Dear Joan: I have recently been promoted to a fairly senior position in a large company. I’m wondering if you can give me any tips for developing good working relationships with my new peers. They are all experienced, strong leaders who run major parts of our business.
I am in more of a support role. I have a new function and my staff will interface with their people and make changes in their operations that will have a direct impact on them. I have not been warmly embraced. They haven’t been disrespectful but I can tell they are holding me at arm’s length, until they see how I am going to operate.
If I am to be successful, I have to stick my nose into their business. Our leader has made it very clear to me that he wants to see significant changes. Any advice about how to begin? I don’t want to push these changes on my peers and yet, I don’t want to be their pals, either. There will be some tough choices ahead and I need to have their respect—and ultimately their support.
We’ve all heard the jokes about the oxymoron, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” Replace the word “government” with “support department” and it’s easy to see why your peers are keeping you at a distance.
Each of them is wondering, “Is he going to cause me problems?” “Am I going to get pulled into conflicts with his people, or with him?” “Is he going to cause me to lose any people or resources?” “Will his people expose any weaknesses or problems in my department?” “Is he going to impose changes?”
Your best bet is to approach your new role as a partner. Unless they collaborate with you, creating change in their departments will be extremely difficult. (It’s amazing how creative people can be when they resist changes…even if those changes are imposed from above.) You’re wise to start early and get them invested in the change process.
If he hasn’t done this already, ask your leader to reinforce the message that all of them own the outcome—not just you. Perhaps he can even include it in each of their goals for the year. If they have equal accountability for implementing these changes, it will pave the way for cooperation. (Some leaders underestimate the importance of this. They think that by directing a support person to make changes, such as someone in the Human Resources or Quality function, that should be enough.)
Begin meeting with each one of them, to discuss the challenge you face, and to get their thoughts about what it means to the enterprise and to them. Be clear about your desire to work with them, to create practical outcomes they can live with.
Describe your vision for your new function. If you don’t have a clear view yet, ask them to help you shape it. Ask questions such as, “What would an ideal outcome look like for you and your department?” “What advantages do you see for your department?” As pieces come into focus for you and your team, schedule follow up meetings with your peers, so they can keep pace with you and give you their input. It’s important not to get too far ahead of them.
In one of your early meetings, ask, “What concerns you most about the changes we are talking about?” Probe for their fears and vulnerabilities. For example, “Do you have any specific areas you want me to stay in close touch on?” “Are you at risk with any of these changes?” I have had good results when I’ve smoked out stakeholders’ concerns early on. It gives me a clear sense of the way the person views the situation. Once I understand what they are worried about, I can take steps to reduce the resistance, such as increasing their involvement and control in the area they are most concerned about.
Take care not to tromp roughly through their departments without keeping them informed. During your regular visits, or in staff meetings, you can discuss upcoming activities and ask them to communicate to their staff, if necessary. No leader wants to look stupid to their own team, so giving them the heads up will be worth it.
Find plenty of ways to make everyone involved look good to their leader, peers and to their own team. Give them credit for all the things their department does well and be vocal about your appreciation for their collaboration. It will go a long way toward building that emotional bank account when you need to make a withdrawal.
Take opportunities to make presentations in your senior staff meetings (and to other groups), so the whole group will be educated and involved as things move forward. A big part of your peer’s resistance to change, is not knowing how it is going to affect them. If they are involved, they will be more invested and willing partners in making it happen.