Advice for A New Leader On Day One

Editor’s note: Brian Fetherstonhaugh is chairman and CEO of OgilvyOne Worldwide, a 5,000+ person digital marketing company. The following is an excerpt from his new book, The Long View: Career Strategies to Start Strong, Reach High, and Go Far.

Book cover the long viewHow often does a newly promoted leader come into your office seeking advice on ‘how to go the next step’? (Based on 30 years of experience in business and over a decade as a CEO) here is some of the practical advice that I give to newly promoted managers and anyone who is struggling with the transition from ‘doer’ to ‘leader’.

As a Leader, What is Your Cruising Altitude?

One of the big concerns that people experience in Stage Two (usually about 15 years into a career) is how to transform from a doer to a leader. The approach that made them successful in Stage One often doesn’t translate very well as they try to increase their impact without just working longer hours. The issue is “cruising altitude.” Leaders must be able to fly high enough to be strategic and see the big picture. Any senior executive must be able to do this, because you are one of the very few, maybe the only one, who can see the whole picture. At the same time, effective leaders also require the ability to get extremely granular to solve a tough problem or close a deal. The trick is to be able to alter your cruising altitude like a dive-bomber. You fly high in the air to survey the landscape and spot big problems or opportunities. Once you identify a target, you have the ability to home in on it and crush the objective.

CEOs who have a serious crisis — like a mining disaster or a security breach — get right to the center of the issue and get their hands dirty and stay engaged until the mission is accomplished. But once it’s done, you know when to fly back up again.

We all know leaders who only have their heads in the clouds. We also know others who seem to operate a few inches off the ground, micromanaging and interfering. Don’t just be a high-flying astronaut or a low-flying crop duster.

One of the biggest challenges for rising leaders in Stage Two is to adjust from a command-and-control leadership style to an influencer style. Learn how to adjust your cruising altitude. Become a dive-bomber.

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The full transition from doer to leader is more complex than just cruising altitude. It has a lot to do with attitude. Here is the advice I wrote in letter to a rising star in our company who had just been promoted to become the leader of one of our biggest offices.

  1. Your presence, attitude, and demeanor are now highly visible and contagious. Staff will look to you like never before for signals on how well they are all doing. Whether you are expressing happiness, stress, confidence, cynicism, disappointment or danger, effective today the staff will pick up your signals and adjust their own attitudes and behaviors accordingly. Think hard about what signals you want to send.
  2. Once you land on a vision, make it simple and repeat, repeat, repeat. It is so easy to overestimate the capacity of an organization to absorb vision and a rallying cry. Find a simple collection of words that expresses the basic direction you want the organization to go in. They need to be directionally correct and memorable, not perfect. Put “news” and changes in the context of your enduring beliefs and vision: “This is happening as a reflection of our deep belief that X is important.” Repeat at every opportunity. You may think it’s getting through, but it probably isn’t. Remember that every year maybe 20% of staff turn over. Why should they remember last year?
  3. Decide early who is on your bus. Every leader needs a small core team of close colleagues who can deliver on the agenda and the mission. Choosing this group is often a leader’s most important task. You do not need to fill every seat right away, but you need to know who is on board with you early on. Do not choose people who are just like you. Find people who can complement your strengths and compensate for your weaknesses. Get to know the incumbents and the candidates one-on-one. Probe their ambitions, beliefs, and concerns. How do these fit with your own ambitions, beliefs, and concerns?
  4. Every meaningful business issue is solved in a small quiet room with a few people. Confrontation is healthy. Make sure it is tackled in the right forum. Avoid repetitive flame emails. Contentious issues might best be confronted in smaller groups rather than big, acrimonious public meetings. Even though you’re the boss, communicate explicitly that you understand other parties’ points of view. Lead with your ears, not just your mouth. Probe the logic and consult your own beliefs. Then make a call.
  5. Act like a trusted problem-solver, not a big boss. It’s not the trappings of the office that are important, but your impact on the organization. Your conviction, integrity, and relentlessness will give you power. Share news in the organization transparently. Tell people the good news and the bad news, and provide a healthy perspective on what it means to the organization. Demonstrate that you are dedicated to the cause, you care, and you won’t go away.
  6. You don’t know all the answers. Nobody does, and nobody ever did. It’s wise to consult with others. It’s okay to say you don’t know, as long as you find out and make a decision. It’s okay to make decisions that last for specific periods of time, not for eternity.

The person I gave this advice to has gone on to be a top star in our global company. He may not have taken all my counsel, but he has progressed tremendously as a leader and has a bright future ahead.

Brian Fetherstonhaugh

For the past 10 years Brian Fetherstonhaugh has been the global CEO of a leading 5,000+ person digital marketing company, working with top brands such as IBM, American Express, Coca-Cola, IKEA, Unilever, and Nestlé. In this capacity he’s helped to start and develop the careers of thousands of individuals and observed the trajectories of people at all career stages.

Over the past two decades Brian has also become a respected career mentor and thought leader. He has lectured on career strategy at institutions including Yale, Harvard, MIT Sloan School, Columbia, and McGill. He is also the executive sponsor for Ogilvy’s Young Professional Network and is an advisor to several start-ups run by millennials. Born and raised in Montréal, Canada, Brian now resides in New York with his wife, Chris. He plays hockey on Sunday nights, and plays guitar and harmonica in a rock band, aptly named Plan B.