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New leadership role? Take the first 100 days slowly

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

It's been said that the first 100 days on the job are a leader's most important. It's when you set the tone for your leadership, build strategic relationships with employees, customers and partners, and start to formulate and build your vision.

Your instincts will tell you to zoom in and make an impact right away; to demonstrate the value you bring to the table and show them what you can do. Don't.

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One of the biggest mistakes senior leaders make is to come into a new role and start implementing major changes. You'll want to, of course. Your natural instinct will be to apply the strategies that have worked to get you to this point, which is often swift action, followed by strong results. But I can promise you what's worked in the past, will not work as you assume more senior leadership roles. The fact is that you will risk alienating your new team and limiting what you can all achieve together. You will send the message that ideas only come from the top. You will grind innovation, decision-making, action, and ultimately the organization, to a fast halt.

My advice? Take it slowly.

I'm just past the 100-day mark in my role as president and CEO of Plan International Canada. I made a conscious decision to make few changes in my early days. Even though I found this to be difficult and uncomfortable at times, it was without a doubt the right approach. I poured more energy into listening, learning, diagnosing and building relationships. For anyone who has taken on a senior leadership role or is aspiring to do so, it's critical to keep the following four concepts in mind:

Slow down so you can speed up down the road

Take time to absorb and assess your surroundings. In order to make a meaningful difference, it's critical to spend time sitting and wrestling with the issues. This will likely feel unsettling, particularly if you've been rewarded for fast action in the past. It's key to keep in mind that as you rise in seniority, you will increasingly be confronted with more intricate problems. These types of challenges call for more thoughtful dissection and analysis, and consequently, more robust solutions and execution. At a more senior level, stakeholders recognize that the problems are more complex, and fast action can often send the wrong signal, and even suggest certain recklessness.

Get the true lay of the land

Before you start your new role and in your earliest days, obsessively seek out the advice and opinions of others, and listen to what they have to say about the organization. In my experience, you will get a lot of candid and thoughtful insight early on, but once you're in the role for a while, people will be less comfortable telling you what they really think. It's amazing how quickly you become an "insider". Before I officially started at Plan International Canada, I managed to get various stakeholders to share some truthful and transparent opinions and perceptions about the organization. Many shared their concerns about the impact of rapid growth and how this put us at risk for mission drift. That observation was honest – and essential in that it's now playing an important role in my vision for Plan International's future and strategic focus.

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Connection over action

Historically, leaders have been expected to have a majority of the answers. However, in our rapidly evolving world, business challenges are more interdependent and increasingly multi-dimensional. As a result, successful leaders spend more of their time serving as connectors rather than taking action themselves. My approach is to bring subject-matter experts together to prompt solution exploration and development by seeding the right questioning and lines of thinking. It's also been effective in sending an important signal: solutions to help us better deliver on our organizational mission come when we work together.

Trust is the accelerator

The first 100 days are when you should be building and strengthening relationships. I want employees to have confidence in where I'm leading the organization, but part of that is the trust I've built with them. Teams do not function without trust. During my earliest days at Plan International Canada, I invested an extensive amount of time listening to employees, while also encouraging them to bring forward suggestions that may positively impact children's lives around the world. Building this type of rapport creates significant organizational momentum and speeds up action down the road.

When you step in as a leader who is new to an organization or team, your goal should be to listen and learn so you can inspire change in a positive way. Take your time and think long-term. Remember: you can't do much in a quarter but you can do almost anything in a decade. Keep your vision and the end goal in mind but take the right time you need now to get you there in the future.

Caroline Riseboro is president and CEO, Plan International Canada.

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