s also a good short way to grasp the understanding of the culture.”

“What other resources can you think of that are helpful for a new leader?”

I direct Peter’s attention to Leading with Questions by Michael Marquardt. He recounts the experience of Kevin Sharer when he became CEO of the biotech company Amgen: he interviewed the top 100 executives at the company even though he had already been president there for eight years. “Whether or not you are new in the company, you have to bring a new set of eyes,” he said. Here are the questions he asked:

– What do you want to keep?

– What do you want to change?

– What do you want me to do?

– What are you afraid I’ll do?

– What else do you want to ask me?”

“Thanks Coach, that’s a good approach too.”

“Peter, once you have all the answers, what’s your next move?”

“I anticipate there will be diverse viewpoints. Some are facts and some are opinions. Since we have different styles and values, I think we should have common ground rules.

“Recently, I watched a video clip from the e-corner of the Stanford Technology Venture Program. Sue Siegel, CEO of GE Healthymagination, offers a thoughtful list of values for properly setting team expectations and interactions. When she starts any job, she lays out the following set of ‘ways of working’ to the new team:

– We are all ambassadors for the team. Your actions reflect your team.

– Issues within team should be resolved within the team.

– Decisions are supported once made. Everyone has the opportunity to present ideas and passionately debate/discuss them to make the decision.

– Once a decision is made, move to crisp execution.

– Decisions can be revisited but only within the team _ and only when it’s agreed by the team that it’s OK to revisit them.

– Practise proactive problem management. Go to the source _ it’s illegitimate behaviour to go to peers or managers without going to the source first.

– “Venting zones” can be declared for a limited time (under five minutes) _ then it’s expected that you are willing to be part of the solution and will put forward options or solutions.

– Assume noble intent!

Coach, what do you think?”

“I think the concept is great, but some of these are against some core Thai values about sia-nah (saving face), kreng-jai (being considerate of others) and hai-kiat (respect).”

“What should I do then?”

“I don’t know. The people who know best are your team members. What do you think you could do?”

“Perhaps I can share with them these norms and ask them about the Thai values you mentioned. Then I can ask them for suggestions about how to modify them. Should I do this in a group at the same time or separately _ one by one?”

“Which one do you think Thais are more comfortable with?”

“One by one is better. Then I can adjust and propose it to the group.”

“That’s good, Peter, and here’s one last thing: last month, I had a farewell dinner with a Singaporean CEO who had finished his term in Thailand. One thing he said was he regretted not paying more attention to learning the Thai language. You might consider his wisdom.”