Taking the Helm: New leaders must remember that change takes time

May 15, 2018 by Paul Ferdais

Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

New leaders often come into their job with energy and ideas, eager to somehow make their mark. While this is laudable, it can bring troubles as well – and possibly a quick escort to the door if they try to force change on a team or demand obedience from team members. This month, let’s look at a few suggestions to help new leaders succeed.

First off, don’t forget that being in a new leadership role isn’t a one-way street. Team members experience this feeling of “new” as well. New leaders will be given a little slack regarding behavior and style as everyone gets used to how they operate. The first few weeks on the job is a critical time for a new leader since it will set the tone and standard for the rest of their tenure.

Even though the situation may require an immediate focus on the work, it’s important that new leaders make every effort to get to know the people they now work with. Team members aren’t unthinking cogs in a machine. Good leaders get to know their team individually as people, and let their team get to know them. This is key in the development of professional work relationships. Doing this helps leaders develop influence, which is one of the foundations to leadership.

Successful leaders know they have to listen to their people and learn what the problems actually are before jumping to conclusions. Smart, able and skilled crew members will most likely know the solutions to any problems they face, but have been held back for one reason or another from implementing the solution. The first step in genuine listening is to seek input from team members. When team members are encouraged to contribute, act on what they suggest.

A leader may have been asked by the boss or management company to make changes of some kind in their new role. Remember that change takes time. New leaders who come aboard with energy and vigor will often run up against resistance of some kind, which is to be expected especially if they don’t take the time to get to know what makes their people tick.

Challenges will include, but aren’t limited to, the culture on the boat, the requirements of the boss, mindsets such as “this is how we do things around here” or “why try?” – all of which affect a new leaders enthusiasm for the job. Resistance can be demoralizing and eventually cause good people to simply leave for another position on another vessel.

Even though crew members may actually want things to change, often when a change agent arrives, the team doesn’t get behind the movement. That may be because they feel they have seen this before and simply wait for the inevitable fall of the new leader. The insight here is that when members of our new team don’t support an idea, they’re in effect resisting it, which causes the idea to fail. Make sure to get commitment from everyone to enable change.

To put this into perspective, I often ask the people I work with how much influence they feel they have with their team or within their organization. I then ask them all to try a test. The test is to go to their team or organization and try to change something. It only needs to be something small, nothing outrageous or necessarily permanent. Examples include where the washdown hoses are stored, the location of some tools in the engine room or the arrangement of items in the pantry. The results speak for themselves.

The point of the challenge is to demonstrate change doesn’t happen immediately, with gusto and enthusiasm, just because a leader says to do it. Indeed, the opposite usually happens. Unless buy-in is generated through relationships formed with crew members, change won’t happen.

Successful leadership rests on influence. To be successful in a new leadership role, leaders must get to know their teammates as people, not as peons to do their bidding. Listen to and communicate with the crew. Make sure they feel listened to.

If some kind of change is necessary, be sure to understand the environment and the people before trying to implement a change.

New leaders who keep these ideas in mind will find they’re successful in their role.

Paul Ferdais, founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group (marineleadershipgroup.com),  is an officer in the Canadian Coast Guard. Comments are welcome below.