Dear Dr. Graham:

Last week I took on a new leadership role, replacing Denise, a long-time, beloved manager. While Denise introduced me warmly before her retirement party, I can tell her team doesn’t trust me. They worry I won’t do everything like Denise did.

Of course, they’re right! I’ve been told by upper management that I must introduce some changes. For starters, they’ve asked me to find savings within the team’s budget and to recommend organizational changes that will improve efficiency.

I don’t know how to quickly build trust while also making changes. How can I follow this leader?

Different from Denise

Dear Different,

The truth is that there’s not a quick way to build trust. Trust takes time. Trust is based on how well you fulfill the commitments you make and act according to the values you’ve expressed.

Since people need time to understand what they’re getting from you, there’s no easy way for a new leader to make quick changes. I often suggest waiting six months before making any changes. Consider your initial time with the team as a “listening campaign,” to gain familiarity with the team’s processes and to build relationships. Before making any changes, the team must trust that you are instituting such shifts for the right reasons and with a full understanding of how those shifts will affect the team and its work.

Your biggest challenge may be to stay centered, balancing the pressure to show upper management what you can do while demonstrating to your new team that they can trust you. While you need to know what was good about Denise, you must also be explicit about the fact that you are different from Denise. You’ll need to figure out how you can incorporate some of Denise’s admirable qualities into your own leadership style – in a way that is authentic to you. 

While I’ll talk more about “story-telling” in weeks to come, you should know that people want to know what to expect. When they don’t know the facts, they make up a story to explain what is happening: “Upper management forced Denise to retire because they think we are having too much fun on this team. Did you hear that we aren’t going to have monthly birthday celebrations anymore?!” That’s why, when you must make changes, you might need to name what is happening for you. You can tell your team that although you can’t sponsor birthday parties anymore, you will find other ways to show how much you appreciate them.

Then make sure you do find effective ways to show your appreciation. And, make sure you do so as regularly as Denise did. That’s one example of how you can “follow the leader,” building your team’s trust while also remaining true to both your own leadership style and upper management’s direction.

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