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New leaders, build strong relationships

5 min read


“Leadership is always dependent on the context, but the context is established by the relationships we value.” ~ Margaret Wheatley

Many people think that they were promoted to leadership positions because they are smarter, better equipped and/or more capable than their peers. They assume that others look to them for guidance and eagerly await their every direction. While that may be true to a degree, leaders need to know that they won’t last very long unless they get to know and respect their people.

The process of connecting with your professional team begins with becoming acquainted with them as individuals. Try to learn and understand their strengths and their goals, professional as well as personal. What are they passionate about? What are their concerns? People appreciate when you take an honest interest in then and demonstrate care. They also love it when you can identify specific qualities and behaviors that make them special.

I remember once sitting around the table with my faculty advisory committee. The committee consisted of four teachers from different grade levels and disciplines in the school and was designed to offer me feedback on various programs and change initiatives as well as be my ears on the ground. At one point, the conversation moved to hand written thank you notes that I had penned for each staff member over the summer and left for them on the first day of teacher meetings.

The text was largely the same for each note, with one unique line for every staff member that highlighted a personal quality. It read: “I really appreciate the way that you…” and would focus on something like a teacher’s passion, creativity, contribution to the team, etc.

One committee member was young and relatively quiet within the group. At one point in the conversation, the topic of the notes came up. She commented on how much the note that she received meant to her. She had posted it on the wall above her desk and looked at it often for inspiration.

There are a number of ways for you to form a more personal relationship with your people. One is to schedule one-to-one meetings in your office. You can also drop in at their workspace for an impromptu chat or even make up to go offsite together. I personally prefer the latter two options because they even out the playing field between you and your reports. Both also offer unique opportunities for the new boss.

If you talk in their office or at their cubicle, perhaps you can use that opportunity to notice something special there, such as pictures that your coworker has displayed, an inspirational quote, or some cute collectibles on her desk. These could serve as interesting conversation builders and also give you valuable insights to tuck away for a later time. Meeting offsite offers a change of pace as well as more focused conversation, far removed from the office hubbub.

Once you have succeeded in developing positive professional relationships, it is more likely that people within the organization will candidly update you on internal developments, warn you about potential challenges or landmines, and even tolerate your mistakes more willingly. This can be very valuable, particularly at the beginning of your tenure.

Learning the culture

During your first few weeks on the job, you also want to learn about the culture in which your new personnel have been operating. Take your time to study the history of the staff and important traditions, symbols, and events that hold meaning for them. Perhaps you can even identify an “official chronicler” who has been around for a while and possesses a balanced, informed view of the organization’s history and cultural development. Such a person can be a tremendous resource as you seek to understand existing mindsets and behaviors. This person can also offer perspective when you are ready to consider new ideas and want to get safe feedback.

Once you 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 kick off lineup; it had become part of the school fabric. For me, the practice was strange and awkward but I knew better than to try to mess with it. For years 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.

Transitioning into a new leadership position can be challenging, especially as parties get to know one another and begin to work regularly with one another. Leaders can accelerate this relational learning curve by actively seeking to get to know other their co-workers and what makes them tick.

Naphtali Hoff (@impactfulcoach) served as an educator and school administrator for over 15 years before becoming an executive coach and consultant. Read his blog

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