Listening and asking the right questions can help a new boss get to know, and get best out of, his staff

Becoming a senior manager for the first time is a fascinating experience. For many, it is a position they have spent years working towards, but really, there is nothing that can truly prepare you for those first few months at the helm.

You will learn a lot about yourself - and others.

What surprised me in my first senior management role was quite a few moments when my title seemed to make people nervous and uneasy. At times, the energy in a room would change when I walked in and the assembled staff did not even know me yet. You think you are trained for those moments but they still come as a surprise, particularly when you have a history of dealing with people at a personal level.

The challenge was to prove that the "boss" was a person, not a rank.


After years of multiple experiences, what has worked for me is spending the first few months getting to know the people, the chemistry and the culture. These have to be your priorities in any leadership role. Only then will you uncover the true issues of the business and lead it forward effectively.

Here are my six priorities for the first-time manager:

1. Start chatting
What you should be aiming to detect during the initial conversations with your staff is whether a synergy exists between people and to the organisational goals. If there is a noticeable inconsistency or disconnect between, say, what employees deem to be a priority compared to their team members, you will quickly uncover how much work lies ahead of you.

Remember, these conversations will likely provide you with differing insights, particularly as you start forming your own views, so don't be too quick to judge. In the first six months there will be certain issues that you change your mind on several times - this is usually an indication that the issue is going to be more complex to address than you had originally anticipated.

Real communication occurs when you talk less and listen more, so early on in your tenure, your best leadership quality is an ability to listen and ask the right questions.

2. Understand the financial framework of the business
Being financially trained, this is not an issue for me. For those who ascend to a management role and are not financially qualified, however, make it your business to fully understand the financial framework within which the business operates. This may seem obvious, but many leaders lack the inherent ability to understand the financial premise of the organisation. If this is a gap in your knowledge skill-set, be sure to surround yourself with the best finance talent available and continue to develop your own understanding.

3. Culture on the ground
If you're entering a new organisation, during the recruitment process the company culture will be described to you. It will range from being recounted as magnificent, work to be done, or very poor.

Whatever you're told in the interview, it is essential that you form your own view from your own experience and research. It is easier to do this if you're appointed from outside the business.


So what about if you are promoted internally?

You must still walk into the role with the most open mind possible and revisit the issues and the people from your new vantage point. It is so important to view the business through a fresh lens.

In order to glean an impression of the culture when speaking with colleagues, I start with a number of very simple questions, such as: Why did you choose to work here? How long have you been here? Do you like your job? Where does your role fit into the business? After a period of time the answers to these questions will create further questions, which will provide a sense of the top three to five cultural issues, good or bad - an important place to start.

4. Relationships
Mentally map your key relationships in the organisation. This should range from person to person, department to department, board to executive team. This map will be essential when you begin to execute new plans, as you will know where particular relationships will likely combine in support, or where blockages might come from. Think through a comparison of the way those relationships currently shape against how they should begin to shape to take the organisation forward.

5. Your first voice
Early in your tenure, you will have an opportunity to address your team and managerial counterparts in a group setting.

This first moment is critical.


Use it as an opportunity to tell them who you are, your personal values, your personality traits - the good and not so good - and why you chose to take the role. Make it clear you are in listening mode and that you have an open mind to all feedback from everyone.

It's always good to give people an opportunity for a short Q&A at that time, however, qualify your answers by making it clear that you inform your views by listening and verifying, and that is what you will be doing in the first few months.

6. Stand for something
Relatively early on you will likely identify an issue in the business that needs to be corrected or improved upon. It may be small, but you know by feedback it's a generic issue. When the time is right step up on that issue, ensure you make it your own and resolve it. Be decisive. All eyes will be on you so it's important to set the precedent for how you intend to lead. Your first fix is an opportunity to leave a lasting mark. Your team will look for opportunities to trust their leader, so be consistent and persistent in pursuing your objectives. When they believe you are authentic, they will come with you. Listen and be patient - people need time to believe.

Alex Malley is the chief executive of CPA Australia and author of The Naked CEO.