Can a manager be expected to make the step to leader unaided?
Many managers reach leadership positions and are not equipped to cope with the challenge. This articles gives hints and tips to help with the change
Over the years, I have been privileged enough to manage many people coming from different cultures and different countries, some virtually, some face to face. Many of those were great team leaders, experts in their field, with a technical knowledge that was second to none. As I used to say, they could easily write the code to fly a rocket over the weekend. However, in quite a high percentage, at some point, those super talented individuals seem to hit a wall at best, start failing at worse.
This was happening with a remarkably consistent pattern, typically when instead of having one team to manage, they were promoted to managing multiple teams either in the same location or, at times, in a combination of different locations.
It prompted me to wonder why this was happening and these are some of my findings:
1. The expected way to talk changes overnight:
All of a sudden, after your promotion or your new job, a problem happens and you deal with it the way you are used to, give the amazing technically deep explanation you have always given, and it doesn’t work. Your boss, your stakeholders no longer care the root cause is a specific field in a certain application that caused the problem. They want to know “What does it mean for me? What is the impact on the company or the client? Can I still be in business?”. The same vocabulary that made you successful instantly no longer serves you. Even worse, it is now holding you back…It makes your boss give you that weird and panicked look that he/she doesn’t understand you and you don’t understand him/her.
2. There are no longer enough hours in a day to do it all yourself
You were the organised one, always on top of your email, your calendar was neatly organised. Now, your inbox is never under 250 unread email, you are doubled booked constantly and your phone doesn’t stop ringing. Colleagues who interacted very little with now want you in their meetings and you cannot say no to them. The appraisal period which used to take you a few hours or days now takes weeks of your life, causes chaos in your calendar. Your desk, in the middle of your team, now gets moved to an office and you are never alone, with time to breathe, as there is a constant flow of people coming to see you, “just to pick your brains”
3. All of a sudden, you are the one who makes the final decision
You used to be one of the parts of the puzzle and now, you are the one who has to fit all the pieces together. Your new team leaders need your help, your new peers want some of your time, your boss
who used to provide you with so much guidance all of a sudden says “Your call, you decide”. Even teams you are not used to interact with come to ask for your opinion and it makes you feel pressure and lonely.
4. You become the one who sets the strategy for your teams
For years, you have been part of the bigger picture and on top of all the new technologies, even before they are available on the market. Come the beginning of the next appraisal year, you are no longer asked “what is the latest in cloud technology?”, you are asked “what is your vision?”. Your whole teams look up to you for guidance and direction. You now have to be believable and create followers, you have to inspire instead of telling and no one ever taught you how to do that.
What can you do?
Don’t despair … it is not all doom and gloom. Here are some of my personal tips or thoughts…
1. School doesn’t teach you how to lead: observe and model someone who you think is successful. There are many leaders, in many fields. Find on that inspires you and understand what, in your opinion makes him/her successful? What is their style? How did they reach where they are? Why do people find great about them?
Find what ingredients they use to be great, mix those what who you are to great your own unique recipe. It is not about copying, it is about modelling whilst still being you.
2. Ask for help: I have never in my whole life met anyone when asked “Can you help me with this” said no. Too many of us believe that asking for help is a weakening experience, and that you will be seen incapable. Experience proves that, actually the exact opposite happens. People remember you are human, like all of us. Delegating becomes easier and your position becomes of a leader who isn’t a leader because of the title but who inspires team
3. There is nothing that says you have to do it all on your own:
a. Ask your peer, your previous boss, a friend whom you trust. At times, a different perspective on an issue or a challenge will be all you needed to have that spark that helped you find the solution
b. Find a coach: No successful person was born a success. A Coach will help you find your extra 1% when you thought you had already given 100%. A coach will notice your blind spot and help you with it. He/She will hold you accountable and work on your psychology.
c. Get a mentor: Ask someone who has been in your position, in your company or a similar company how they did it, what pitfalls they had to overcome and how they triumphed.
4. Take time to think, time just for yourself
a. As the demand on you becomes much bigger than before, find some “me time”. It is all about priorities and remembering that, even your brain needs a rest. The “how” you provide the rest is up to you. I would challenge anyone not to be able to find time to practice mindfulness, mediation, physical fitness…. Many new leaders struggle with saying no and realising that they do not have to do it all themselves. Being ruthless with your calendar and deciding which meetings are must and which are “nice to have” will allow you to feel more in control.
In summary, I do not know any leader which has achieved greatness and didn’t deserve it. It was always the same formula of success: hard work, determination, learning and tons of grit. What took me a long time to realise is that, whilst the saying goes “it is lonely at the top”, it doesn’t have to be. It is the journey to leadership that will make your great. It is the learning and the experience you will gain along the way that will help you forge your style.
In my humble opinion and feedback from many of my clients, leadership is not a topic learnt at school and to face such a drastic change “instantly” without help can be unrealistic. Companies are changing faster today than they have in the past, new generations of workers are becoming managers, new technologies are appearing faster than one can learn. Expecting managers to become leaders just by giving them a promotion letter is setting them for failure. Some will succeed unaided, but at times, at what personal cost. The unlucky ones who don’t succeed on their own will be branded “not fit to manage”. What if we were to start helping managers for what isn’t tough as part of normal school curriculum and what if leaders and companies starting to give back to help the next generation of leaders…Imagine what could happen?