A friend of mine recently had a new boss take over his company.

When I say take over, I mean “take over.” 

They came in on a rampage; cancelling major projects, berating employees, subverting leaders, criticizing employees behind their backs, etc. It was toxic and spread throughout the organization like wildfire. 

Little does this boss know, soon he will be standing alone wondering how he is going to get everything done while simultaneously tap dancing in front of his own boss. 

Toxic behavior can take a lot of forms. I recently came across an article, 10 Signs of a Toxic Boss, and it defines the “toxic boss” perfectly.

Ten things toxic bosses do:

  • Unprofessional Behavior
  • Lack of Enthusiasm
  • Deaf Ears
  • Never Being Wrong
  • Settling for Less
  • Taking Credit, Not Responsibility
  • Micromanaging
  • Working Too Much
  • Gossiping
  • Being the Fun Boss

In my friend’s case, 8 out of 10 behaviors applied. 

His boss failed to appreciate the existing culture of the organization. He made assumptions about the cultural cues visible to the eye and took disruptive approaches to solve them without fully understanding the impacts of decisions in the past and what might occur if he rushed to a solution.

During my professional career, I have been a part of multiple organizations that changed CEO-level leadership. In fact, I’ve witnessed it 19 times in total. Additionally, I have personally been the “boss” who took over an organization on several occasions. There are ways that work, and ways that don’t.

Here are 5 things to consider when taking over an organization as a new boss.

Look for the vision

Does everyone on the team know where the organization is going? A great vision is an imagined future condition that creates unquestionable value to your organization in an unparalleled way. It also causes the team to reinvent how they do business. It points everyone in the same direction and is the place where everyone looks when they begin to lose their way. 

Many make the mistake of assuming the vision is intuitive: “Our vision is to build profit for our shareholders.” While simple, many employees may not understand what “profit” means nor will it drive them to adjust their approach to achieve the vision. 

There is no replacement for a vision that orients everyone on achieving more than they thought possible. Even more important is that very rarely can one individual drive change on their own. If there is a clear vision for the organization, subordinate leaders can drive the organization to achieve it. When I was the “boss,” I was always more successful when I empowered leaders with a clear vision that ensured we were headed to the same place.

Listen

Some new bosses take the approach of barging into a new organization and dictating. They take the approach of “this is how it’s going to be.” In doing so, they rapidly isolate their very best talent who often take a cautious approach to innovation based on the centralized control and behaviors evident in the new boss’s “style.” Negating the work of a team without considering the hard work that got them to where they are may have catastrophic impacts on the organization that can take months to recover from. Or worse – it could drive talent away. 

Instead, great bosses take the time to appreciate the organization’s journey and understand the wins and losses that they have undergone to get to this point. If they transparently approach learning about the organization, the cultural cues that highlight their path to date will become more evident. This will also help a new boss identify where to focus change efforts and the best timing that will enable the team to approach a new challenge with vigor and drive. 

Pay attention to onboarding

Pay attention to the onboarding process of the organization as a new boss. The “executive fast track” for onboarding a new boss may skip valuable opportunities to learn about key aspects of the organizational culture. Onboarding should demonstrate the foundational elements and common ground for all employees, often the only training an organization may have for many years.

If the onboarding process does not exist or does not provide the foundation necessary to enable new employee understanding, you have uncovered another clue for areas of focus moving forward. Additionally, as a new boss meets employees during onboarding, it provides insight into the adjectives used to describe themselves. Are they a “we” and “us” organization or a “me” and “I” organization? How do they talk about their work, clients, victories, and losses? What level of pride do they demonstrate? How an organization handles onboarding may reveal significant aspects of how they see teamwork and its role in achieving success. 

Know who you are serving

As a leader of an organization, it is imperative that a boss understands if she is enabling talent or the talent is enabling her. The answer may be industry dependent, but great bosses know that great talent needs to be fed. This begins with servant leadership. 

Tenets of Servant Leadership include:

  • Puts service to others before self-interest 
  • Includes the whole team in decision making 
  • Provides tools to get the job done 
  • Stays out of limelight, lets team accept credit for results

As the new boss of an organization, it may be educational to examine how members of the team interact and enable one another. How central are quality relationships to the success of the team? Based on the industry and type of organization, is that helpful? 

Additionally, observing how the team speaks about clients can reveal clues about the culture of the organization. Does the organization speak about clients in an adversarial way? How well do they know the clients and do they empathize with a client’s position? Viewing how the team speaks about clients may also reveal cultural norms that help indicate potential organizational blind spots.

Know who is in charge

When joining the organization, developing a careful observation plan of all employees is an important part of understanding who is in charge. While some teams may have a very clear block and line diagram indicating who works for whom, how employees influence one another is also an important part of a thorough environmental scan. Sometimes those who are “in charge” are not those at the top of the chart!

Scheduling informal meetings with different groups and asking open-ended questions will enable a new boss to receive feedback from the group and define the informal leaders of the organization. Furthermore, observing who eats together, leaves together, drinks coffee together, etc. reveals the formal and informal influence groups that sway organizational behavior, more commonly known as culture. 

There will be times when change is necessary during the journey ahead and a boss who understands who the informal leaders are will gain buy-in much faster if those special personalities are consulted during the early phases of the change management process. 

Taking on the role of the new leader of an organization presents significant challenges. Taking the time to understand the culture of the new team is worth the extra time and effort necessary to build organizational health. What it costs in personal patience more than pays for itself in the long-term benefits of a team that values and respects one another, your clients, and their boss!