Success Secrets | Key lessons for new leaders

Success Secrets | Key lessons for new leaders

What are the keys to ensuring a strong start in a leadership position?

—Christopher Finlay, Chicago

You could fill a book—in fact, you could probably fill dozens—with all the ways to get off to a good start as a leader.

Get to know your people and learn what makes each one tick. Don’t pretend you know everything about the job; ask a lot of questions and really listen to the answers. Figure out what it takes to win. Familiarize yourself with the competition. Worry about what market changes could kill you, if not next year, the year after. Pay visits to the customers who keep you alive. Pay longer visits to the customers who have recently kissed you goodbye.

The list goes on and on.

But, one thing you have to do as a new leader—and from then on out—is define yourself. Make sure your people know what you stand for. Under no circumstances, no matter what the size of your company or the business you’re in, should you ever let your team guess about your principles or why you make tough calls the way you do. Tell them yourself, and tell them again and again.

Now, we’re not saying you need to spend every minute of your day making a stump speech about your “platform". Communication at its best is two-way, and leaders should always be engaged in dialogue with people throughout the organization.

But, in times of change or crisis, if you don’t talk openly about your reasoning, you’re in trouble.

Take, for painful example, the mess earlier this month involving US President George W. Bush and his veto of a budget increase proposal for the State Children's Health Insurance Program (Schip). This column is not about the merit (or not) of Schip, a state-federal health insurance subsidy programme that Democrats and some Republicans were pushing to increase by $35 billion (about Rs13.7 trillion) over five years, adding four million people to the 6.6 million already participating. It is about how the president blew a massive leadership opportunity by staying quiet about his reasons for opposing the programme’s expansion. As the Associated Press reported: “In only the fourth veto of his presidency... the White House has sought as little attention as possible."

No, no, no!

Especially when it comes to controversial decisions, leaders must communicate more, not less. Sure, President Bush explained his veto in his weekly radio address. That’s when he said he blocked the expansion of Schip because it was too costly and, in replacing private coverage with government payouts, represented a dangerous move towards socialized medicine.

But, the Schip veto was a huge principle vote, not only for the Bush presidency, but for his party going into the 2008 elections. For those reasons, President Bush had to get out there. He could have, for instance, appeared on national TV and explained, in the simplest possible language, what principles motivated his decision. In any medium, he should have communicated beyond a doubt that his veto was about deeply-held values and building a better America.

Instead, President Bush created a leadership vacuum. Worse, he gave his opponents a lay-up, and they easily scored, depicting him as heartless towards children. You are not likely to face such hardball in your new leadership role but, somewhere along the way, you’re sure to discover what’s true in politics is true in business.

If you don’t define yourself, especially in tough times, you can be sure someone else will do it for you.

I'm a large account sales guy who loves what he does and wants to keep doing it until he retires. But, what can I do to stay excited and current in this job, so I don't become “the old guy"?

—Name withheld, Connecticut.

Here’s one surefire way: Become a great mentor.

Keep selling, of course, you’re obviously good at it. But, to avoid that “old guy" label, take all that love you have for selling, and all that insight you’ve gained over the years, and spread them around. Coach, teach, inspire. You’ll feel younger every year.

Omer Murphy is the perfect example. He was one of the best salesmen that General Electric Plastics was ever lucky enough to employ, adored in equal measure by his customers, managers and peers. He closed every deal with everyone feeling good.

Then, in his early 50s, Omer asked to not just sell, but also coach young salespeople. He went on customer calls with them and, afterwards, constructively critiqued their presentations.

Over time, he created what came to be known as “Omer's Army", a legion of energized followers who performed at new levels thanks to his mentoring.

The relationships energized Omer, too. Until he died in 2001, he remained young at heart.

If you take his lead, so will you.


Write to Jack & Suzy

Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Campaign readers can email them questions at Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.