Getting Started In A Leadership Position

“You can’t always get what you want….”

The purpose of this article is to provide the busy, often overwhelmed new leader (or even existing leaders), with common sense ideas about how to take charge and move forward and meet key objectives with the team or organization they “got,” not what they wished they had. Along with each of the brief ten steps I recommend, I have included suggestions for further study. The steps I suggest in this article are not complex or difficult. You don’t need to hire consultants; just dive in and be a leader who brings the best out of your team or organization.

One of the first things new leaders do is assess the talents of the players they have to work with, hoping they are A or at least B level players. It doesn’t take long to discover the hard facts: they are not all A or B players, many are C or even D level. The tendency, then, is to wonder, “How can I get better players.” Yet, it is not realistic to think you can replace the C and D players; at least not right away. You can’t clean house and start from scratch, and you don’t have much opportunity to bring in new people at, hopefully, an A or B level. “What you got is what you got.” The alternative is to see yourself as a leader of humans with infinite potential. Your success is in the hands of these people, the ones you got, regardless of what level player they are, and they likely have untapped potential. The situation you are in brings to mind the Mick Jager/Keith Richard classic, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime you find you get what you need.” Initially, your job is to to build success and achieve key results with what you have, and you likely will find you get what you need. This can be achieved achieved, if you try, through implementing the ten steps outlined in this article.

  1. Build shared aspiration through purpose, mission, vision and goals. Start with the why?, why does the team, organization exist? What distinguishes it? What does it do to add value and meaning to the world; what is it doing to help people? Often, just the act of focusing a team, or organization on shared purpose, will light a fire in the C and D players and re-energize the A and B players. A resource to guide you in developing shared purpose is Zach Mercurio’s book The Invisible Leader. Once the why? is established and etched into the fabric of the team, or organization, move to the what?–the mission. The mission spells out the nature of what you do or clearly describes the work you perform. Next clarify the how? The how is the development of a compelling and concise statement of vision. This statement captures how the players intend to fulfill their shared purpose and mission. Finally, define the aspirational goals or outcomes that will measure how well the team or organization has met the shared aspirational values. The order in which these values are addressed is not critical, but what is most important is that these are addressed. There are many resources available on the web to guide you in this step (see Harvard Business Review: Google: Setting team/organizational goals or check out The Wisdom of Teams by Katzenback and Smith.
  2. Focus on productivity and results. Teams and organizations are motivated by aspirational goals; however, whether your are leading a team or an entire organization people also need to have a clear idea, not only of the aspirational goals, but also, of measurable results—productivity. Some expected results are given and defined by the mission, while others can be developed or clarified in a collaborative process. Understandable productivity objectives or key results, clearly presented and measured, will motivate the people you are leading. Research clearly points to the key factor of successful teams and organizations—they have a laser like focus on measurable, agreed upon, time-bound results. Keep in mind, people thrive on having meaningful, achievable goals; we all want to achieve something we can be proud of. Give each of your people that opportunity. Demonstrate and discuss progress in meeting the expected results, time-lines and eliminate barriers. (A resource for further study on key results is Measure What Matters by John Doerr.) It is important to keep in mind the symbiotic relationship between the aspirational values, discussed in #1, and the key results in #2 . Key results are likely to fall flat without the intense motivation created in the development of shared purpose, mission and vision among the team or organization; on the other-hand, the aspirational side is just fluff without clearly defined key measurable productivity goals.
  3. Have a positive mindset. Victor Frankl, survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, reminds us in his inspiring book Man’s Search for Meaning: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” So, you can bemoan the lack of A and B players and start from a point of discouragement or take the road of a positive mindset—my job is to help these people grow and be everything they are capable of being. In other words, your mindset will determine in large part what you ultimately reap as the leader. Resources to guide you are Carol Dweck’s book Mind Set and Zander and Zander’s book The Art of Possibility.
  4. Build relationships. How you connect with the people on your team or in the organization will be a significant part of the ground on which you sow your seeds and build for success. This means communicating openly and transparently; being clear about what you believe and value. It calls for the leader to have more than an open door policy—“You are always welcome to come talk with me”—to, the leader, going out and actively soliciting what the players are thinking about their work and life, and demonstrating empathy by trying to get into what others are experiencing or needing. Effective leaders build trust, not through just doing what they say they will do, but by listening to and getting to know the players personally, by asking them questions about their personal life, like: “How is your kid doing at that new school?” It’s through these relationships that authentic trust is built. We work best when we know the person we are working for sincerely cares about us.
  5. Create a culture of continuous growth by investing in the development of the players regardless of their level. You might be surprised at how some marginal ones respond to an opportunity to grow in their work. Do this in a non-directive manner, don’t push, but rather, pull them forward by putting them in charge of their own growth. Meet with them individually or collectively and guide them in setting goals for growth. Usually, you will find that the players already know what areas they need to strengthen. Building capacity to achieve results through continuous growth and improvement is the heart and soul of any team or organization. Investing in the growth of your players will take their performance to unimagined heights. Here are two good resources to take a look at: and and Developing Employees, Harvard Business Press.
  6. Affirm positive behaviors that are consistent with the shared aspirational values and key results of the team or organization. Public recognition and pats on the back are good and appreciated; however, the more specific you can be about a person’s behavior you are affirming, the better. The most powerful affirmation is self-affirmation. To accomplish this, ask the person how they managed to achieve something specifically aligned with purpose, mission, vision or key results, and how did it make them feel or how did they accomplish it. Let them do the affirming through the questions you ask. These are questioning and listening skills that great leaders use to guide people to make their own connections between what they do and how it enhances the values and direction of the team or organization. This article from Inc. Magazine might help you get better at affirming
  7. Get the people who are on the bus into the right seats. This step is often overlooked by leaders, yet it is critical that the players you have are in positions which maximize their skills. If they are not, consult with them about where and how they could be most valuable to the team or organization. Often, just talking to someone about where they best fit will develop a path to the right seat and greater effectiveness. Check out Jim Collin’s Good to Great)
  8. If all the above does not produce an effective team or organization member, then you have to caringly move the person out. This is not easy to do, but often is necessary, and many leaders have trouble doing it. However, because you have built a relationship, demonstrated that you care about the person, invested in their growth and tried different seats on the bus, a separation conference can be a positive experience for you and the person being moved. If you have done it right, the separation conference will likely not be a surprise to the person, and you can separate amicably and in your heart you know that you did everything to try to make it work. This article might be helpful
    Keep in mind that it is behaviors and skills of the people you lead that will affect the key results you want to achieve.
  9. When you have an opportunity to bring a new person on, be vigorous about finding an A or B player. It is possible to find high level players, even in today’s pool, if you vigorously recruit and use selection tools that are: aligned with the skill-set needed and measure behaviors that are consistent with your shared purpose, mission, vision and key results. Obviously, the bigger the net the more fish you will catch. The A and B players are out there—go find them. Once you find them, screen them down to a small group with a screener aligned with your culture and needed skill set. Then, take the screened group through a research based behavioral structured interview or another proven interviewing method, that closely aligns with your aspirational values and key results. Malcom Gladwell in his book What the Dog Saw Chapter: The New-Boy Network makes a compelling case for the use of a structured interview and there are plenty of resources out there to help you or your HR department create both a screener and structured interview.Once you decide on the right person, take him/her into an on-boarding experience—“the action or process of integrating a new employee into an organization…” This should include introducing the person to the people they will be working with. In addition, it should be made clear to him/her the values that drive your team or organization. Point out how, what you learned about them through the selection process, aligns with these values. Within the first few months, provide them with performance feedback and personal affirmation, and get them started on a personal growth plan.
  10. Focus and celebrate. The team or organization is aligned from purpose to results. Now, the leader needs to keep everyone focused on the critical aspects of success outlined in number 1 and 2 above while continuously reflecting on steps 3-4. Take time to keep the group focused on what it has agreed on and relentlessly look at progress on expected results. Keep revisiting alignment and implementation of the shared aspirational values and goals with the key results to be achieved. Relentlessly focus on excellence and celebrate little and big successes. People need to feel they are doing the right thing and achieving results. They are not just working for a pay check!

Effective leaders know that “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime you find you get what you need,” These words provide a powerful mantra for the new leader of a team or organization and can be an on-going reminder for making the best of sometimes not so good environments we are thrust into. It reminds us that if we try, as outlined in this brief article, we likely will get what we need: An enthusiastic team or employees galvanized around shared meaning from purpose to key results, full of enthusiasm, and achieving amazing results. So, be a leader and work with what you’ve got by unleashing the power of human potential. You can do it and most of those you lead can too!

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