How do you make tough calls in a new culture?
Several times in my career, I've been asked to turn around teams - or, in one case, a whole company. This is a challenging role to play. If you are an outsider new to an organization's culture, it can be even more daunting. These situations strike me as oddly reminiscent of my earliest job as a foreign correspondent. You're entering unknown territory and you need to get to the right answers without creating unnecessary resistance. But you don't yet know whom to trust, how to speak the language or what constitutes critical context.

I cite this conundrum because this week, I'm participating in a new LinkedIn feature called #YouAsked, where members submit their most pressing career questions to experts and leaders. This week's question is: “How can a new manager who has to make some tough decisions integrate themselves into an established workplace culture without ruffling feathers?”

Having been in this situation, I'm happy to share thoughts based on some successes, plenty of failures and more than a few experiments.

First off, I want to address an expectation that seems inherent in the question, which is the notion it's possible to make tough calls with virtually no impact on those around you. If you have to make hard decisions or introduce change, you are inevitably going to make some people uncomfortable or anxious no matter how wise your choices or how well you lead. So I'd make your goal less about avoiding ruffled feathers and more about making sound decisions given organizational culture and context and working through the change curve together with your new team.

So where to start?

My first advice is to listen. The best way for a leader (or journalist) to understand the lay of the land is to ask questions and listen deeply before coming to any conclusions. There is no better cultural orientation - and cultural orientation is what enables you to succeed within a new culture. Listening has two benefits: first, it helps you build trust and understanding with your new team; and second, it will help you make better calls down the road. I have five go-to questions:

  • Tell me about how you came to be at this company/organization. This question yields information on surprising talents, uncovers interesting dimensions of people and reveals common ground. It also often shows what inspires and motivates your team - which is critical to know as a manager.
  • What is working well here? This question reveals potential bright spots. It also shows what people really like about the organization and their job, which is important for any manager to know.
  • What is not working so well? I'm always surprised by how honest people are in responding to this question. They are usually quite forthcoming about what needs improvement. Some people are constructive and insightful in their responses, others are petty. How they answer the question tells you a lot about the person and the organizational environment as a whole.
  • What do you hope I will do here? This question is critical to knowing what kind of help people want. It brings out the role people hope you will play and the changes that they think you should make. Even if people are guarded in their answers, that in itself tells you a lot about the level of wariness you face.
  • Is there anything you hope I will not do? This question might prompt insights on what people fear and dislike - as well as positive forces people don't want you to undo. You aren't promising that you won't make unpopular decisions in asking this question - but at least you'll know what decisions might ruffle the most feathers.

In asking all of these questions, it's wise to remind people that the goal is to learn from them and to get their valued perspective on ways to work well together within the established culture. You need to mean that when you say it. This isn't about gathering intelligence - it's about building a collective intelligence to make everyone successful in the organization's context.

As you determine your agenda, think about how you can frame it according to everything you've learned. The more you use your team's reference points to lead and communicate, the easier it is to bring them along for the tough calls without running afoul of organizational culture or individuals' values.

Next, identify who are natural change agents within your new culture. And what talent do you need to add to strengthen the team? Everything starts and ends with people. That means you want to have in place a critical mass of individuals of the right caliber, with constructive attitudes and a collective desire to make great things happen. Culture is made by people, so when you have the people right, all else follows. Don't try to fly solo in leading through change - it's lonely, it's hard and it doesn't work.

When you know the changes that have to be made, it's valuable to involve some people on your team in planning for change, communicating change and telling a story together that is both grounded in rigorous rationale and inspired with a greater purpose. Identify the "why" behind the tough calls - how is the change in service of something important? Be sure to share that purpose along with a sincere acknowledgement of any painful parts of change. Never forget that you have to move hearts to make change.

As you and your team make the tough calls and move forward toward the exciting destination you've clearly defined, create a "progress bar" so everyone feels they are making steps forward on the journey. Change is exhausting, especially if you have a big vision, so you need to break it down into manageable pieces and celebrate everyone around you, every time the progress bar is filled in a little more. Be generous with credit. Enlist your team in helping you navigate the best ways to applaud each other's work within the organizational culture.

My last thought is to anticipate not only ruffled feathers at the start but stumbles along the way. I'm thrilled for you, the questioner, to be taking on the work of transformation. The world needs people like you! Know that this kind of change comes in fits and starts and ups and downs. It's normal to have days when you feel like an unpopular, resisted stranger in a strange land. But when you do, don't despair. Take a step back and do some things that give you energy and optimism. Go back to asking questions of your colleagues so you can navigate your next steps. You may be miles from your destination, but that doesn't mean you won't get there.

Good luck!

By Katya Andresen, SVP Card Customer Experience at Capital One