Getting Down in the Trenches: Tips for Taking Over

Taking over a new team can be a challenging and tricky time for everyone involved.  The new leader may have lots of great ideas and changes he wants to implement immediately; the rest of the team might be apprehensive about what is going to change.

If you are the new person coming on board, there are a few things you can do right away to make your transition to leader the smoothest and smartest possible.  One of the best things you can do is get down in the trenches with them and get your hands dirty; here’s how, and why it is important.

Getting Down in the Trenches: Tips for Taking Over

A Mile in Their Shoes

The frozen yogurt place where my daughter works as an Assistant Manager was recently sold and has come under new management.  I immediately like the new owner and I haven’t even met him yet.  Here’s why:  in his first week, he spent an entire shift manning the cash register and asking my daughter lots of questions.

People walking into a new leadership position often come armed with lots of ideas, new concepts, and an eagerness to start making changes immediately.  But if you start making wholesale adjustments before you understand the team and it’s environment, you risk making huge mistakes and alienating the team.

First, you have to get down in the trenches with your people.  Why is this a good idea?  It is based on what author Stephen Covey calls Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.  As experienced as you might think you are, there is no substitute for getting a real-time on-the-ground look at what goes on with the team.  And there’s no better way to do that than to go where they are and do what they do.

There is no substitute for personal reconnaissance Click To Tweet

In the military, it is axiomatic that there is no substitute for personal reconnaissance.  The best leaders make good decisions because they go and see for themselves what is happening.  This means getting down in the trenches.  Here are eight reasons why doing this is a good idea.

Set the Example.  Seeing the new boss mopping a floor sets a powerful example; if it’s important enough for the boss to be doing it, than it must be important for them as well.  Getting down in the trenches gives you a great opportunity to set a personal example – actions speak louder than words.

Get the Employee Perspective.  Get to see the world the way your teammates see it.  This does three things for you:

You learn what life is like for them.  By doing what they do, you will quickly see what the challenges are, what works well, what doesn’t, and what processes might need to be reviewed and improved.

You learn what they know (and don’t know).  See how they use the equipment, ask questions about how they do things, have them show you what to do (even if you think you already know).  Either you will learn something you need to know, or you will find out that there’s more they need to know.

You connect with them.  And in working with them, you will also get to know them and can begin to connect with them on a personal level.

Get to Know the Managers.  Putting yourself under the direction of your front line managers does lots of good things for you.  First you get to see how they operate, their leadership styles, how they interact with customers and other employees.  Second, if you ask them to train you on something, you will quickly learn how much they know about their job.  Third, you can get their first-hand input on ways things could be done better.

Get to Know the Customers.  If you place yourself on the front lines than you’ll have a chance to interact with the customers, too.  What kinds of questions do they ask?  What are they interested in?  What else could you provide that fits their needs?  And you have the opportunity to observe what they do, where they go, how they act.  All this will be useful to you as you work to establish the direction of your team and business.

Get to know the Equipment. The new manager asked my daughter to train him on the cash register they were using, and quickly came to understand that it was outdated and needed to be replaced.  How long would it have been otherwise?  And yet this is equipment that is critical to both customer and employee experience.

Learn the Systems.  How does the team communicate?  How do different jobs interrelate?  Is it clear who is supposed to do what?  What happens when opening and closing the store?  What happens when something stops working?  What seems inefficient?  As you work, think about the flow of the operation, the physical structure, the communications.  If something doesn’t make sense, ask your teammates about it and get their perspective.

Get Their Ideas.  Often, the people doing the job have had plenty of time to think about what they do and have several ideas about how it could be better.  So ask them.  In doing so, you get the benefit of their brainpower and perspective.  But you also establish the concept that their ideas matter and that they play an important role on the team.  Engendering a sense of belonging is a big deal when building a high performing team.

Get Feedback on Your Ideas.  One great way to get a sense of whether or not your ideas will work is to ask the people who would have to implement them.  You may be bringing useful big-picture perspective to the equation, but they can contribute on-the-ground feedback on how it might turn out, or how to adjust your idea to make it more effective.

Putting it into Action

So think about what your team does, where the rubber meets the road, where the trenches are, and go there.  Spend some time with your teammates in battle, ask them to teach you and show you the way.  If you do this with open eyes and open ears, you will be amazed at how much you will learn that will guide your future actions as you work to lead the team.

Spend some time with your teammates in battle, you will be amazed at how much you learn. Click To Tweet

If you have ever seen an episode of “Undercover Boss” then you’ll get the idea we’re talking about.  In the TV show, the CEO of a major company disguises himself, and hires on as a low-level employee for a week.  The show typically ends with the boss revealing himself, then swooping in and making badly needed changes, rewarding the hard working employees, and in the process, earning their loyalty.  That’s the sort of thing that can happen here.  But in this case, you are not trying to hide – you want to be seen.

As Covey talks about in his book, before you can write out a prescription, you have to be sure that the diagnosis is right, and the best way to do that is to get up close and personal with the patient.

Before you can write the prescription, you have to be sure of the diagnosis. - Covey Click To Tweet

The Takeaway

Taking this approach is yet another way to build your expert power and information power, because you have been where you team has been and done what they have done. This doesn’t make you an expert or smarter than them, but it does give you more expertise and knowledge than you had before, so you won’t be operating at a disadvantage.

Armed with firsthand knowledge of the workers, the customers, the systems and equipment, and the ideas and suggestions of the work force, you are in a much better position to decide what the most worthwhile efforts are to pursue and what will yield the highest bang for the buck (see Pareto Principle for more about this)

And once you understand what that is, you have a better shot at the next step, getting a quick win that will have a high payoff for you, your team, and your business.

What else can you do to become a successful leader?  Check out the Essential Leadership Skills for the New Manager course to build your leadership skills and focus your team-building efforts.  I can’t give you any free frozen yogurt, but the first several videos of the course are free!

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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