I got to know my subordinates several ways: at meetings (my staff, their staff as a guest, regular operating meetings, one-on-one), a little after hours (dinner or lunch together, travel time), asking others about key performers (listen carefully—no one wants to fink but everyone wants a strong team), asking third parties (in indirect ways—again, listen carefully). You need to pick out real issues versus personal agendas. I also got to know them by the quality of their work and by the quality of their staffs.
One mistake I made was in waiting too long to make personnel changes. I used to believe that if you have reasonably smart, hardworking, honest people, that they will perform well with the right management and expectations. I waited a year before I determined that style and culture played a big role, too, and that people who may have been effective in a different organization were not effective enough in mine.
GM skills that stand out in my mind: communication, communication, communication. This includes being a quick study of people including understanding their personal motivations and the framework through which they view the world.
Relationship building is critical, but relationship maintaining is even more important; that is, know how to maintain a productive and positive relationship through the times you have to disagree, criticize, or be a "bad guy." Additionally, master the art of persuasion and making people feel comfortable enough with you that they open up and tell you things you need to know in order to manage well.
Knowing non-direct reports
Regarding getting to know non-direct reports, my experience is that one needs to be very pragmatic. Given the time available and the size of the organization, how much time and effort should be devoted to getting to know employees below one's direct reports. In my case, with a forty-person organization scattered across six countries, and with oodles of urgent projects demanding attention, and with Spanish language a constraint (my Spanish was only beginner level) it was not a practical approach to spend significant one-on-one time with lower level employees.
However, I do believe it is absolutely critical that as GM one immediately meet and speak with all employees (in my case in each country) as a group to smooth the transition process—as well as to ask questions in a very open forum format. Remember that during a transition, most of the anxiety on the part of the people in the organization revolves around trying to figure out what the implications may be of their new GM and how this may affect them personally (e.g., in terms of communication style, losing one's job, enhanced career opportunities, etc.).
You have to talk to a lot of people to find out their agendas and how they influence the decision making process, particularly the key players and their direct reports. Building relationships is first and foremost working with people and demonstrating your focus on the business and ability to solve problems and do it in such a way to build trust. Without that you probably won't get broad support.
Very young managers of older individuals often face significant hurdles. These hurdles are greatest when the older subordinates are comfortable in their current position and have no further career ambitions. These individuals often have a great deal of knowledge that is very valuable. I have had the least amount of success when I tried to rush them. Give them time to adjust to you and show them the respect they probably deserve. Typically, in time they will come around and be a productive member of your team.
Knowing who you can trust and who will truly work is a key issue when you enter a situation where you have no past history and relationships with the people you are working with. Here is how I try to handle it.
- Assume the best intentions in people. Early on, I try to get to know the key managers by spending time with them in the office and after hours. I try to build up trust and a solid working relationship.
- Hold weekly meetings with the key managers to discuss problems/issues that have risen, how to solve them, and to serve as a sounding board for your initiatives. This gives people a chance to see the GM in action, learn how the GM works, and an opportunity to raise questions. By providing this regular forum, this gives a set opportunity to jointly solve problems, and in my case the chairman (in both companies the COB recruited me) can be assured that while I am still learning the business, I must pass through people that have accumulated experience in the details of the business.
- Sell, do not tell. Very seldom do I rely on formal authority. Most of the time,
I try to convince people on the logic and merits of my proposals. In China it is easy to command because of historical and cultural reasons.
I find in general, however, people work harder (and more independently) if they understand and believe in what they are doing.
I've found the best way to deal with relationships with former peers is to make certain that they continue to be in the flow of your activity wherever possible—and make sure that you continue to compliment and highlight their help. I have always thought that most peers are convinced they are no longer "in" as a close associate, and diffusing this feeling can go a long way.
Adapting your style
Let's face it, we don't interact with all people in the same way. Some expect, even need, the personal "let your hair down" unabashedly personal chat. Others might find that completely out of character.
Just because you are GM doesn't mean you have to be anything other than you. The quickest way to undermine yourself in those critical first months is to become somebody you haven't been before. That doesn't mean you can't effectively take command and lead. It does mean that some degree of predictability and a large degree of consistency may do a great deal to bolster your credibility, thereby enhancing your ability to command and lead.