At one point in my career I was put into a job I couldn’t do. It was ambitious of my employer to promote me, a great opportunity for me to take a real step up and something I wanted to do. My acceptance of the job should have been conditional upon my receiving the necessary skills training and on having a good mentor to guide me on the way. But I did not make those conditions so I had neither. What happened then was strange, upsetting and surprising.
The move was from Marketing Advisor to the Board – great title but ill-defined work load – to Marketing and Sales Director of the largest company in the group. I knew quite a lot about the marketing bit but almost nothing about sales. The first thing I had to do was to merge two sales forces. I had no idea how to approach this. The theory was easy, the practice, quite tricky. I floundered, hesitated, didn’t have the courage to ask for help and failed.
Realising that I was failing I stepped back into the areas I did know – advertising and marketing. These were my comfort zones. I spoke the language, knew the sort of people I was dealing with and enjoyed the intellectual challenge of persuading the consumer. The result was that I lost my job. It took me four years to recover from that. What had I learnt?
All change is difficult, especially when you have been promoted, changed cultures or moved countries. You have to operate within a new set of parameters. There will be supporters, especially among those who think you can do something for them personally. There will be detractors, in particular those people who would have liked your job for themselves or resent you getting it for some other reason. You must find out who makes up these two groups.
Your old style of handling the people who report to you and to whom you report will probably no longer work. You must discover the rules of the game you are now playing before you take to the field. At this stage you are Mr Nice to everyone, anxious to hear their advice, beaming with gratitude as they tell you, oh so subtly, whether they are gunning for you.
Above all you must seem transparent, an innocent in need of their help, an amateur in search of the clues they can give you on how to survive. The confident, assertive you must remain hidden for several weeks, possibly months, while you put together your strategy. This must be a strategy of learning, judging, planning. The Art of War is not to go to war.
The major lesson I learnt from my unhappy experience was to get out of my office right from the start, to connect with others by asking them questions about the business, about their jobs, about the characters we were dealing with. In other words to take a real interest in them. People mostly cooperate with you if you are truly interested in their well-being.
Know the rules, know the people and manage expectations first. Only when you have mastered these may you assert your personality – and when you do that, only through specific decisions, not through power plays.
As Alfred North Whitehead said ‘The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order’.