May 17, 2019

Good questions lay foundation for powerful leadership pipeline

By: Elizabeth Wood

Success for any new leader hinges on the ability to be both “student” and “teacher” because the role requires learning and mentoring. Striking a balance between these roles can be especially daunting for new perioperative services leaders, which is why Bruce Tulgan was invited to speak at the 2019 OR Manager Conference taking place September 18-20 in New Orleans.

Tulgan is the founder and chief executive officer of RainmakerThinking, Inc, a research, training, and consulting firm in New Haven, Connecticut (, and best-selling author of It’s Okay to Be the Boss. He will draw on more than 20 years of research on generational change in the workplace to discuss how to find, train, maintain, and retain new leaders during his keynote address: The Leadership Pipeline: Growing the Next Generation of Perioperative Managers.


Steep learning curve

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“By 2020, individuals born in 1990 and later will comprise greater than 28% of the North American workforce,” Tulgan told OR Manager.

Retirees leaving the workforce take with them the skill, knowledge, wisdom, institutional memory, and relationships developed during their tenures, Tulgan says. Younger employees will seek greater flexibility in their working arrangements and rewards for exemplary performance. And younger new leaders face a steep learning curve, he adds.

They must learn a new job, which can mean relearning everything they already know from a whole new perspective. They must learn the jobs of all of their new direct-reports. And, if they are new to the organization or the industry, the learning curve is even steeper, Tulgan says.

“I’ve seen so many new managers—and plenty of experienced ones—daunted by the learning curve in a new leadership role and thus hesitant to assume command decisively at the outset,” Tulgan notes.


Start strong

Bruce Tulgan

Starting off strong means having a high-structure, high-substance process in place. Without that, Tulgan explains, new leaders risk weakening their working relationships and losing the ability to establish ground rules, performance standards, and communication guidelines.

He urges new leaders to consider learning as a positive, not a negative, necessity. “Learning is your position of strength,” he says. “From Day 1, stake it out and use it. First, get introduced to everyone and everything. Get on board and up to speed with everyone and everything by learning the nuts and bolts of their jobs. You don’t learn first and take charge later.”

Tulgan says new leaders should ask staff a lot of questions about what they do, how they do it, and how long they expect things to take. Then follow up later with more questions and observations.

Watching how people work and asking them to log progress with activities and projects can identify inefficiencies or see where they need help. He also suggests asking for feedback about employees’ interactions with others to gauge performance—keeping in mind that some feedback may be hearsay rather than actual fact.


Assess the team

At about week 8 or 10 in their new leadership roles, Tulgan says, managers who follow these steps should be able to assess which staff members are the weakest links or the strongest performers. It will become clear what level of supervision versus autonomy is appropriate, and whether a person should be fired or can be coached toward improvement.

“Be prepared to revise and adjust as you keep learning, and as circumstances and people change,” he says. “Don’t stop meeting regularly with every person. Keep monitoring and measuring and documenting.”

Managers should continuously ask themselves:

• Who needs to be managed more closely?

• Who needs more responsibility and autonomy?

• Who needs help navigating the complex, ever-changing workplace?

• Who needs help with the fundamentals of self-management?

• Who needs performance coaching to speed up or slow down?

• Who has a great attitude, and who needs an attitude adjustment?

• Who is likely to improve? Who is not?

• Who should be developed? Who should be fired?

• Who are your best people? Who are your real performance problems?

• Who requires special accommodations and rewards? Who deserves them?

It’s important to ask these kinds of questions and identify and nurture the high performers to bolster retention, Tulgan says. “The number one issue troubling business leaders today is the increasing difficulty of recruiting, motivating, and retaining the best talent. There is a talent shortage at every level, in every industry.”

Turnover is very costly in terms of the time and effort needed to replace and train new staff, the disruption in workflow and relationships, and the effect on morale, he notes.


Hire strategically

The biggest mistake in hiring, Tulgan says, is “selling candidates all the way in the door”—making promises managers may not be able to keep. When managers go overboard in trying to attract new staff, they may find themselves with unhappy people who turn into poor performers or soon leave the organization.

“The first rule of selection is: It is better to leave a position unfilled than to fill it with the wrong person,” Tulgan says. “When job candidates display failings in the job selection process that would make them bad employees, these are red flags. Pay attention to red flags!”

To hire the right people, Tulgan advises the following steps:

Scare them away. Tell them about the downsides of the job, such as a 4 am start time, or the need for a lot of tedious data entry.

Test them. Candidates who aren’t “scared away” should be tested for aptitude and seriousness about the job, Tulgan says. If the organization uses personality tests and general aptitude tests, he recommends making sure someone—perhaps even an outside expert—knows how to interpret the results.

“Asking several applicants to complete the same job-related test will give you a good idea of where they stand in relation to each other. That goes a long way in narrowing it down to the real top candidates,” he says.

Conduct a behavioral job interview. Ask applicants to tell a story, and listen to their story to see what it says about them, Tulgan advises. “For example, if you need someone who can independently mediate conflict, you might ask, ‘Tell me a story about a time you solved a problem with someone at work,’ or ‘Tell me a story about a conflict you had with another employee at work. How did you solve it?’”

Create a realistic job preview. This may include a probationary hiring period to allow both the employer and employee to try things out, or an internship or job shadow that gives a prospective employee an accurate picture of what the job entails.

Close the deal fast, and stay in touch. Hiring selectively and quickly are equally important. “If you move too slowly, you will lose a lot of great hiring prospects,” Tulgan says. And once an offer is accepted, keep up communication between the hiring date and the start date.

Tulgan recommends sharing any information that will help new employees get up to speed and asking staff to introduce themselves and their job roles via email. “These communication options help your new employees feel that they are actively transitioning to the work, being accepted, and being integrated into the team,” he says.


Sustain the gain

When it comes to managing new hires, Tulgan says, Day 1 is the most important day, and Month 1 is the most important month.

He recommends modeling orientation after the boot camp approach used by the US Marine Corps, meaning that managers should strive to replicate the intensity, the connection to mission, the feeling of shared experience and belonging to a group, the steady learning, and the constant challenge inherent in the job.

Managers must take new employees seriously on Day 1 and every day after that, and they must ensure that their team will help sustain that intensity. “The longer you sustain intensity and support from Day 1, the more value you will get out of your new employees,” he says.

“One person at a time, one day at a time, you will become the person who knows the most about who is doing what, why, where, when, and how—every step of the way,” Tulgan says. “The more knowledge you acquire, the more power you’ll have. When do you finish learning, and start running the show? Never! Managing is always one part learning and one part teaching. If you ever stop learning, you should not be running the show anymore.”

To learn more or to register for the conference, visit ✥

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