In any company, leadership transition can bring a lot of upheaval. Whether you're stepping into a new role as CEO of the company, or taking a leadership position in a small team, the challenges are daunting. Different teams operate with different and sometimes unwritten rules of engagement. Some cultures have strong informal leaders that may not appear on paper, but are respected decision makers when it comes to accepting or rejecting a change. Navigating and making visible these hidden obstacles is a key to creating lasting change. If you're a first-time manager, how do you begin the process of transitioning into that new role? If you're an experienced executive, how do you make sure you don't mess up a good thing, while also making it your own?
Christina Keller knows exactly what it takes to succeed in that time of transition. In September 2018, Keller became President and CEO of Cascade Engineering, a global manufacturing company with a particular expertise in large tonnage injection molding. Taking over a flourishing company, with nearly 50 years of family legacy and 1,800 employees relying on it, was a heavy responsibility to take on. One key to Keller's success was taking the time before she started to consider the challenges she would face, especially after her experience as a consultant taught her about joining new teams and experiencing different cultures. Cascade Engineering is a top-20 large plastics manufacturer in the industry and a certified B Corporation, and has the largest plastic injection molding press in North America. Keller was named a Rising Star by Plastics News, and was included on the 40 Under 40 list of the Grand Rapids Business Journal. She also sits on the Board of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and the board of Independent Bank. She has even given two TedX talks on Entrepreneurship and Sustainable Business.
Here is Keller's advice on what you should consider as you move into a new management role of an already-successful team:
Part 1: Respect the Previous Structure
1. Get to Know Your People
The very first step is getting to know the people behind the roles on your team. Keller recommends, "Understand who they are, what drives them, if they have kids. At Cascade Engineering we strive to be an Employer of Choice, where everyone knows they are valued. Know they all could have opportunities outside and take an opportunity to re-recruit them by getting to know them as human beings." Getting to know them requires an investment of time and energy. "An important thing for me was to take each of my new team members to lunch and to get to know them as people. If you care about the person behind the role you set the foundation for trust," asserts Keller. This kind of up-front investment in people will reap rewards in the short- and long-terms.
2. Seek First to Understand
Good or bad, teams have rhythms. In order to lead them, you must figure out what those rhythms are. Says Keller, "I sought first to understand the processes and procedures of the team, the elements of waste they identify, and where they feel the group needs or wants to go." This investigation helped Keller see places they could improve, and opened her up to new opportunities she hadn't considered. She explains, "Gaining this insight allows for a clear current state so that as you create a vision for the future, you understand how big the gap is towards what needs to be accomplished." Don't jump to conclusions when you join a new team. Figure out the "why" first.
Part 2: Establish Your Vision and Expectations
3. Create a One Page Strategic Vision
For Keller, one of the first steps is mapping out where the team is. "I created a one-page vision that included our purpose, our vision, and our values. In our case, they were unchanged, but previously had not been identified and placed in one location," Keller says. Don't underestimate the power of this simple step of gathering these elements into one central location. "This served to reinforce and clarify the macro objectives. Then with the help of the team, I created three strategic initiatives to organize us toward the future," she explains. This creates clarity of vision and singularity of purpose that everyone on the team can grasp.
4. Set Expectations
Sometimes it's also important to get back to basics. "Ensure everyone on your team has a clear job description and understands their role and how it relates back to the one page strategic vision," Keller suggests. "This cascades throughout the whole organization. People want to know where they stand and what is expected of them," she asserts. Keller is also a believer in constant feedback loops, saying, "Balance courage and consideration in giving them feedback to those expectations in real time." Continuous, honest feedback is a key element of development.
5. Establish Key Metrics
Along with the one page strategic vision, a team requires clear goals. Keller advises, "Set 1-year and 5-year SMART goals: specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and tactical." Then determine how you will measure progress towards those goals. "Ensure that the 1-year metrics are proactive leading indicators and not reactive metrics, so that you can predict performance and respond quickly. Ensure each metric has an owner who can develop an action plan to get from current state to future state," Keller says. This kind of planning helps set your team up for success.
Part 3: Monitor and Reinforce Progress
6. Establish Your Cadence
Now that you're part of the team, you can influence the team's rhythms. "I recommend setting a cadence to meet with your team collectively and individually, and a cadence to review the key metrics," Keller says. But she warns leaders not to change too much too fast, saying, "Try to stick to those established cadences and allow everything else to fall into them, rather than creating lots of additional meetings for specific purposes." Changing leadership is hard enough without adding additional requirements. She says, "With a new leader people can sometimes feel like there is meeting overload. Creating a cadence allows you to stay focused on strategic priorities and gives you an opportunity to address the other things that come up in a regular manner that people can depend on." From the very beginning, prove to your new team that you're reliable.
7. Celebrate Successes
Teams are about camaraderie, and every team needs a little fun sometimes. "Find the bright spots and highlight them positively, so that people know what you value. This also helps to build positive momentum for the team and reinforce the team's collective values," Keller enthuses. She's always been careful about when messages are delivered, explaining, "I have always followed the mantra of praise in public, discipline in private. A strong leader stands in front of criticism, takes it and deals with it individually in private, and steps aside and illuminates those that did the work for praise." Keller also has a powerful way of rewarding success: "We have a talent development department that also allows people opportunities to gain outside leadership training opportunities," she says. This kind of added benefit is what modern employees are looking for, and will help your company attract and retain the best talent.
8. Get Honest Feedback
It can be difficult to take criticism, but it's a critical part of leadership. "Make sure you have avenues for people to give you honest 360-degree feedback on your performance. Then use that feedback to adapt your style," Keller says. "Beware of people telling you what you want to hear," she goes on. Cascade has developed a system to combat this yes-man feedback. Keller explains, "We have an electronic survey that gives feedback at 30, 60, and 90 days from the new role, and then annually delivers a more comprehensive electronic survey with a mix of quantitative and qualitative questions." Seeking feedback with this regularity and detail reinforces to the team that their feedback is important and should be candid.
On Fridays, Kevin explores industry trends, professional development, best practices, and other leadership topics with CEOs from around the world.