First Time Leadership Challenges: Leading In Uncertainty
I am continuing this week’s theme of uncertainty. For new leaders, this is probably the first period of uncertainty in your leadership career or possibly the first you have experienced as a professional. Leaders are not immune from the worries and doubts created by our current economic conditions. However, as leaders, we must compartmentalize those and remain focused on the team.
Compartmentalization is a new capability for nearly every first-time leader. The team quickly follows if we lose it or start showing obvious cracks. Productivity drops, chaos sets in, and fears of being laid off become self-fulfilling.
The easiest way to compartmentalize is to create two buckets, things you can and cannot control. Emphasize what is under your control and the team’s control. Anytime something in the other bucket comes up, help the team remain focused with the simple reminder, ‘That is outside of our control, so the more time we spend on it, the less energy we have to work on our deliverables and meeting expectations.’
The team succeeds through uncertainty by rising above the noise and prioritizing their work. Leaders must set an example for the team to follow and avoid giving in to their doubts. We don’t get paid to lead when things are easy. Our value is proven in hard times and through adversity. It is measured by how well the team performs.
Changing Mindset And Footing
Meta’s internal all-hands meeting featured a different Mark Zuckerberg. Outside observers said he was on a war footing. He worked to set the tone and expectations. Competitors like Apple and the economy have challenged Meta. Zuckerberg intends to respond and signaled a change in Meta’s mindset from a leader to a challenger.
Not everyone on the call got the message; I have seen this before. People hold their interests above all else. Instead of listening, they are waiting for their turn to talk. One employee asked about more vacation time, and I’m confident they moved themselves to the top of the layoffs list.
Many leaders don’t realize how badly this reflects on that person’s manager. Companies have moved from growth to defending their core business in 6 months or less. Leaders at every level are expected to communicate that to their teams and explain how that will impact their roles. Uncertainty and increased competition bring a new set of expectations. Most employees don’t adapt until that is spelled out for them.
First-time leaders should be listening to senior leadership.
How is their tone changing?
What strategic goals are they most focused on?
What projects and initiatives do they talk about most frequently?
What new expectations are they setting, and which current expectations are they doubling down on?
It is worth having a monthly team meeting to review each answer to those questions. Take the communications approach of explaining the change and discussing what the team will do to respond. Create a plan to adapt and evangelize it to every team member. The goal is 100% retention, and each team member should be able to articulate it if someone outside the team asks about it. Let them know that leaders may start probing to assess how well the team responds to the new mindset and footing. They are gauging your leadership effectiveness, so the team must be on message.
Team Unity And Cohesion
In uncertain times, some teams lose their ability to work together effectively. They go into every person for themselves mode. Leaders try to increase their control over team members and shift to micromanagement. Team members don’t trust each other, and infighting begins.
The plan and alignment with the changing business mindset are part one of avoiding this. By explaining ‘this is who we are’ and, ‘this is what we do,’ leaders create the framework for unity. The team’s mindset defines a team’s identity and sets a culture. The adaptation plan and emphasis on what can be controlled explain what the team does.
The next piece a leader needs to define is purpose. Why? Define clear connections to business value, users, customers, and outcomes. Each initiative should have those mappings. Each team member needs to know their place and how they directly connect to each element. This creates a common purpose.
Leaders can use common purpose every time division surfaces. The message is, ‘the team creates more value working together than working as a collection of disconnected individuals.’ Working as a team becomes a critical success factor in navigating this new business environment.
The less talked about key to team unity and cohesion is a common enemy. If I were at Meta, I’d turn Apple into the boogeyman. I’d say things like, ‘Apple wants my bonus this year, and I have no plans to hand it over’ and ‘Apple wants me to lose my job so they can add another few million to their bottom line.’
I had Samsung as a client. The first time I visited their offices, I had an iPhone and did not think through the optics of that. No one said anything for the week I was there. When I got home, a package was waiting for me with Samsung electronics. I’ll never forget the simple note inside, ‘You look like you could use an upgrade.’ That is a powerful competitive statement.
If I were in Zuckerberg’s shoes, I’d ask my CIO why there were still Macbooks in use. If a senior leader brought an iPad to a meeting, I’d ask how we can credibly deliver the message that we are at war with Apple while using their products. The details matter.
We are the team. The value we deliver to the business creates the walls of our castle. Our purpose is our flag. We defend this against the enemy as a unified and cohesive unit. We are all we have, and we are all we need.
It Feels Over The Top, But Is Not
The reaction from new leaders to this framework is skepticism. It feels extreme and overwhelming. This is a data science team, not a military operation.
First-time leaders haven’t been through deep layoff cycles. New leaders have not been in a room with other leaders deciding who gets cut in the next round. They’ve never been asked to put forward two names, or more, who they will have to cut.
I tell people, ‘My intensity will save your job.’ Doing more with less doesn’t just mean fewer perks and days off. It means fewer people. I would rather you look at me like I’m over the top than look at me like I could have done more to save your job.
In Google’s recent all-hands internal call, their CEO talked about becoming more efficient and focused on their core businesses. He discussed eliminating waste and asked employees to submit ideas to achieve that goal. If I were a new leader at Google, I would build a castle around my team and ensure every team we work with knows our value.
I have been part of two layoffs. A team I lead will not be part of a third. No intensity, no victory. I adopt a war footing, and my teams thrive in uncertainty. Yours can too. We are in a different environment, and new leaders can do a lot to help their teams succeed.