There are few moments in your career that are more challenging than the transition from individual contributor to new People Leader.
A Rockstar CEO I worked with always said – ‘leading people is a privilege’.
And he is absolutely right.
This privilege demands skills, focus and purposeful effort to get it working in just the right way. And being direct (as is my signature), when we step into People Leadership roles, most of us are dangerously unprepared.
Sure, we have generally managed tough stuff before (big budgets, risk, programs of work), but managing a group (or even one other person), is a whole new ball game. The unpredictability, the shades of grey, the unparalleled opportunity, the RESPONSIBILITY. It’s big.
As I write this, I feel my cheeks flushing as I relive some of the cringe-worthy first-time leader faux pars I committed, and my poor team had to endure. And that’s the point. While building Leadership capability takes trial and error (is there any other way?), this is generally at the expense of the team you are leading. In short – you are playing with live subjects, so the stakes are high.
So where do you start? How do you respect the stakes, build your strength, and keep everyone whole around you?
Five simple things are the most important.
Getting your head in the absolute right space, especially to lead, is the single most important piece of the puzzle.
There are two elements of mindset which are foundational.
1) Understanding leadership is not about you – it’s about your impact on others.
It’s not about the speeches, or the posturing, or how clever and important you look.
It’s about enabling the people around you to do great work, in a great way.
2) Collective success. Leadership is not a solo sport. You can’t ‘win’ it on your own. When you lead people, you live and die by the collective success of the team. So, for you to win, the whole team collectively, and every member individually needs to win. It just so happens you are the big kahuna charged with making this happen.
Listen, listen, listen
Listen, listen, listen. And just when you are about to open your mouth, pause, close it and listen again.
Very rarely is your team waiting for you to ‘come and save them’. Instead, as a new leader, resist the urge to jump in and instead, invest in listening, learning and understanding.
Listen to the team and those around them – what works well (and doesn’t), what’s most important, what’s their story, what are the ideas, opportunities, challenges?
There is no pressure to have the right answers or a perfect strategy or direction from day one.
There is, however, a need (and a little pressure) to quickly understand your context, the players on your team, and what they need from you – which is insight you only get by truly listening.
Know what’s most important
This is the work bit. Know what your team actually do. The big picture, and enough of the detail to have credibility and understanding when talking and planning the work.
Get across the big things – Who are the customers? What are the key dates/milestones? What is the work that goes into producing the key outcomes? What helps and what hinders? What does it feel like to spend a day doing this work? What are the critical priorities (cutting down the long list to the things that matter most)?
If this is not where you came from (new company or a different job stream), get your hands dirty and understand the work to be done, the pressures, the challenges, the moments of joy.
No one wants to turn up to work not knowing who is going to turn up in the body of their leader each day. Be predictable. Help your team know what to expect. Do what you say you are going to do. Lead visibly.
Practically speaking – the basics are important on this one. Having clear and consistent expectations across the team. Keeping your moods in check. Committing to meeting times (some flex is ok – but changing and moving every meeting is not). Be reliable. Be someone your team can depend on to support them, and someone they want to do great work for, and with.
Reflect, take feedback, reset
Leadership is something that takes honing. Some days you will hit it out of the park, and others, you will wonder why anyone could have possibly picked you to do the job. This is ok. And very normal.
Building any new skill can feel clunky. And hard. What is important is reflecting as you learn.
Continually asking yourself what worked well, what didn’t, and what could I have done better? And if you are brave (and you should be!), asking these questions of your team, and embracing the feedback that comes from this.
Of this list of five, this practice of constant reflection is one that you can pop in your pocket and use forever in your people leadership career.
Another inspiring Leader I worked with (I am lucky to have had quite a few of these in my career), shared how, on his ferry ride home from work every day, he would give himself a score out of 10. I have picked up the same practice (on what is a much less glamorous commute home), and when I have more than a couple of sub ‘7 score’ days, I know it’s time to try something new.
Find your practice. And keep your own score around how you are doing, course correcting on the way (and avoiding any big train crashes!).
Five simple things. One potentially huge positive impact on others. Happy leading.