Taking the top job in a new organisation is a stressful experience. No amount of planning and research can properly inform you of the cultural  DNA of the organisation you will be taking over. That knowledge will only come over time, and only if you go actively looking for it.

In many cases, new leaders do  not go looking, and as a result usually do not know what it is they are changing by their presence, and often do not care, to their cost.

Nothing is as resilient as a culture that perceives itself to be under threat from a new leader who ignores it.

In the course of coaching leaders, I encourage them to be absolutely transparent, to never shy away from those often difficult but clarifying conversations that are the daily menu of leadership. For the new leader taking a role in a new organisation, I encourage them to act like a sponge in the first few weeks, and understand the nuances of what they are really getting into.

Four simple questions can be very useful, and I encourage you to ask them of every senior employee you can in that very first familiarisation encounter, and if possible to communicate the questions beforehand, to allow them to think about the answers.

  • What three things do you think we should change.
  • What three things should we leave absolutely alone
  • What three things do you most want me to do
  • What three things would you encourage me not to do.

After you have asked as many of the existing employees as practical the same four questions, you will have a pretty good picture of the way things are around the place, and what the pressing issues are.

It is a bit like learning to swim.

You cannot do it from a book, you have to get into the water to experience it for yourself, and in this case the four questions are similar to learning to dog paddle, and to stick your face under water for the first time.

Cartoon credit: Hugh McLeod @ Gaping Void.