“Change” Management: Leading a new team

On December 3rd, I launched into a quick two-day training for my new job as a middle manager at a family-owned organization. The organization was a few years old but had only expanded past the owners/founders in the past 8 months or so. Turnover in my position was relatively high, despite positive reviews from outgoing staff. The bosses were usually out of the office most of the day, so I would need to quickly become autonomous in my new responsibilities.

Transitioning into this position was a bit particular. My engagement was temporary, which meant that I would have three weeks to learn, refine, and then leave this work. I was not completely new to the work, having held a very similar but less-senior position very early on in my career. My immediate team, the one that I supervised, was also my main work project was also the one dictating my schedule. (If you think harder on this point, you may realize that all managers who focus on their team members’ development are faced with this ouroboros structure.) Finally, I was coming directly from five months of international exploration and extensive freedom. Taking a Monday-through-Friday job in the suburbs with normal hours was definitely going to be a shock to my system.

My starting in this position meant changes for not just for myself, but also for my bosses and my team. It was time for some serious change management work. Luckily, managing changes was built into my position description as a central and recurring task.

My job? I was a nanny for my nephew, Leo.

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This is the point where those with less childcare experience may dismiss this more “domestic” story as irrelevant to their professional growth. Please suspend your disbelief and read on. There is much to learn!

My three weeks as a live-in nanny tested my ability to learn and adapt quickly. From the scraps of challenges and successes, comfort and discomfort, eagerness and exhaustion, I pieced together reflections on the learning that must happen when beginning to lead a new team.

I suggest that there are three major learning tasks that new leaders should explore as soon asthey take a leadership position in a new organization:

  1. Learn about your colleagues
  2. Learn about your new work environment
  3. RE-learn about yourself

Do not wait until someone orients you to these elements. Do not try to learn everything through a mush of trial and error. Understand that the company handbook, your predecessor, your mentor, and your past experience will all only get you so far. The rest of the learning needs to come from a concerted effort on your part to explore and reflect.

So what should you be looking for, and how?

1. LEARN ABOUT YOUR COLLEAGUES

If you are lucky, someone will introduce you to your team members and maybe even give a quick briefing about each member. These tidbits are helpful, if you keep an open mind to what is not included, or what might be slightly discolored. They still leave a lot more to learn about your new colleagues.

Observe often, listen closely, and ask questions to learn what makes your colleagues happy and productive. Some of these things may be obvious; it was no shock that Leo was usually happier and more at ease playing once he’s had a bottle. Others are not obvious, and instead are learned or studied. Had I read a child development book on what stimulates an 8-month-old, I would have been quicker to learn that anticipation games would provoke fantastic giggling fits from Leo. In one discovered game, I would put a plastic ring on my head, slowly lean forward, and gasp loudly when it finally fell to the floor. In addition to the obvious and the learned, there will always be some surprise winners that you will uncover, some by paying attention and others by pure dumb luck. Who knew that he would love being on the changing table so much?

Understand as well that, unlike your former colleagues or past organization, progress may look differently. I really wanted Leo to crawl by the end of my nannying time with him, and he was so close! When I shared this with my sister, she said, “Of course I want him to crawl, but he’s been so close for weeks now. It may not happen right away.” I was disappointed at first, but then I realized that I hadn’t been there to observe earlier progress. I wanted to see something happen quickly, but I did not take into account all that had happened before and without me. It was time to adjust my expectations around and understanding of progress.

I’ve always had a deep respect for parents and caretakers. I knew that nannying would be both challenging and rewarding, maybe even something for which I might have a particular talent. What I hadn’t realized was how much of a learned craft it was for each individual child and how energy-sapping full-time caretaking was on the brain and the body. It is important to actively deepen one’s respect for the job. I made sure to express my new level of respect to my boss and my predecessors. I also began to regularly solicit advice from them, as they had definitely climbed further up the learning curve than where I currently found myself. I didn’t need to blindly follow all of that advice, but I did owe it a thorough review and probably a test as well. Certain gems, like a 60s song adapted to repeat my nephew’s name, had been painstakingly discovered or created by my sister, and all I had to do was apply them to get amazing results.

2. LEARN ABOUT YOUR NEW WORK ENVIRONMENT

A new work environment requires quickly adjusting, honing, or sometimes acquiring new tools and approaches. In my case, I had to prepare my new arsenal by the very first day on the job: sweatpants, ponytails, and a baby monitor app. Without these, I would have been cold, bald, and unable to hear little Leo wake up from his naps — a miserable start.

This new environment also has its own set of norms and practices, created and held up by a combination of lived experience and internal logic. To better explore these, it is helpful to ask the reason behind the norm or practice when it is introduced to you. As I had requested, I had a written rundown of Leo’s daily routine, with side notes about suggested intervals between naps. What I didn’t learn until three days of relatively short naptimes was that the intervals were the key to successful naps! If I waited for Leo’s tired eyes or cranky behavior, it was too late; he was too tired to get into a deep sleep. My logic and lived experience had led me astray. Simply asking about the reasons for the schedule and its intervals would have revealed the logic and experience of this new organization.

Of course, one’s own instincts still count for something, so it is not a matter of simply dismissing them. My wanting to kiss Leo’s cheeks during a brisk winter walk was an instinct to check his body temperature! On the other hand, my wanting to put him down for a nap only when he started rubbing at tired doe-eyes was not the right instinct. The key was to find ways in which to safely retest and recalibrate these instincts in the new environment.

On top of simply learning about my new job, I like to develop an understanding of the appreciated “extras”. What extra tasks or responsibilities can I take on that are win-win, meaning they are enjoyable and beneficial to my team and myself? I asked questions about what the environment was missing, the things that fell through the cracks or had to be compromised, and the tasks common to team members’ wishlists. Then, I tried to find an overlap with my skills and interests, something that I could skillfully take on that would act as an energizer, a fulfilling and enjoyable. In this instance, it was cooking dinner! My team got home-cooked meals, and I got to feel productive and creative preparing meals during naptimes.

3. RE-LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF

Often, in the whirlwind of newness, it is easy to submit yourself to the new environment. You will feel foolish, challenges will need to be endured, and you may feel that you’re not quite cut out for this job. To manage your own happiness and productivity during the adjustment period, take some time and energy to RE-learn about yourself.

Re-learn how to cultivate humbleness. Try laughing at yourself more often when you make a foolish mistake or just barely avert disaster. I laughed so hard I cried when, during one of my first solo diaper changes, I nearly let Leo plant his kicking foot in the big, messy diaper I had just removed! Share your mistakes openly, both to model openness and to create connections over your human fallibility: “Today, I dressed Leo up in pajamas to go to the supermarket. Isn’t that odd of me!” Share your progress as well, to acknowledge improvement to yourself and to give others hope for growth, both yours and their own: “I used to think he’s hungry every time he whined, but now, in 2 short weeks, I know that he may just be bored! Sometimes all we need to do is change environments.”

Take stock of what you need to be the best leader in this new position. If you are not relatively healthy and happy, it becomes much more challenging to look after the well-being of others. It is often the case that, in your new environment and with new co-workers, what you need — or sometimes, the options readily available to you — is different. After having been travelling for so long, and in warm weather, I needed regular outings, exercise, and fresh air to avoid feeling cooped up. I also needed some time to rest, as the shock of being on-call at all times was easily exhausting without some downtime. Following a week of early bedtimes, I learned that I needed a second cup of coffee in the afternoon to fight my hard-wired circadian clock as it adjusted to the early sunsets of a northern hemisphere December. Finally, and common to many leadership positions, I needed to talk with others in my field. Chats with parents and caretakers were comforting, letting me know that I’m not alone, that they also make mistakes and face challenges. These discussions were also invaluable forums for getting advice on some of the tougher challenges.

Reflect on longer-term adjustments necessary to be a better person at work. Crafting soliloquies to stimulate his development and engage him in activities seemed to imitate the empty chatter that I had despised in previous workplaces. I am a relatively reserved and low-key person, so needing to always be “on” and active with Leo was not natural or usual for me. How, then, can I adjust to the demands of this position while still feeling comfortable and respecting who I am? This question is a much more complex and ongoing one than the others, but is key to success in a new leadership position.

ONE LAST TASK: LEARN ABOUT … CHANGE

There is one more, particularly useful,

lesson that I have learned and continue to learn. Change is the only constant. Accept that, once you learn something, it will change! (Well, except for this one lesson.) I learned how to anticipate naptimes, and then, in the second week, the nap schedule changed. The transition was brutal for both Leo and myself for the first few days. I had the morning routine down, and had even learned how to sneak in an early morning coffee…and then another change! Admittedly, our new “coffee and cereal time” — his cereal, my coffee — was one of the best new parts of my morning. And, for my very last, bittersweet day in this job, Leo and I went on a major outing to the museum. What a chaotic, super-stimulating, but incredible adventure for the both of us!

Be mentally ready for this same feeling of bait-and-switch. You’ve mastered how to keep your colleagues motivated and happy? Be ready for them to switch teams, or tastes, or temperaments. You are navigating your new work environment like a pro? Wait for that new CEO, the change of locales, the cultural change project, or any number of elements to shift up on you. You have spent a good period of time learning more about yourself in this new position, and how to be the best possible person for the job? Often, that’s when some huge internal shift takes place, or when you decide yourself that it’s time to move on. If, instead, everything is peaceful and stagnant, you might, like me, try to raise the challenge level for yourself and your work team. Keep it interesting!

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Of course, becoming conscious of all the learning that has to be done is a skill in and of itself. Building “learning agility” will allow you to better deal with all of the changes that happen around you and within you.

That learning agility is one skill that is invaluable to all leaders, and to those lucky enough to be on their teams.