New Sheriff in Town

Ever heard of Wyatt Earp?

After cleaning out the bad guys in Dodge City, this real-life lawman moved to Tombstone, Arizona to settle down and start a business. Unfortunately, a gang of outlaws killed the town’s sheriff and terrorized its citizens. Their crime spree forced Wyatt Earp to become “the new sheriff in town.”

His actions inspired the movie Tombstone, starring Kurt Russell as Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday. The film is not 100% accurate, but it does portray what can happen when a talented outsider is hired to make changes. The phrase became a cliché in western movies; usually implying that the previous constable was lazy or inept. The new sheriff, by contrast, has a strong moral code and the skills to back it up. In that context, it’s a clear statement of intention — the old ways of doing things will be replaced.

Does any of that apply in today’s workplace?

Absolutely. This unique American idiom is still used to describe times of power transition, particularly when a new leader takes control. Often, that person is hired from outside the company to change “business as usual” and improve the way things are done. And that can be a scary prospect.

New leader. New game plan.

Recently, a friend of mine was offered the chance to leave his current position to join a significantly larger company in a role with considerably more responsibility. While discussing this lucrative opportunity, he asked me, “Jay, how do I assimilate well into this new role?”

Honestly, I was impressed by his thoughtful question, and decided that the discussion which ensued may be helpful to others. Basically, my friend told me he wanted to come across as an approachable “servant leader” instead of a callous bully throwing his weight around and making changes.

He’d been in his current  leadership role for several years, and knew firsthand that many employees tend to view changes with trepidation. Often, the existing staff assumes the worst, worried that an outsider might come in with a “my way or the highway” attitude.

To steer clear of these pitfalls, we talked about a three-part “game plan” for anyone who’s taking on a new leadership role. Following these steps may help create a more productive and stress-free transition for the new leader and the existing (and possibly nervous) personnel he or she will be guiding.

Phase 1:
Discover and Learn (First 60-90 days)

My friend told me his first role would be “question asker.” He wants to be the opposite of the “know it all” guy who assumes he already has all the answers.

Asking questions and deferring to the current team indicates you’re a collaborative leader who is proactively seeking input and advice. I suggest leading off with queries like, “Who can help me understand this procedure? Can you help me get a handle on this particular area?”

Asking lots of questions will do two things: it will provide you valuable information, and it will establish a comfort level with your new co-workers. Nothing beats it.

My friend related that he wants to conduct two lines of discovery:

  • First, the business itself. He’ll ask things like, “What’s our market like? How is our current operation set up? Why do we do it this way?”
  • Second, the people at the company. These fall into three categories: Those who work for him (his employees), those who work with him (his peers), and those he works for (his bosses).

Discovery should include your organization’s history, identity, messaging, vision and values — all from a people-focused perspective. Discover what makes the staff tick and what ticks them off.

Find out about current projects, past accomplishments, and what their long-range goals are. Then visualize how you might fit into the grand scheme of things. If it’s a purpose-driven culture, discover why the company exists and how team members contribute to the mission.

Above all, make friends. The majority of new managers and executives who fail to integrate successfully cite lack of socialization and personal connection with their work group as the main reason.

Phase 2:
Plan and Strategize (Next 60-90 days)

Of course, being a leader isn’t only about building friendships and acquiring knowledge. My friend is being brought in to make things better.

The questions are what? When? How?

By leveraging the trusting relationships you’ve built in Phase 1, you can now ask staff and management to help you begin to shape strategies and build out your plan. The goal here is to answer the question, “Where are we headed, and how are we going to get there?”

Still in the asking mode, spend time getting input from various departments and levels of current workers. Ask open-ended questions along these lines: “Hey, I’m working on this problem area. Do you have any ideas to improve it? You’ve been here 10 years; how can we improve this production bottleneck?” 

Even though you may be positionally in charge on the org chart, it’s better to humbly cultivate buy-in with language that’s collaborative and inviting.

Try “asking and evaluating” versus “telling and mandating.”

We’ve all been on the receiving end of insensitive leaders. Not fun. Now think about how you’d react to an enlightened superior who asked you things like, “What do I need to learn here? How can I help you succeed? Would you mind if I bounce some ideas off of you?”

I had the chance to do exactly that when I was recruited to serve as the Chief Sales and Marketing Officer at a manufacturing company several years ago.

Using collaborative planning, I was able to set a whole new tone and lead by example — without raising inordinate fear or anger over being “the new sheriff in town.” During this planning phase, I sought the help and input of engineering, estimating, finance, manufacturing, etc. They all contributed to building the marketing and sales plan. The result? A substantially revved up marketing and sales engine. In two years, our revenue grew by 75%, with annual sales moving up from $22 million to $33 million. We did this with little-to-no push back. The collaborative planning approach created the company wide buy-in we needed.

Incidentally, developing your strategies in a collaborative method works in any organization — from huge corporations to nonprofits, schools, clubs, sports, and families.

Phase 3:
Begin to Implement (Next 60-90 days)

This is where the rubber meets the road. After you plan and strategize for two or three months, it’s time to shift gears and get moving.

This is where actual change begins and your ideas become reality.

But what should you address first? Which initiatives should go on the front burner? Equally important, what areas can stay “as is” for a while without negative repercussions?

Legendary Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz came up with the very useful and powerful acronym: “W.I.N.” As you probably know, it stands for “What’s Important Now?”

Reportedly, Holtz told his players to ask themselves the W.I.N. question 35 times a day. He wanted it on their mind morning, noon and night — when they ate breakfast, sat in class, or worked out in the gym. He wanted them thinking about it standing on the sidelines or playing in the game. Holtz taught his players to focus on what mattered most at any given time.

When it comes to prioritizing implementation, this simple question forces us to “focus on the win” by zeroing in on the most important thing at any given moment. This enables us to prioritize our mission, address the key objectives, and not be distracted by side issues clamoring for attention.

Sounds good. But exactly how do we determine what is most important to implement?  Exactly what does matter most?

One helpful technique is to list all the initiatives from your plan. Then, with your peers, employees, and leaders, ask for truthful, candid input on how to prioritize the list. Lead the team through a process of ranking the potential initiatives in order of importance from “must do” to “would be nice” to “fuhgeddaboudit.”

When it comes to implementing a plan, inclusiveness and transparency on the front end can help avoid suspicion and pushback later on. Soliciting advice from a broad spectrum early on can make or break a project. Remember, new leaders need to gain support — not only from their direct reports, but their bosses, peers, and other co-workers.

Determining priorities should never be a unilateral decision. There’s strength (and wisdom) in numbers.

Full consensus: The impossible dream.

In 2021, Derek Jeter was officially inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame after a 20-year career with the New York Yankees. Jeter won five World Series Championships and had 3,465 hits over the length of his career, sixth-most in Major League Baseball history. He was not, however, a unanimous selection to the hall of fame as one writer left him off the ballot. So Jeter received the second-highest percentage of votes in history: 99.74%.

This statistic demonstrates an important lesson for leaders — no how popular you are, hardly ever does anyone get 100% of the vote.

If you’re a leader (especially a new leader), there will always be those “voting” against you. That’s true in every field — politics, business, commerce, education, religion, sports, science, military, etc.

Of course, new leaders should actively seek support from a majority of team members and stakeholders. So build a broad base. But please realize that in the real world, perfect consensus never occurs.

So you may be asking, if not consensus, what is the key to implementing? The answer is commitment.

In 2002, Patrick Lencioni debuted The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. In it, he outlines five behaviors essential for productive team dynamics. Number three is commitment. Since achieving full consensus is a pipedream, shoot for a committed team — a group whose opinions and input are welcomed and considered. Feeling heard and respected creates confidence that the new leader won’t overlook any valid ideas. This in turn fosters commitment to the cause, even from those who may initially disagree.

By spending time “asking” and “planning” before “implementing,” you can get most folks — even dissenters — to commit to your initiatives for the common good. Building trust fosters reactions like, “I don’t necessarily like your idea, but I’m committed to helping it succeed. I’m opposed to this, but I will stay accountable and cooperative and won’t undermine your plan.”

Don’t be afraid to rock the boat.

My friend and I agreed that the three-step approach to becoming a happily assimilated executive would be helpful. With one caveat. Utilizing the Discover-Strategize-Implement plan will eliminate most, but not all pushback and negative reactions to a new leadership role.

Truthfully, there are times when every new leader will need to make an unpopular decision simply because it’s the right thing to do. Good leaders are willing to swim against the current for the right cause. Be ready for some criticism, but do it anyway. Vice President Adlai Stevenson said, “All progress has resulted from people who took unpopular positions.”

Always remember that any change — even for the good — is inevitably viewed with skepticism and uneasiness at first. Nobody automatically trusts a brand new boss (no matter how gifted) right off the bat. It takes patience, consistency, and strategic interaction on your part to be accepted.

As we saw, the process starts by assessing the organization. Take your time; you don’t need to present a finished blueprint on day one. While you’re evaluating the existing metrics and methodology, meet with everyone. Everyone. If you forget everything else in this blog post, remember to communicate, communicate, and communicate some more.

Make relationships a priority.

A well-integrated leader sees their first 180 days as a learning curve, not a 100-yard dash. Before you start making operational decisions, be sure to have the right information (to make them wisely) and the right people in place (to carry them out.) Before shaping strategy and upgrading systems, build a foundation of relationships with people who’ll give you full commitment and constructive feedback.

Warning: It’s tempting to put the cart before the horse.

Every new leader wants to prove themselves and make an impact early on. After all, you were hired to be a rainmaker, right? But until the current staff learns your motives, intentions, and capabilities, they’re likely to view you as a nuisance, an impediment, or a threat. Ouch. Take your time learning how the group functions and don’t brush off current practices as automatically being outdated or subpar.

A “new sheriff in town” needs to walk the fine line between fitting into an organization’s current culture and improving it. An onboarding leader must exhibit an extraordinary mixture of humility and confidence (two qualities that are often not found together) during each of the three phases.

If there’s any way I can help prepare you to navigate into a new leadership position, please feel free to contact me.

I’ll close with another gem by Lou Holtz, “Every day, some ordinary person does something extraordinary. Today, it’s your turn.”