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Ace your first 100 days in a new job

As Barack Obama surely understands, taking a leadership role at a time of crisis is even tougher than usual now. Here are some tried-and-true ways to succeed.

By Anne Fisher, contributor
Last Updated: January 20, 2009: 6:00 PM ET

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1. You have lots of training and experience managing people, but have trouble keeping up with the latest technology. You:
a) Try to learn as much as you can about new advances in your spare time.
b) Sign up for extra training on how to motivate employees, evaluate their performance, and improve your public speaking skills.
c) Assume that, if there's anything you need to know about new office technology, the IT department will tell you about it.

(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: I was just hired to run a very troubled division of a major bank. They picked me for the job because I've done turnarounds before - although not in circumstances as dire as these - and I know I can handle the technical aspects of getting the business back on track. It's the "people" issues I'm worried about. Everybody under me is overworked, depressed, and pessimistic; and some of them seem to be lining up behind a guy who has worked here a long time and was one of the contenders for my job. Any suggestions on how to get off to a strong start with the team here? -Texas Turnaround Guy

Dear TTG: You could do a lot worse than to take a leaf from Barack Obama's book, says Julie Kampf, founder and CEO of both an executive recruiting company, JBK Associates (www.jbkassociates.net), and a leadership coaching firm, Career Central (www.careercentralusa.com). After all, Obama's stepping into the most high-pressure, high-profile management job on earth.

"The tone he's setting at the outset - calm, collected, and well-informed about the issues - is the right one," says Kampf. "Forget about 'hitting the ground running' and trying to solve everything in the first month."

Instead, spend your first 30 days listening, and studying the company and the challenges it faces. "What are the goals you want to reach, and the obstacles to those goals? Read everything you can, online and elsewhere, about the company and the industry, and seek out opinions from the people under you and above you," Kampf suggests. "Ask a lot of questions. Become an expert on the business and build rapport with as many people as you can."

Once you've done that, come up with a strategy, including clear statements about what you want to accomplish and within how much time - 60 days, 90 days, six months, a year. "Of course this will change a bit as you go along," says Kampf. "But it gives you a starting point and a way of crystallizing what your targets are."

It also gives people above and below you an idea of what to expect - and what not to. "It's critical that you manage expectations at this point," says Kampf. "In the first 100 days of any new executive job, people are very critical. They're looking for ways to knock you down. So don't overpromise."

Obama began the process of playing down expectations weeks ago. In interviews, for instance, he often notes that we didn't get into the current economic mess overnight and we won't get out of it quickly, either. About a week ago, he started spreading the word that some of the issues he addressed in his campaign - in particular NAFTA reform, climate change, and repealing the Bush tax cuts - would have to take a back seat to getting his economic stimulus package through Congress. And this past Sunday, in a speech at the Lincoln Memorial, he warned listeners that "there may be setbacks and false starts" in his administration's efforts to tackle the nation's woes, but that those won't discourage him.

"You need to be sending the same cautiously optimistic message," says Kampf. "The idea is, yes, we are going to turn this around - but don't expect miracles."

Obama is also, of course, not going it alone. Like every President before him, he's assembled a team of trusted advisors. Kampf suggests you do the same. Moreover, drawing a few of them from the ranks of the overworked pessimists you mention could help morale improve. "Show them you are listening to them," she says. "That's always important, but especially now, with things as bad as they are."

And when it comes to attitude, you as the boss have to lead by example, says Kampf. "Everybody is scared right now, so stay as positive and upbeat as you can. Acknowledge the problems, but focus people's attention on the future, and on what specifically you can all do to make things better," she says. "This too shall pass, so convey the idea that you are going to hang in there and get past it."

While you're at it, see if you can win over the disgruntled colleague who lost the race for your job. "Get him out of the office somewhere - to lunch, or for coffee - and clear the air," says Kampf. "Say something like, 'I know this is hard for you, but we have to deal with reality. What can I do to help you achieve your goals? How can I help you?' "

In an intriguing new book called Barack, Inc.: Winning Business Lessons of the Obama Campaign (FT Press, $19.95), authors Barry Libert and Rick Faulk note that in 2006, when Indra Nooyi heard she had won the contest for the CEO job at Pepsi, the first thing she did was fly to meet with her main competitor while he was on vacation, to beg him to stay with the company. "The moment was not unlike when Obama chose Hillary Clinton for his 'Team of Rivals' cabinet," the authors write.

Especially since your colleague has attracted a loyal following among employees (again, not unlike all those diehard Clinton voters), do whatever you can to make him an ally. Since he's been with the company longer than you have, and thus probably has insights and connections that you lack, he could turn out to be a valuable advisor indeed.

As a veteran of other turnarounds, you probably already know firsthand that, as Kampf says, "leadership almost always involves making tough decisions. No matter what you do or don't do, someone is not going to like it and, the higher up the ladder you go, the more sniping you'll attract. A senior management job can put you in a lonely position." So, while you'll probably soon be as overworked as your stressed-out employees (or even more so), carve out some time to spend with family and friends - those people who love you no matter what's going on at the office.

Readers, what do you say? Have you ever had to step into a new job and correct a disastrous situation? What worked (or didn't) for you? Your bosses? How have you coped with low morale among coworkers? Any tricks on keeping both employees and higher-ups happy? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog. To top of page

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