Why New Leaders Should Make Decisions Slowly

By Constance Dierickx
September 14, 2020

There are three strategies leaders can use to make decisions more effectively when they’re new to an organization.

The stakes are high when a new leader takes over. Despite their training and experience, a full 74 percent of new leaders say they are unprepared for the new role, and in 18 months nearly half of them disappoint or fail entirely. In many cases, leaders either judge too quickly, making snap decisions that prove to be ill advised or wait interminably to “gather more facts,” only for the critical moment to slip away.

Here are three strategies leaders can use to make decisions more effectively when they’re new to an organization:

RESIST THE URGE TO DO SOMETHING RIGHT AWAY: You’ll be eager to prove that hiring you was the right decision, but it’s critical to learn first and act second. Experienced leaders, who may feel certain that they already know the correct moves to make, instead need to listen, observe and suspend judgment. This is especially challenging because others around you may be expecting quick action.

MAKE SURE YOU’RE TALKING TO A WIDE VARIETY OF SOURCES: When you don’t know who’s a reliable source of information, it’s easy to be overly influenced by one person’s or group’s interpretation of events. Inevitably, there will be people eager to bend a new leader’s ear — and most have an agenda.

At one Fortune 500 restaurant company I advised, a new president spent the first part of his tenure traveling, talking to people at all levels and learning about what they did and what resources they needed. At various locations he wandered through the dining area and the kitchens, showing curiosity about how things were done. He didn’t interrogate or make people feel he was conducting an assessment. His credibility skyrocketed as a result. People became more eager to share their experiences and ideas. Under his leadership, the company had record-breaking success, precisely because he gained such deep insight about the company’s operations, people and culture.

SELECT ONE CRITICAL AREA OF FOCUS FOR THE YEAR: It’s dangerous to move too quickly in a new role, but it’s perilous to appear as if you’re not making any changes at all. Selecting one area of focus helps people direct their efforts toward it and evaluate progress. In the initial period of learning, a new leader can see what the likely trajectory of the company will be without major changes and identify what would make the most dramatic difference.

In a turnaround situation, harsh decisions may need to be made quickly, but it’s often easier to rally support for a critical focus area when a threat is looming. It can be much harder to mobilize your team when the company appears to be thriving, because success can breed complacency.

Leaders’ actions in the early days of their roles create an impression that’s hard to shake. Managing the urge to make an early mark, gleaning information from all parts of the organization and deciding on your primary area of focus will help you build the knowledge and political capital you need to succeed in your new position.


Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.



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