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Leadership first steps

Leadership: How to Lead from Day One Using the CAIR System

You’ve just got an internal promotion, or taken a new job. You want to improve your leadership and management skills, make a big first impression and come across as an accomplished professional.


Here’s my top advice on how to do that. Four simple steps that will make all the difference.

It’s not always about acquiring new skills

If your promotion or new post need a higher level of technical skill, then of course you should go about acquiring those skills.

But not acquiring new skills isn’t what trips people up.

What trips them up is that they don’t adopt a fresh perspective. Most people will follow the tendency to get their heads down and just work harder in the early period of a new role. And that is exactly the wrong tactic.

If you are newly promoted, you need to think carefully before you act. So step back, take a breath and consider this:

You’re a Leader Now: Maximise Your Impact From Day One

Recognize that you are a leader now. It doesn’t matter where you are in an organisation – you can use an approach that can be learned and put into action whether you are a CEO or starting at the bottom. It’s an approach I’ve observed, used and refined over the years, and in this post I’ve broken it down into a simple system called CAIR.

We know that effective leadership goes beyond quick fixes. Leaders don’t rely on magically increasing their charisma, or improving delegation tactics, or communication skills. The key is to understand the thought processes and repeatable systems that you can use to lay the groundwork for successful action.

The acronym for the process discussed here is CAIR.

  1. Contextualize
  2. Assess
  3. Improve
  4. Re-calibrate

Done correctly, CAIR will ensure that you make a success of any new role. CAIR will help you to stop operating in knee-jerk reaction mode and will make space for thinking things through. That alone will signal that you are capable of competent and intelligent leaderership. CAIR can make a real difference in professional and personal life.

Leadership can be scary

Taking the time to (apparently) kick back instead of just getting on with the job is scary. It’s counter-intuitive. I understand that you want to look busy. You need to look busy. But trust me on this, busywork is the curse of many an organisation and is NOT the way to mark yourself out as a competent leader. This advice is not for the faint-hearted or the blinkered – you need vision, some courage and plenty of persistence. It’s astonishing that you might need those qualities just to do what I would regard as the minimum strategy for adding value to any organisation, but this is the reality.

A Quick Video Introduction to CAIR

1. ‘C’ is for Contextualize: Understand the Strategy

Let’s say you’ve just been promoted to the position of Chief Information Officer in a major financial services firm. You are convinced that your priority is to move your most critical IT services into the cloud. This makes sense for the company, for the IT department, and for your own reputation. It’s ambitious, difficult, but it’s the right thing to do.

However, on day one, you are called to a briefing by the board of directors where they explain that they have two priorities of their own:

– The first is to establish the firm’s presence in the Chinese market over the next two years. They want your technology strategy for achieving this asap. Then they want your detailed tactics for ensuring that the IT department underwrites the successful move into China.

– The second priority is to lower the employee churn rates which are especially high in the IT department. The board believes the firm’s reputation as an employer is suffering, and that it’s spending large amounts of money to recruit and train highly technical staff who then defect to the competition.

So how’s the cloud strategy looking? Not completely irrelevant (maybe aspects could be used to accelerate the move into China). But imagine what will happen if you prioritize the cloud strategy over the corporate strategy.

This is not a subtle example, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. The CIO in the example here got it easy, because her board of directors were very clear about the wider context in which IT should work, and went out of their way to spell it out.

In the real world, it can be more difficult to get a clear idea of what the actual strategy is. The ‘lower’ in the hierarchy you are, the more middle management noise will drown out the original signal.

So first, understand the context. This will help to prepare the way for everything that will follow. But there is another more nuanced advantage to this kind of leadership.

When you are delivering a wider strategy, it gives more meaning to your actions. In effect, you are able to re-frame the tasks at hand within the context of the larger mission. Think of the old story about JFK asking a NASA janitor about his job. The janitor replied: “I’m helping put a man on the moon”. That is the power of context.


2. ‘A’ is for Assess: What Are Your Resources?

The next leadership job is to carry out an assessment of capabilities. There is one over-riding principle: assessment is not about YOU.

Assessment isn’t about your next move, or how you look to your bosses, subordinates or peers.

Assessment IS about understanding the capabilities of the resources available to you.

When assessing resources and capabilities, you should answer these questions:

– How do things really stand today? How good is this department / function / process / procedure?

– What is working well?

– What is failing?

– What are the consequences of these current successes and failures, both upstream and downstream from your own position in the organisation?

Answering these questions is the first step to improvement of the current situation. Improving things is your job – or if it isn’t, it should be if dynamic leadership is the objective.

Rest assured that there are straightforward ways to gather the information needed for assessment, though they are too detailed and specialized to go into here. A good start is to work with the most knowledgeable people (with the fewest axes to grind) and simply ask them: What’s working? What’s not working? If you have the tools for it, you should also measure the extent to which things are working or not working. These measurements become your benchmark.

3. ‘I’ is for Improve: This your job!

After you have carried out the assessment, you need to categorise the improvement opportunities. One simple way to do this is to categorise along two axes – risk and positive impact (of the improvement if it were made). There are other important factors such as  ‘effort’ or ‘resources required’ or, more formally, a cost / benefit analysis. These techniques often reveal the low hanging fruit.

Leadership: the risk and impact matrix


If your planned changes require a formal project management approach, then be sure to review the Kotter method of leading change. It stands the test of time and is a great approach to managing formal projects or programmes.

Be sure to socialise the proposed changes. As any Lean practitioner will tell you, it’s better to optimise value streams than activities. That subject is too much detail for this article, but a good starting point is that your changes may effect other activities upstream or downstream of whatever it is you are trying to improve. Take great care with this, and make sure to recheck in the next step of your CAIR process.

4. Re-Calibrate: Are results positive?

“Re-calibrate” means more than just “repeat”. Smart leadership ensures that the changes that have been made are positive. This is where you will need to refer back to the benchmark measurements you made in the improve stage.

You especially need to be on the lookout for unintended consequences of changes that have been made. If you were able to take ‘hard’ measures earlier, did results improve or worsen?


  • You’re a leader – start thinking like one


  • Understand your new environment in detail at the strategic level


  • Gather measures where possible
  • Categorise and prioritise improvement opportunities


  • Socialise the changes and check for unintended consequences
  • Drive the improvement activities based on available information. Don’t wait for ‘perfect’ information


  • Review the new measures
  • Check again for unintended consequences
  • Repeat!


About the Author Dan McCarthy

Dan helps IT leaders to assess and improve their organisations and processes. He writes about improving working life, processes, and efficiency, with some left-field perspectives from his Anthropology background. Has been sighted lurking near pianos and guitars, as if to play them.

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