Last week, we looked at the first of three essential tools that are at your disposal as a first time manager. We looked at how action and non action ends up defining you as either powerful (in the positive constructive sense) or powerless.

Now it’s time to look at the next key instrument – your behaviour.

When I work with young managers who are in their first leadership position, I always give them a brief talk about being ‘on stage’.

And goes something like this:

The moment you become a leader of any kind, you are on stage 24/7 – what I mean by that is that everything you say and do is registered, compared and interpreted by your followers.

The way you get out of your car on the car park in the morning, how you walk across the parking lot, what you say as you come in through the door, who you talk to first and who you don’t talk to … on and on it goes throughout the day.

It’s as if you have a GoPro camera mounted on a rod on your back and it is registering your every move.

Each person on your team makes their own video – each from their perspective and as they are not ‘inside you head’ at any given moment, they don’t have enough information to understand what is going on – so they fill in the blanks as best they can.

They interpret what they observe and from that they make their own assumptions and with that a story.

As you got out of your car, you had a deep frown on you brow (you were thinking about your 5 year old and her bad cough in the night) but your followers may say to themselves: “Oh she is still pissed off about that incident yesterday” – even though the last thing you said as you left the day before was: “ Ok – let’s forget about this and  move on”.

It is not what you say that counts, but your behaviour, and as each of your followers has only part of the story, they compare notes at the water cooler, over lunch or whatever and see if they can make up a complete story between them. A story that helps them predict the future. Because essentially that is what they are trying to do.

Don’t believe me? Well just think of the ways you observe your own boss…

You are the role model.

If you have had the experience of bringing up children, I am sure you will recall a time when you overheard your 3 or 4 year old suddenly trot out a sentence to her favourite doll or best friend and you realised that it was a word perfect recording of something you had said to your child in another situation.

If you have, you have probably also had the two following reactions. First, you find it hilariously funny, then you have this chilling realisation that this is what you sound like to your 4 year old… and you are possibly less thrilled.

As a parent, you are the role model as you are the role model when you are the leader. What you do gets registered and copied.

So as a leader, you need to be aware that every little thing you do gets interpreted and that there is never a period where you can claim a time out. At any given moment 24/7, you are communicating and there is no “off” button.

The only way you diminish their need for interpretation and story making is to be very aware of your behaviour and very clear and transparent in your communication. (We will look at the verbal communication part next week) You will need to leave as little as possible to their interpretations and imagination.

So how do you do that?

It’s all about being clear and consistent.

Some leaders try the joke about don’t do as I do, just do as I say. It may be funny but it does not work.

It very simple: What you focus on is what is important in their eyes – what you are not focused on is judged to be of less importance.

And your behaviour, not your words, shows them what is really important.

So what are you paying attention too? Whom do you speak to? What questions are you asking? What do you follow up? What do you ignore?

It is all observed and registered.

I was once coaching a reception manger from a large hotel and she told me that she has trouble getting her team to understand that they must take their lunch break, in peace, and in the canteen – because it was important that they get the break and anyway it is not appropriate to snack at their desks.

But no matter what, she would keep catching them taking their plate into their desk and having it next to their computer. So she wanted me to help her work out what sort of punishment would work to make them stop. Instead, I asked her: “So where do you have your lunch?”  she said :“Well you see, I don’t really have lunch – I just bring some fruits, nuts or a carrot and have them during the day – you see, I am too busy most days…”

No matter what she says, it will always be overruled by her own behaviour. And nothing will change until the day she changes her behaviour.

So what are you paying attention to?

Whom do you speak to?

What questions are you asking?

What do you follow up? What do you ignore?

How do you come in to work in the morning?

Whatever is important to you is important to them – and from their perspective, if you, their busy boss, pay attention to something, it must be because it is important – that is the cue that they take from you.

Oh and never forget as Steven Covey said: You can’t talk your way out of something you behave yourself into – you have to behave yourself out of it.


This is the seventh article in a series on how to lead as a first time manger. If you would like to know more, check out other articles of the first time manager series:

  1. How are you supporting your first time managers?
  2. The big leap… from team member to team leader
  3. First time manager – The challenges
  4. Direction, Alignment & Commitment in 4 easy steps
  5. How your relations affect your results
  6. Powerful or powerless, what do you prefer?
  7. Behaviour
  8. Conversations, not small talk
  9. Take charge of your energy levels!
  10. You won’t get results by pussyfooting around the issues!
  11. What drives a fabulous employee experience?

We will be exploring more of Team Leadership in our upcoming webinars. It is free and you can sign up here. There will also be a Q&A session where I can answer any specific question you might have.

Manager's Toolbox 2