My friend Jim recently returned from a great Caribbean vacation, enjoying the sun, the beach and a few fruity drinks. On his first day back in the office, his phone rings. It’s his manager: “Good morning Jim, can you please come to my office for a few minutes?”
“Sure, be right there.”
“Jim, thanks for coming over. I hope you had a great vacation. I want to talk with you about a new management opportunity with our company. We think you would be able to make an impact on the business and the team, and really grow professionally.”
Here we go, thinks Jim. For the past five years, I have been working so hard in operations, looking for the next step, and it’s finally here. At last, I get to go in and change things up, make all the decisions, all the best decisions. Finally, I get what I deserve; they recognize my talent.
“Jim, are you still with me?”
“Well there is one other thing I need to share with you about your new management roll.”
“Great, what is it?”
“I don’t want you to make any changes, share any opinions, or basically say anything in meetings for at least 90 days.”
ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Thinks Jim.
And this is how the story begins. Imagine you’re in Jim’s place. You are a new manager, coming into a new position to work with an existing team. Imagine that you are promoted or hired because the business needs you to fix something or take it to the next level. It’s all up to you. But, you can’t say anything for 90 days. Feels like you’ll be wasting precious time, right?
Most people are actually in shock when I tell them, after hiring them or promoting them, that I want them to keep quiet for three months. And I always remember to say, “Really, I mean that.”
What do you do for the first 90 days if you aren’t talking?
The question is how do you engage a team without talking? What are some of the things you can do to use this time of silence to maximum effect? The first thing you’ll need to do is accept that you don’t have to make change immediately. In fact, sometimes it’s important for leaders to figure out a way to slow down. Slowing down allows anyone to take stock of what’s really going on, which will help create an effective plan of change later on. A code of silence might be just what’s needed to force the speed reduction.
Schedule observation time
Rather than planning your motivational speeches for your first official staff meeting, use that time to observe the existing team. Schedule individual observation time with the members of your team. Shadowing your team will really help you learn what they do and how they do it. The best thing about scheduling this observation time individually is that you’re on their turf. Often times as a new leader you invite people to your office. That sets up a certain power dynamic right from the get-go. But entering into your teammates’ spaces individually provides a more equanimous introduction. I encourage any new leaders to really engage in the observation process. Take a lot of notes, then make sure to write a thank-you note. In that note, let the individual know you noticed what they do and what they do well. I would even encourage you to schedule another observation time a month or two later. Continue the dialogue.
Focus on trust-building
After you’ve observed everyone on your team, the information you’ve gathered is going to provide you with a 360-degree perspective of how your business unit operates. But you’re also building relationships and trust. Over the years I’ve noticed that in turnaround situations there’s a huge premium on relationships. You just can’t underestimate the power of relationships. To that end, the best way you can start building those relationships is recognizing the positive things each team member is doing and communicating your observations to them and the team!
Listening and engaging your team will serve as a way for you to establish trust during your first 90 days because it will introduce you to your team as someone who values them and whose goal is to work with them, not to eliminate them or change what they are doing. Asking questions is a powerful tool to affirm the trust building process. Try something called “Humble Inquiry.” It’s the art of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person. When we engage in humble inquiry, we ask a lot of questions. Choose to be a student of your team members, practicing humble inquiry, for 90 days or longer.
Alternative group meetings
One of the most obvious and impactful events you can schedule instead of a staff meeting, since you’re not allowed to talk, is a meal together with your team. If you have the budget, then a lunch or breakfast off campus would be ideal. You could also do something simple like invite your team to eat together outside, go for a group walk or tour somewhere, or rely on the trusty happy hour to help break the ice!
It’s important to keep this event in a neutral setting (off campus is preferable) and focus on the relational side. This is also about relationship building. You’re getting to know your team for who they are outside of work, too. You’ll also be showing that you’re a member of the team, not some outsider who is there to tell them what to do. Connecting with people at the emotional level is a great way to go to the rational level organically.
Self-reflection is critical to growth
When you’re not busy talking, coming up with solutions and making changes, you have time to be still and reflect. During this time, you should also be observing yourself. A new position can be a big adjustment, and this time of reflection will allow you to take time to observe your own impulses and make better decisions rather than rushing into any.
Sometimes people will think that the 90-day rule of silence means they are going through a 90-day training. It’s not a training; it’s about getting that individual to be a part of the organization by understanding how it works, and how they fit into it.
So, back to Jim. How do you think his story ends? What happens to Jim and his team? What would you do if you were Jim? In your world, is there a new opportunity for you to engage in a 90-day observation and learning role? Even if you haven’t recently been promoted or hired to a new role, is there opportunity to slow down, pause and incorporate the above strategies for success? Think about it, and see how long you can go without talking.