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Surefire Strategies for New Executives

You're new to a highly visible position and excited about the challenges ahead. But eager as you may be to whip the operation into shape, tread carefully in this unfamiliar territory. Alienate the troops now, and you could miss out on feedback crucial to your success later.

Whether you've been brought in to clean up a mess, increase profits or boost morale, the following four simple steps will get you where you want to go:

Listen More Than You Talk

When Commander Mike Abrashoff took over as captain of the USS Benfold, it had been named the worst ship in the Navy. When he left several years later, it had just won the prize for the best-run vessel in the fleet. To what does Abrashoff attribute this astonishing turnaround? Listening to people. Abrashoff made it his first order of business to schedule a private interview with every member of the crew, so he could really know what was going on and hear the concerns and suggestions of each member of the team. Once the word was out that Abrashoff was making his way around to talk to everybody on the ship, behavior problems ceased and teamwork improved exponentially. He had figured out a way to break the me/they paradigm of noncommunicative, one-way management, even in the Navy.

Get Out and Around

Forget about organizing your office -- there are operations to see and people to visit. Visibility and friendliness will be your best friends in the opening months of your tenure. You need to see for yourself what's going on and let the team feel your accessibility. People will be measuring the distance between you and them -- and short is the best choice.

Know Something About Each Member of Your Team

From your own firsthand impressions, as well as from secondhand reports, get a handle on the strengths, weaknesses and general style of each member of your team. Keep in mind that our weaknesses are always the excesses of our strengths. That is, most creative folks will flub the details with some regularity, and your linear thinkers will frequently plan themselves into a rut. Make it your business to know them as quickly as possible so you'll have a keen sense of which players to assign which tasks and who needs what kind of training. Give your people a chance to tell you about themselves; they'll love it, and you'll gain invaluable information.

Manage in Both Directions

You're new on the job and feeling pretty tense about proving yourself, so your first impulse will be to invest your time in managing up, trying to do what the brass expects of you. Not a bad idea, but don't be lopsided about it. Your best results will come from dividing your time evenly between the bosses and the bossed. Many a new exec has won the battle of impressing his superiors, but lost the war of fielding a consistently winning team by instinctively looking up rather than both up and down.

Leadership is never easy. It is, as Beth Israel Hospital president Dr. Mitch Rabkin observed, "a little like practicing psychiatry without a license." But these four steps will go a long way toward getting your new team fighting for you and your goals, rather than against you.

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