There’s always a first time for being left in charge. In your career, those moments can be pivotal in terms of your confidence as well as reputation going forward. Even those chomping at the bit can feel afraid of messing it up.

That’s why it’s important to have a strategy and a system for handling those “firsts”.

While it’s unrealistic to expect a perfect performance on your first time at anything, it’s nonetheless worth it to have a plan – and that makes it easier to improvise when you need to.

And if you’re putting a junior in charge for the first time, help them succeed by going through the strategy with them.

I recently overheard a great version of “how to stay in control when you’re in charge” on a train platform near London, which was based on five useful questions to help you feel prepared (more on that in a moment).

First, here’s what happened:

A platform guard and a new colleague, both in yellow high viz jackets, were talking through a common problem scenario: people smoking on the platform, which is not allowed.  The experienced guard said the following:

“You have to do SOMETHING, but don’t start with going over there and yelling at them. If you start out aggressive, then they’ll get aggressive and things can get out of hand. You do want to be able to come to work the next morning! (this elicited a chuckle from the new guard)

If someone is smoking in the platform then your best bet is to:

  • Go to the booth and make an announcement – something like ‘This is a reminder to the people on Platform 3 that no smoking is allowed on the platforms or in the station’.
  • Then, walk over to the people and if they’re still smoking, say ‘You can’t do that here, you just heard the announcement. If you want to smoke you can do that outside the station’.
  • Then, if they’re still not complying, walk over to Security and send Security over.

Basically, you want the people to either stop smoking or leave the station. That’s the goal.”

I thought this was great because the experienced guard gave concrete steps to take as well as the overall goal and what to avoid. And even better, he added a bit of humor too.

In essence, he covered the five questions you want to know the answers to before you step into that new situation where… even if you work in an office and are not physically at risk.

  1. What are my goals? This allows you to block out the extraneous and give you a foundation from which to improvise.
  1. What is my baseline strategy for achieving those goals? These are your guiding principles and basic approach to the task.
  1. What could go wrong, and how would I handle that? These are the “what if” scenarios that are useful to talk through with someone who has experience so you can avoid the obvious pitfalls. More importantly, you’ll have the start of a roadmap for getting yourself out of difficulty, which is a mark of a successful leader.
  1. Who are my allies? These are the “go to” people when you get into a sticky situation.
  1. What would be in the “nuclear zone”? These are things that you could do, but that would break a lot of glass, so you wouldn’t want to start with them. Like escalating to top management without seeking to resolve it at your level first.

So when you are heading into new territory as the one in charge, or about to put a team member in charge for the first time, tick through those five questions. You’ll not only feel more in control, you’ll have the best chance of staying in control.