I was in Rome earlier this month when the new Pope was chosen. Everyone instantly had an opinion. A great choice. A radical choice. A conservative man. A big risk. The only true consensus was around confidence: everyone was certain they were right.
This is a peril for every new leader of any organization. Everyone thinks they know you--and everyone projects onto you his hopes and fears. If you're an insider who has been promoted, the assumptions are even bigger because, having more data to go on, people are even more sure they know you. If you're an outsider, imagination has less to feed on, but doesn't stop.
What that means, of course, is that the first steps you take resonate far and wide. Knowing this is the case, how can you most strategically navigate a new leadership position? Here's what I recommend:
1. Stop and think.
Before you do or say anything, ask yourself what you want to be known for. Then consider which one or two actions--not words--might articulate that. If you are going to have to start cutting costs, cut some of your own first. If you want a flatter hierarchy, get rid of your door. The Pope started by speaking Italian, not Latin, thus signaling a more modern man. Simple but eloquent.
2. Choose who to be seen with.
How leaders spend their time speaks volumes. If you spend the first week hunkered down with your senior management team, you will acquire a reputation for distance. If you come in unannounced and wander around talking to people, informality will become a keynote. That the Pope dispensed with the Pope-mobile signaled that he didn't think of himself as a superstar. That move at least left people with an interesting question in their minds.
3. Be consistent.
Whatever signal you send, make sure that it tallies with the rest of your signals. When the Pope decided to celebrate mass at a small church rather than the Vatican, this was wholly consistent with his earlier rejections of papal pomp.
4. Find a neutral mentor.
You need someone outside the company who can give you a safe place to vent, argue, plan. While you will eventually build up a coterie of trusted advisors inside the business, you will always need impartial, disinterested advisors outside of it who are prepared to argue with you. You won't get any of that in your first few months--which is why it is so critical to your success to have it at the outset. The most successful leaders know this before they start; the rest learn it pretty fast. This will be a challenge for the Pope--and may be one reason his predecessor found the job so hard. You need more than God on your side.
I have no real insight into how well or badly this Pope will do and that's not really my interest here. What is fascinating and instructive is to observe how keenly these first, early steps are read, and how they're interpreted.
In your next leadership position, you may not have such a large audience--but you can be assured, those watching will be just as attentive.