This is possibly the strangest instruction I have ever heard a new manager receive from a superior. It happens when a new, up-and-coming manager gets a shot at running a segment of business that has already been operating successfully.
Typically it is related to a big factory or facility setting like a large warehouse, terminal, refinery, or machine shop. But it can also relate to a well-established team.
The idea is centered on the belief that if you just keep things going as-is, the unit will continue to be successful, make the money it’s been making, and keep the stakeholders happy. There really are companies that own large scale assets that operate like a fly-wheel. Once they get going, they are hard to stop.
There is no need to tinker with the mechanism. Just do basic maintenance, follow procedures, and the ‘machine’ makes money. Therefore “don’t screw it up” can make sense.
The New Manager
If you get appointed to be the newest manager of such a facility, your duties will be to keep the status quo. How exciting is that?
Well, if it involves keeping turnover low, avoiding accidents, and not creating down-time, then you have a big challenge. Therefore, yes, this kind of assignment can be a challenge.
Your management and leadership skills will be tested. But if you think you have new, creative ideas, then you better watch out.
So What Can a New Manager Do with This?
First, settle in to the job by getting to know the ‘old hands’. Find out who really knows everything about the team or the plant. There will always be some old sage on site.
Respect them and show them that respect. Yes, you might be the new boss, but they have the experience of knowing what works and what doesn’t. Leverage that wisdom for yourself.
When I first landed at my duty station as a newly minted 2nd Lieutenant in the Army. I was immediately positioned as the executive officer (XO) of a 400-person troop unit. That meant I was the #2 guy in charge of the unit. The only other superior was our Commanding Officer.
Part of my duties involved running a mess hall where we served 1500 meals 3x a day. The mess hall ran pretty well. But not long after I took over, a new mess sergeant was assigned. He was the old hand.
When he reported for duty I could tell he didn’t respect me very much. We made small talk a while, then I said “Sergeant, I sense you don’t like me.” He replied, “I don’t like officers in my mess hall.”
I thought a minute, then said “well, here’s the deal. You need my signature on all your requisitions or else there won’t be any food to serve. I am going to come to the mess hall when you have the paperwork ready. Then I’ll leave.”
The next day he called me. “Sir, the paperwork is ready.” I went over, reviewed the paperwork, signed it, then got up and left.
Two days later he called again. “Sir more paperwork is ready.” This time when I arrived, there was fresh coffee and pastries set out next to the paperwork. So I shifted my thought a minute.
I handled the paperwork, then started to leave. He said, “Ummm, Sir, these pastries are for you. Can you stay a minute?” So I said “Sure.” We sat down and started talking, more man to man, rather than officer to sergeant. It began a wonderful working relationship.
It was a great way to leverage his expertise. Oh and by the way, he was one of the most highly decorated mess hall sergeants in the Army. He won numerous blue ribbon awards, the Army’s equivalent of 5 Star ratings for restaurants. He won another one while he worked for me. Not my glory, but his.
Even a few years later when he transferred to another unit’s mess hall, every time I entered his facility he would shout “Hey everybody, here comes my favorite lieutenant.”
I could trust him to do the right thing and I didn’t ‘screw it up.’
Other Ideas to Use
The other thing you can do is focus on your people skills. Work on communication, feedback, accountability, and team effort.
For feedback and accountability, consider tools like the Big 5 Performance Management process. Big 5 is something I’ve used and helped many others learn to use. With Big 5, you establish simple but powerful check-ins with your team.
Each month, your team writes out five accomplishments from the prior month. To that, you add 5 priorities for the new month. If you then conduct one-on-one check-ins early in the new month, you get a coaching moment with each member of your team (your direct reports).
For team activities, consider building on team trust. Trust has been rated the #1 contributor to high performing teams. See more here.
For accountability, you need to inspect what you expect. Telling people what you want then ignoring the results is no better than never saying anything at all in the first place.
If you want better attendance at training, then look at the rosters for your training events. If someone misses, follow-up, and find out why.
If you want better compliance with policies, then create measurements to demonstrate that compliance. Acknowledge those who comply and talk with those who don’t.
When you get told “Don’t screw it up” just know that you still have the opportunity to exhibit your own leadership style and impact, so don’t let the guidance throw you off your leadership game.
You can make a difference while you’re ‘not screwing it up.’