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Four questions new leaders need to ask themselves

When you take over a new leadership position, don't start by answering questions. Start by asking them, advises leadership blogger Ken Downer.

"A strong foundation for effective leadership is built not on dramatic acts but on understanding the environment and building trust, so that when it is time to take action, your team will be willing to follow you," says the 26-year veteran of the U.S. infantry.

He recommends four questions to ask at the outset:

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  • What is the leadership vision? You need to know the direction you are expected to take the team. Start with your boss. You would ordinarily hold such a conversation if coming into a new organization or unit, but it’s vital to also take this step if you know the boss and co-workers already. Your boss may be busy but press for the session – and come to it with a checklist of questions you have been considering already.
     
  • What are the team’s strengths and weaknesses? It’s worth the time to deliberately evaluate the relative strengths of your team members and compare that to what your team is supposed to be achieving. Talk with each of them. Get to know them as people. Ask what they do, how and what challenges they encounter. “By developing an understanding of who is on your team and what they can (and can’t) do, you are laying the foundations of trust and improving your grasp of team capabilities. When you know what obstacles are holding them back, you will be able to see how you can help clear the way forward,” he says.
     
  • What don’t you know that you should? This is a tough question to ask yourself but what you don’t know can blindside you later, raising questions to others about your competency. “An early mistake new leaders can make is to try to act as if they already know everything,” he warns. “People will shut down on you if you act as though no one can teach you anything.” He says the best leaders he worked with were full of questions and curiosity – even when they thought they knew the answers. They had confidence but wouldn’t hide the fact they didn’t know something.
     
  • Who do you need to know? A leader needs a surrounding network. Ask your boss who you need to meet. Think about the various people who interconnect with your team – clients, suppliers and other departments like human resources and accounting. Make a list and then introduce yourself – before you need anything from them.

Those questions are logical, even obvious. But too often leaders fail to ask them, hurting their transition into the new role.

2. How Milton Friedman let corporate leaders off the hook

Baseball's rule book is more than 250 pages long. Surely the rules for running a corporation in modern society should be as complicated. But iconoclast entrepreneur Seth Godin says on his blog that for nearly 50 years, many companies have been operating from a very simple playbook issued in a polemic by economist Milton Friedman: "There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits." He offered a slight qualification about needing to stay within the rules of the game, engaging in open and free competition without deception or fraud.

But that's still simplistic, Mr. Godin insists – and also, poorly reasoned, dangerous and wrong, according to critics. But it's still the gospel in many circles, and a very powerful dictum in determining corporate and individual behaviour.

"Here it is 2017, and the chairman of one of the largest pharma companies in the country [Robert Coury, chairman of EpiPen maker Mylan] is gleefully telling patients and the FDA to live with the costs of his profit seeking, at the same time he pays his CEO more than $95-million a year. Because he can, and, like many who lucked into top jobs at big companies, because his excuse is simple: He's just doing his job," says Mr. Godin.

This approach conveniently diminishes responsibility for business leaders. "The simplicity of the argument matches up with its mendacity. There's no need to worry about nuance, no need to lose sleep over choices, no endless laundry list of social ills to worry about. Just make more profit," he says.

Compare that to baseball. Cutting corners and winning at all costs have been replaced by playing by the spirit of the game. But since that is vague and people are people, the rule book sets out rules on behalf of the community. By contrast, Milton Friedman's community rules lets business leaders off the hook.

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Mr. Godin stresses that profits are not evil. They provide the money to invest in a company's ability to produce something worthwhile. At the same time, he feels almost nothing benefits from being the only thing we seek – and the pursuit of profit at the expense of our humanity is too high a price to pay.

"Here's a different version: A business is a construct, an association of human beings combining capital and labor to make something. That business has precisely the same social responsibilities as the people that it consists of. The responsibility to play fairly, to see the long-term impacts of its actions and to create value for all those it engages with," he concludes.

3. The six types of successful acquisitions

McKinsey & Company has identified six types of acquistions that are more likely to be successful:

  • Buying the company to improve its performance by radically cutting costs to improve margins and cash flows, a common private equity strategy.
     
  • Consolidating in a mature industry to reduce its excess capacity, such as in the pharmaceutical industry where the sales force has been reduced through acquisitions.
     
  • Buying a relatively small company with innovative products to help accelerate its ability to reach the entire potential market for its products.
     
  • Acquiring a technology company that you can use to get skills or technologies faster or at lower cost than they can be built by your own firm.
     
  • Large companies are often operating at full capacity so it can be difficult to buy another and gain greater scale but sometimes you can successfully exploit a business’s industry-specific scalability, as happened when the combination of Volkswagen, Audi, and Porsche allowed all three companies to share some platforms.
     
  • Making acquisitions early in the life cycle of a new industry or product line so you can help the winners you picked to develop their businesses.

4. Quick hits

  • Executive coach Scott Eblin recommends every Friday looking at your calendar for the next two weeks to figure out how to eliminate at least 20 per cent of your scheduled appointments. Ferret out meetings that can be cancelled, shortened or delegated to others.
     
  • What’s the bravest thing you could do at work today? asks leadership trainer Dan Rockwell.
     
  • Passive job candidates – people not out of work but open to new possibilities – can be the best recruits for your firm. But to land them, you need to ensure that your company’s application process is seamless, says recruiter Keith Johnstone. The more barriers you create after they stumble on your ad, the less likely they are to follow through and stay where they are.
     
  • Have the courage to not listen to the negative thoughts of others, or the negative thoughts in your own head, says leadership coach Michael Rogers. Make it a life-long habit to change those negative thoughts into positive ones.
     
  • Blogger Frank Yung recommends these surprisingly cheap but highly functional standing desks: Readaeer Folding Laptop Table, Standesk 2200, the IKEA Norberg wall-mounted desk, MiniMaster FourPost Drafting Table and Well Desk standing desk conversion kit.
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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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