How to Move from “Star Player” to “Team Leader”
People who excel as individual contributors may not excel as leaders. Here’s how star players can change their mindset and become team leaders.
What is the biggest obstacle faced by leaders today? In many cases, it is themselves. Leaders gain early promotions because they are exceptional solo performers. The problem for team leaders is that being “the smartest person in the room” will become a liability at some point. As famously pointed out by Marshall Goldsmith “What got you here won’t get you there.” If star performers don’t make changes to how they work, they will get in the team’s way and become obstacles to the team’s success instead of champions for the team’s success. Here is a key idea: “Leadership is not about how YOU get stuff done. It’s about how you empower others so THEY can get stuff done.”
Here are the first step to change the mindset of a “star performer.”
1. Leaders must learn to distinguish between technical, relational, and conceptual leadership skills.
2. Leaders must then spend more time focused on relational and conceptual work.
As expressed by Robert Katz in his “Three Skill Leadership Model,” leaders must distinguish between the skills of working with stuff, working with people, and working with ideas. Let’s explore that further.
1. Technical Skills. These skills are anything that helps you move product out the door. It’s about working with “stuff.” Depending on your work, this could be expressed as writing prescriptions, completing spreadsheets, giving presentations, etc. Leaders get their first promotions because they are comfortable with these tasks and they are good at them. The problem is that the further a leader progresses in the organization, the less their job is about managing “stuff” and the more their work focuses on managing people. That brings us to our next skill set.
2. Relational Skills. Katz called these the “human skills,” and they focus on working with people. To borrow an observation from a TED talk by Barry Posner: “You can make a difference, but you can’t make it alone.” To be effective as a leader, you’ve got to build trust in your team and improve your communication skills. One of the first relational challenges is learning to listen – to REALLY listen and not simply compose a response in your head before someone has finished speaking. Besides that skill, leaders must develop skills for making conflict productive, understand how their work impacts other people and departments, and develop processes for finding out what their team really needs in order to be successful (and not just what the leader thinks they need – which goes back to listening well).
3. Conceptual Skills. Leaders know how to think strategically and make plans for the future. They also know how to help people find meaning in their work (which is an application of both relational and conceptual skills). Simon Sinek famously expressed this in his TED talk “Start with Why.” In that talk he explained that people aren’t motivated by how you do something or what you do as much as they are motivated by why you do something. When we connect with our why, we connect with a powerful force that motivates us and helps us connect with other people.
So here are next steps for those who want to move from “star performer” to “team leader.”
1. Look at how much time you spend doing technical work. Start putting more emphasis on relational and conceptual work. Learn to see the value in developing these skills. If the majority of your time is spent on technical work, you will be stuck as a leader.
2. Create ways to measure the effectiveness of your relational and conceptual work. Measuring technical output is easy. The relational and technical skills are often “soft” skills that are hard to measure. The problem: you won’t know if you are making progress on these skills unless you have some way to measure them.
3. Push past the initial slump that inevitably comes with learning new skills.
4. Find a mentor or coach who can help your continued development.
While challenging at first, taking the time to develop yourself as a team leader with improved relational and conceptual skills will pay dividends for the rest of your career.