New Leaders: Get Off to A Great Start!

StartOne of the most overwhelming feelings is to become a new leader in an existing ministry where there’s already an established culture, leaders, practices, problems, traditions, and “skeletons in the closet”. 

The older the organization the more there is to learn.  The bigger the organization, the more people there are to become familiar with.

Sure, there is a great deal of anticipation and excitement about your new role, but almost every new leader, after a period of time, can attest to decisive missteps that impacted their work, their relationships with others, and even their long-term credibility.  There are scores of business books that talk about transition, and your first few months in office. Michael Watkins’, The First 90 Days, clearly provides critical strategies for new leaders. Watkins writes, “The President of the United States gets 100 days to prove himself; you get 90. The actions you take during your first three months in a new job will largely determine whether you succeed or fail. Transitions are periods of opportunity, a chance to start afresh and to make needed changes in an organization. But they are also periods of acute vulnerability, because you lack established working relationships and a detailed understanding of your new role. If you fail to build momentum during your transition, you will face an uphill battle from that point forward.”

As a ministry leader who has been the new guy on more than one occasion, I have learned many lessons and gotten my battle scars during my new transitions. Today, I would like to recommend some core areas that you want to focus on in your first few months in your new role:

  1. Vision – Get a very clear understanding of the core vision of the organization. Ask questions like, “Where do we want to be in 10 years?”; “What have been some of the defining moments of this organization?”; “What are the unique opportunities that make this organization exclusive.” You most likely asked some of these questions during your interview stage, but now you can ask in a way to get a greater understanding of the organization without the burden of career decisions.
  2. Values – Every organization has a culture and unique DNA. Dr. Samuel Chand speaks about this in his book, Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code. He shares, “Culture, not vision or strategy, is the most powerful factor in any organization. I can attest that the organization’s culture is never written anywhere, but it can be clearly determined as you begin to make decisions that impact the ingrained institutional values and oppose the unspoken established culture. Everything from changing positions and titles to moving furniture can impact the culture of an organization. Before you make any changes, be sure that you are aware of the organizational cultural implications.
  3. Voices – During your first few days in your new role, be sure to discover who the key voices are in your organization. Many of these voices may not have a formal position, but may be behind the scene influencers and unofficial group leaders that define how support is achieved and even how others will respond.  Knowing these important voices will determine how you affect change in a healthy way and how you come to understand how to maneuver in your role in a way that keeps your relationships solid versus tenuous. Who are the key voices in your organization?
  4. Voids – Determine the gaping holes in your organization. In some cases, it could be positions that need to be filled and in other cases it could be systems that are not aligned or developed. One of the immediate ways to determine where there are voids and gaps in your organization is looking for patterns that continue to be points of frustration and angst for you, your staff, or your primary constituents – your members.  If it keeps coming up, it is probably a gap in the organization. Prior to immediately filling the gap, be sure to gather the right information and involve the right people in your goal to fill the gap.
  5. Vouchers – this is simple – the budget! You should spend hours poring over the numbers and seeing what the stories are behind the numbers. Every number represents a priority or indicator of the culture of the organization. When you understand the spending habits of the organization, reserves, liabilities, and assets, you’ll gain a greater understanding of the real vision and values of the organization. If the organization doesn’t have a budget yet, that should say a lot as well. And while you are poring over the numbers, get a clear understanding of who has control of the purse.  This person or group is a major voice in the organization.
  6. Victims – Who are the people who despise your organization? As you determine who they are, you will also be able to find out why they don’t like the organization. This will tell you more than simply listening to those who are totally in love with everything you do. This will provide you with a balanced picture of how the ministry values human potential and also expose the ministry’s relational capital in the community.
  7. Victories – Finally, as you learn more about the culture and activities of the organization, determine what have been the ‘wins’ for the ministry.  Understanding this will help you understand where everyone’s focus is and how that focus consumes time, passions, and even future development. Asking “Why is that a win for this organization?” gives you a deeper appreciation of how to quickly gain organizational intelligence and combine that with both emotional and relational intelligence for the ministry. You will have greater success at negotiating and orchestrating win-win situations in the changes that you will create.

Congratulations to you for your new roles and responsibilities. In your first few days commit to being more of the student than the teacher. Being the student will make you more effective and trusted when you’re ready to be the teacher. Happy learning!

Christopher J. Harris, a native of Palatka, Florida, is Director of Ministry Operations of the historic mega-church Fellowship Church of Chicago. He is also Overseer of Youth for Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International. Harris currently resides in Chicago with his wife and children.

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