Confidence matters for new managers
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The writer is an FT contributing editor
Some new managers beam about their new roles. They are full of schemes about what they plan to shake up. Others are terrified. Many of the bubbly ones are secretly frightened too, and the ones who aren’t discover within days how misplaced their confidence was and how hard it is to run things.
One of the biggest challenges a new manager faces is: how do you speak to people whose jobs you don’t understand? If your organisation has promoted you, you almost certainly knew a lot about the work you did. But what about the work others do, not just those in different departments, but those outside the company?
As a journalist who was spending time working for the FT’s executive education arm, I began to get inquiries about running programmes for new managers and partners. The requests came from a Big Four accounting firm and a London Magic Circle law practice. As a journalist, I had interviewed chief executives. Could I provide these firms’ new partners with tips on talking to business leaders?
The problem, as these organisations saw it, was that the new partners were comfortable speaking about their specialist roles — as auditors, tax experts or M&A lawyers. But asked to represent the firm and talk to clients outside their narrow expertise, they floundered. They were nervous about discussing issues they weren’t sure about. This was particularly true when they had to talk to clients’ chief executives. Could I help?
We talked on these courses about the difference between the lawyers and accountants’ work and mine. As a journalist, I was looking for a story. They were trying to establish a business relationship, to win more work. But there were similarities too. We were both trying to get people to relax and to open up.
I stressed the importance of preparation, of trying to find out about the person you were meeting. What was on their minds? People now provide far more information about themselves than they ever did in the past. There is their LinkedIn profile, their letter to shareholders in the annual report. There are probably interviews with them on YouTube. Best of all are recent speeches they have given or articles they have written.
These provide a good opener. Instead of sitting in awed silence, you can begin by saying: “I was just listening to the speech you gave last week about China/rail electrification/the future of theatre.” Immediately, you have established that you do your homework. You have also given them a comfortable start — talking about what they have said. Even the hardest nut starts to crack at such flattery.
Having started the conversation, you can ask more questions. You are looking for their areas of concern, their greatest interests. One of the participants in these courses likened it to laying down hooks, waiting for a bite. Once you have got them talking, you can move on — me to my searching questions, you to introducing what your firm can do for them.
I came into these courses intending to talk about three Cs. First, context — the background research into what the person you are about to meet is thinking about. The second C was competence: by showing you had done your homework, you were demonstrating that you were taking their concerns seriously. The third C was connection: that moment in the conversation when you win your interlocutor’s trust and they begin to warm to you.
You can then, in the journalist’s case, move on to the tougher questions or, in the new partner or manager’s case, to a deeper business discussion.
There are misfires, of course, conversations that don’t work. When the course participants returned for their next session after an unsuccessful meeting, we talked it through, trying to decide what would have worked better. There might not have been anything better; sometimes you catch people at the end of a tiring day.
The course participants suggested two more Cs. These techniques, they discovered, gave them a fourth C, confidence. The fifth C they suggested was curiosity. This last C should have been obvious to me because it lay behind everything I had been trying to tell them. Curiosity is the new manager’s secret weapon. The more you try to find out, the more interested you are, the more the other person is prepared to talk to you.
This applies to people in other parts of your own organisation and in any field, not just accounting or law. Curiosity about what people are up to, getting them to explain how it works, shows that you care, while you learn at the same time. There is a reason the Queen, with decades of experience of putting people at their ease, asks “And what do you do?”