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Stuck In A Mess

In 2008, I accepted a big job and a big move literally across the world. Before the move I was excited, indeed this was the position of my lifetime! The leadership team appeared to be supportive, after all they flew me across the globe for an in-person interview and they selected me for the position within twenty-four hours of the interview. The leadership team included powerful and influential people. The department seemed strong, the budget was reasonable, and the community described as welcoming.

But within a couple of hours of my arrival, I had a sinking feeling. At the end of the first month on the job, I knew I had made a terrible mistake.

My supervisor was cordial, but never all that interested in my vision for the department, or available to help. The leadership team was more honorific than actual, and its members were uninterested in offering advice, making connections, or supporting my goals.

The budget was large, but no one had mentioned upfront that there was no guidance on meeting the obligations of the population we served.

And my team? They were disagreeable and cantankerous after I moved across the world to join them. I recall sending them an introductory email and to my surprise only one member of my team rendered a response.

During a late-night conversation with a close friend I discussed my interview. We sought to retrace my steps to understand how my assessment of the opportunity could have been so inaccurate. My conclusion: I had been intentionally misled.

The leadership duo who interviewed me, informed me that I was walking into an organization which had historical successes. They prevented me from meeting one-on-one with members of the department. Once on board, my leadership team usurped my authority by entertaining direct meetings with my department members without my knowledge.

There were obvious clues I missed because I wanted this job so much. The resounding question I was face with was: How do I move forward?

I learned some hard lessons about the dangers of excessive trust and optimism and the risks that come from failing to conduct due diligence. After inheriting this disaster, I behaved badly and spent an excessive amount of time blaming my predecessor for his inept leadership and I criticized the organization’s leadership for handing me a rat’s nest to untangle.

In retrospect my recommendation, “Behave better than I did."

What does that mean? What is the best way to respond when you have inherited a terrible situation?

(a) Speak as "us," rather than "you." As the newcomer, there may be a temptation to distance yourself from the mess, but do not. You now own it. Embrace your new organization and suggest that you are fully committed to turning things around.

(b) Be clear about your values. In times of crisis, your people need to know what matters to you and whether you view them as key to the organization’s future.

(c) Be precise about your expectations and what it will take to be successful when working with you.

(d) Acknowledge what is working. It is important to be open about the many challenges facing the department. However, not everything is broken, so highlight points of pride.

Share the numbers. It is easy to dismiss the need for change when challenges are not obvious. Be transparent with the staff. Continuously update them on the successes as well as the challenges. Note that defining the problem is a key first step in solving it.

(e) Describe the future you imagine. Conveying a compelling vision offers a path forward and signals your optimism that things will eventually improve.

(f) Do not go it alone. As quickly as possible, determine who on your team is ambitious and who might be helpful because you will need both phenotypes to become an expert in your mess. The ambitious will work hard to make a name for themselves during the turnaround, and the helpful will be instrumental in providing the quiet, behind-the-scenes support that you will need to move things forward.

(g) Embrace your mess as an opportunity. A sense of crisis can be a powerful bonding experience and can build long-term optimism and confidence by enabling organizational members to believe "We got through that, we can get through this."

Some may say it can be exhilarating to turn around a struggling organization, however, it is typically demoralizing to face such a challenge without warning. There are usually obvious signs in the hiring process that all is not well, but we may miss or dismiss them when we want a position too much.

If search-committee members deny your requests for information or limit your interactions with your team, prepare yourself for unhappy set of surprises once you arrive. It is good to be excited about a new job opportunity, but it is better to keep your radar up and active.

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