5 Things That Change When You Become a Leader - HBR
When you are promoted from an individual contributor role into a leadership position, your job is going to undergo some fundamental changes, both in a practical day-to-day sense and in terms of the emotional and psychological impact.
To make a successful transition, you will need to adapt accordingly. This will require a shift in your focus and mindset, as well as a commitment to adopting leadership disciplines that will underpin your success.
What exactly is going to change? Let’s start by looking at 5 key areas:
1) Your friends are no longer your friends. If you’re promoted to lead the team that you were once a part of, a relationship reset may be necessary. Effective leadership demands that you be even-handed in your treatment of every team member. Playing favorites (on any basis other than performance) will erode your team’s motivation and commitment. The rule of thumb is to be friendly, not friends with your people. This may require you to put some professional distance between you and certain team members.
2) You have a duty of care. You used to be responsible only for your own behavior and performance. Now, that responsibility extends to every individual on your team. That means you have to ensure that your people have clear objectives; that their physical and mental well-being are safeguarded; that they’re given clear feedback and strong direction. It also requires a balancing act — the trade-off between the interests of the individual and those of the organization.
3) You’re entrusted to manage resources. As a leader, you’re a steward of your organization’s resources — people, money, and assets. Managerial diligence demands that every decision you make optimizes the resources entrusted to you. This stewardship must take precedence over your own popularity, fear, and self-interest: If you do the right thing by your organization, it will ultimately do the right thing by you.
4) You need to contribute more broadly. Joining a leadership team gives you a voice, which presents both an opportunity and an obligation. You’re not only accountable for the outcomes of your own team, but also for contributing to the collective value that’s delivered by the leadership team you’ve become a part of. Great leaders seek to optimize the overall value delivered by the broader group, even at the expense of their own work.
5) You must align yourself with the intent of senior management. As an individual contributor, you may have the luxury of being able to criticize the decisions made above you. As a leader, you don’t. You have to support the goals and objectives of the CEO and executive team. This doesn’t mean you can never ask “how” or “why,” but ultimately, you are being paid to execute and deliver on management intent — whether you agree with it or not. If you continue to grow and move up to higher levels, you will have greater opportunity to influence what that intent is. The 7 Imperative of Great Leadership You now have a better understanding of how your role will transform. What skills do you need to successfully adapt to those changes? The underlying capabilities, disciplines, and habits of great leadership can be learned and applied at any level. Embedding these into your toolkit at the earliest stage possible will help you navigate your first leadership transition, as well as any future transitions you’re likely to face.
1) Deliver value. Your primary objective as a leader is to create value for your organization. Period. This can seem somewhat mercenary, as our minds immediately jump to financial value. But value comes in many forms, for example: reducing the environmental impact of your operations; making the workplace safer for your employees; garnering deeper market insights into your customers and competitors. These are just a few of the endless opportunities you may have to create value. Your job is to identify and communicate what value means in your context: your industry, your organization, and this point in time.
2) Handle conflict. Almost everything you do as a leader has the potential for conflict, and unless you can handle conflict comfortably, you’ll struggle to lead. You won’t be able to negotiate effectively; you’ll procrastinate on decisions that may be unpopular; you’ll find it virtually impossible to bring out the best in your people. Adopting and embedding the mantra of respect before popularity is a crucial building block for leadership performance.
3) Build resilience. We all face disappointments, setbacks and obstacles. Successful people simply handle the tough times better than most. They know that nothing is permanent, and they’re able to weather the storms that bring adversity. They also know how to capitalize on the good luck that we all encounter from time to time. Facing and overcoming adversity builds resilience, so don’t shy away from it — embrace it!
4) Work at the right level. You’re being paid to lead a team of people working at various levels. You’re at the top of that pyramid now, meaning your job is to teach — not to do. If you’re busy doing your team's work for them, then you’re probably not doing your own. The higher you rise in an organization, the further and further removed you become from the heads-down work. As a new leader, it’s critical that you adopt a mindset different than that of an individual contributor. Your job is to ensure that the individual contributors on your team produce the best outcomes possible.
5) Master ambiguity. The range and complexity of factors that you need to consider increases significantly at every level. When you’re responsible for outlining the path to success, as opposed to just following it, you’re going to face greater ambiguity. Your job is to sit comfortably in ambiguity, and translate it into certainty for your people. As a frontline leader, your people should have unambiguous clarity on what they need to do to be successful. They will look to you for assurance, stability, and purpose — and if you want them to perform at their best, you need to give it to them. Doing so will require you to have a clear understanding of the organization’s long-term goals, how your team’s individual work contributes to those goals, and the ability to distill and communicate that to your people.
6) Make great decisions. The most successful companies have something in common: They make smarter decisions faster than their competitors. The earlier you can master smart decision-making, the better. It starts with knowing what makes a great decision, and then learning how to undertake the process with a sense of urgency. So much value is destroyed by leaders who procrastinate on decisions, wanting everyone to approve of their choices. Act decisively, however, and you’ll create a culture of agility and excellence in your team — and that brings momentum.
7) Drive accountability. When accountability is shared or unclear, gaps and overlaps inevitably emerge. That’s why strong, single-point accountability is the key to successful execution. It creates a completely different culture than the all-care-no-responsibility approach that comes when a leader diffuses accountabilities across multiple team members. One of the best tips for a new leader is this: Be accountable for everything your team does, and hold each individual to account for what they need to deliver. Recognizing and understanding how your context changes when you become a leader will allow you to grow, and really thrive, in your new role. Start by developing the capabilities and disciplines that will enable you to navigate this transition thoughtfully, and you’ll be well placed to guide your new team to success.
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