Whether you are a New Leader hired in from the outside or elevated to a role, there’s a good chance you will work with someone who is unhappy with your presence. We call these people rivals, and they are important to your success. Regardless of their feelings toward you, remember – they hold key historical, functional and technical knowledge.
When New Leaders are ramping up it’s tempting to ignore rivals and avoid that potential conflict all together. However, failing to recognize rivals (and bring them back into the fold) can result in missteps, missed opportunities and fragmented teams.
The 5 Faces of Rivalry (and What You Can Do)
Though your rivals carry a negative view of you, most understand that overt hostility is too risky. Because they often go underground, identifying rivals can be tricky. Knowing the patterns of rivalry can help you surface and head off potential issues. We find that most rivals fit into one of 5 categories.
1. The Interim Leader served as a fill-in for your role before you were selected. Even if someone explicitly told them they were not a contender for the position, they may still have seen their temporary appointment as an “audition.”
Key actions to take with an Interim Leader:
- Demonstrate respect and appreciation for what they have accomplished.
- Learn from them by asking questions and truly listening.
- Talk with them about their career and aspirations.
- Support their readiness for future promotions.
2. The Upstart is often a younger, ambitious leader who has been dubbed a high-potential by the organization. They have natural leadership ability, but still lack experience and maturity for high-level roles.
To corral the Upstart:
- Ask your HR Partner what skills/behaviors caused them to identify this leader as a high-potential.
- Meet with the Upstart to learn about their past contributions and future goals.
- Direct their energy to closing any skill gaps, showing you support their career objectives.
- Involve them in special projects to absorb some of their excess capacity.
3. The Technical Expert has deep experience (maybe even more than you) in knowledge and technologies valued by the organization. This rival usually surfaces in high-tech areas, such as IT or R&D.
To deal successfully with the Technical Expert:
- Recognize that this rival sees technical proficiency as the most important aspect of your role.
- Do an honest self-evaluation of your technical aptitude, and demonstrate willingness to learn.
- Find ways to acknowledge their capabilities.
- Create an understanding that your role as a leader requires more than technical ability, and support their development of leadership skills.
4. The Feedback-Deprived has spent most of their career cut off from needed feedback. Well-intended colleagues might hold back corrective comments to preserve relationships, which then creates a self-awareness void.
To help the Feedback-Deprived team member(s):
- Ask HR about the effectiveness of each team member.
- Ask team members to share their best accomplishments, strengths, weaknesses and goals.
- Where significant gaps exist, identify a strategy for addressing them.
- Deliver your observations with respect (as it can be embarrassing to hear long-withheld feedback).
5. The Culture Keeper understands the organization’s history and holds the secrets of why the operation engages in certain practices. Many organizations hire New Leaders to serve as “change agents.” And Culture Keepers are likely to oppose change efforts.
To successfully interact with a Culture Keeper:
- Don’t dismiss their comments, but recognize that they are communicating organizational norms.
- Remember that people often object to change because they are concerned about their ability to deliver results using new processes or methods.
- Avoid saying: “When I worked at ______ company, we did ______.”
- Enlist the Culture Keeper as a key advisor in your change initiatives.
Common denominators in the strategies suggested above include the importance of listening, learning and communicating effectively when starting a new role. Doing so will help you bring your rivals into the fold, and it will have broader, enduring benefits as well.
If you sense that you are being challenged by a workplace rival, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.