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Leadership isn't much fun if no one is following you. Yet that's where we almost all start.

A reader asks: 

How can I manage professional interactions with those who may not have respect for me or take me seriously?

If you're new to a school, in a new role in your school, or simply different from previous leaders in some way—age, gender, culture, etc.—it can feel like an uphill battle to establish your credibility and legitimacy.

I became a principal at the age of 26…about as close to starting from scratch as you can get. I had teaching experience, of course, but not at the elementary level.

Here are three essentials for quickly gaining respect as a leader. They helped me, and I believe they can help you.

Have A Plan

By default, people judge you against their own expectations for the role you're in.

If they've come to see the role as unhelpful to their work—perhaps because of your predecessor—they'll naturally assume you won't be much help either…

…until you prove that you're different.

As a leader, it's not your job to make everyone happy or fulfill their expectations.

It's your job to define your agenda, define your contributions, and determine the criteria against which you'll be judged.

People will still have their own expectations of you, but if you make it clear that you have a detailed set of actions that you're carrying out, they'll have far more respect for you than if you just show up and ask what your predecessor did.

In short, you need a plan.

I suggest developing a 90- or 100-day plan for the start of your tenure as a leader. Base this plan on: 

  • Interviews with individual staff members (more on this below)
  • Existing goals from your organization's strategic plan
  • Any particular mandates you've received in the hiring process (e.g. resolving major discipline or safety issues)
  • Consultation with your supervisor
  • Your notes on the school's needs as you begin your work

If you've already been on the job for a while, look for the next natural opportunity to develop a plan of action, such as the start of a new initiative or a new school year.

Suggested resource: Entry Plan: Your First 100 Days (available to Pro Members on-demand)

Listen

The problem with a lot of new leaders' plans is that they're based on assumptions, with little input from existing staff.

As a newly hired principal, my first action was to set up 1-on-1 interviews with every staff member, in which my goal was simply to get to know everyone and hear them out.

I asked questions like: 

  • How would you describe yourself as an educator, and what do you want me to know about you?
  • What about this school are you most proud of?
  • What's an emerging challenge or issue that you believe we need to address?
  • What are your hopes for what we're able to accomplish together?
  • Is there anything else you think I need to know?

If you've been in your role for a while, you might want to conduct similar interviews, but with a more topical focus.

For example, if you're a central office administrator in charge of a particular subject area's curriculum, you might set up interviews with teachers and principals and ask questions such as “What do you see as our gaps in this subject area? What are we doing well, and how can we support you more effectively?”

Follow Through

Finally, if you want to gain respect, nothing speaks louder than action.

If you say you'll do something, write it down. (I used a pocket Moleskine notebook.) Let people see you writing it down.

Then, do it. On time. As promised.

Follow through.

Everyone expects administrators to be busy, and most people only half-expect them to follow through.

Be different. Follow through, and you'll quickly gain the respect of your staff.

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