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How a Little Humility Helps New Leaders Fit In

Most new hires at senior levels come in full of ideas, gumption, and, perhaps, a tacit assumption that things must not have been going perfectly before they were hired. They arrive believing they are going to make a significant difference for the business and bring it the success it hasn’t yet achieved.

But even if all those assumptions were true, the new person doesn’t automatically get a halo upon arrival, and success rarely follows immediately.

So if you’re the new person, it’s crucial to practice humility. Recognize that no matter how backward, unenlightened, or downright ignorant your new colleagues may seem to you, they have a shared history, and a reason — maybe even many reasons — that they’ve been doing things a certain way. And no matter how much you’ve heard from HR, or even from your hiring manager, you don’t know enough about what that history feels like or what it means to your incumbent colleagues.

Adjust to the Terrain

How can you get them to hear you? By extending courtesy and respect first: “I appreciate your making room for me. I’m eager for us to do wonderful things together.” Try not to step on their already bruised toes, or inflame old arguments. Ask what they think, rather than announcing how you’re going to save them from themselves. Ask: “Could you tell me how you came to do it that way?” — not “Why do you do it that stupid way?!?” (Facepalm!)

Don’t refer over and over to “the way I did it at the ABC Company.” And don’t act like a tool who can only perform the same exact set of applications in the exact same way as you did in your last assignment.

Thank Them for Sharing

Whatever your level of authority or degree of autonomy, you can’t just gallop in on your white horse and expect everything to change overnight. So don’t do all your “contributing” in the first week. Instead, spend time learning about the people you work with. Listen more than you can stand. Speak with plenty of civility and deference: “I want to be sure I’ve got the context right. Are you saying…? Were you asking…?”

Be conscious of why or how anything you’re proposing might be disadvantageous to them, or if there’s a way you can better benefit them or their teams. If they can’t handle the candor of your opinions, get more data and prepare more scenarios to show them the value of your ideas. When people push back, they may be sending you signals about how things went wrong for them — maybe they got shot down or were unsupported. They’re actually trying to help you, not get in your way.

Integrate Yourself

Encourage people to help you by telling you right away if you’re wrong — and how they know that. They may want to be saved, challenged, and improved, but not without their own participation. So look for ways to blend what you know and believe will work with who they really are and what they do, and be alert for any signs of willingness to experiment with you.

If you can learn to read your colleagues’ signs, let them know where you’re heading and work on merging your ideas with their history, not only will you get to do the job you were hired to do, but you’ll actually be better at it yourself.

Onward and upward,


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