I will never forget my first promotion, moving from sales representative to team leader, supporting a team of three
inside-sales representatives. It was an exciting time, and I couldn’t wait to dive right in.
After the first week in my new role, my excitement was replaced with doubt and my dive-right-in attitude turned into hesitation. Did I make the right decision? Am I ready for these new responsibilities? What was I thinking?
The transition from individual contributor to supervisor is one of the most challenging transitions of your professional career. It can also be very rewarding. It’s perfectly natural to have questions such as: “Where do I start?” “What should I do and not do?” “Do I really have the experience and qualifications to lead others?”
Leadership experts, including John Maxwell, Stephen Covey, and Warren Bennis, provide great wisdom around improving our ability to lead teams and organizations. I’ve even learned some important lessons about leadership from fictional characters, ranging from Severus Snape in “Harry Potter” to James T. Kirk in “Star Trek.”
Let’s start with what not to do. New supervisors make three common mistakes that, if avoided, would make the leadership role transition a much more rewarding experience.
Common mistake 1: The “2-for-1” syndrome
Here is a typical scenario: Mary has been a star performer in the accounting department for five years. She is a team player, and has a strong track record in producing quality work and being committed to the organization’s mission. She’s promoted to accounting manager, responsible for supervising a team of seven people. One month into her new role, she’s feeling overwhelmed, stressed out, and frustrated. The quality of her accounting work is suffering and her team isn’t performing. Why?
The reason is simple. She’s continued to maintain all of the same responsibilities from her previous role, as well as taking on the added responsibilities of leading the team. I call this the “2-for-1” syndrome. Old job, plus new job, bigger paycheck (maybe), added stress, and disillusionment. While in some cases this might work out fine, what usually happens is that after a short time, the new manager feels like a failure and steps down from the leading role — or even worse, leaves the organization.
When moving from one role to a new role, old tasks must be shifted to make room for new responsibilities. Have a clear and specific transition plan. It’s okay to make a few adjustments to the plan along the way, but be sure to focus on what’s most important: leadership of the team.
Common mistake 2: Maintaining an expert style of leadership
It’s common for organizations to promote their smartest and highest achievers to leadership roles. These individuals tend to have what “Leadership Agility” author Bill Joiner calls a strong “expert style” of leadership. What often gets missed in the transition from individual contributor to leader of others is the importance of developing what Joiner calls a “catalyst style” of leadership.
According to Joiner, the expert style leader is more tactical and problem-solving; a catalyst leader is visionary and facilitative-oriented. An expert tends to strongly assert opinions or completely hold back to accommodate others; a catalyst is adept at balancing assertive and accommodative styles. An expert avoids giving or requesting feedback; a catalyst is proactive in seeking and offering feedback. When it comes to leading teams, an expert gets caught up in the details of the work. A catalyst can understand varying views and ideas and will em- power direct reports to make decisions. While both styles are needed, the catalyst is agile in moving easily between the different styles, based upon the situation. Be an agile leader.
Common mistake 3: Placing too much emphasis on being liked
While likability is certainly a factor in developing rapport with others, focusing on being liked by your team can be misinterpreted by others as trying too hard, being disingenuous or fake, and lacking leadership ability. Instead of focusing on likability, focus on areas such as being a good listener, being empathetic, being fair, being open to new or different ideas, and being interested in the aspirations of those you’re leading. Ultimately, that’s what your team really likes.
There are three key areas to focus on as you begin your new leadership role. First, start by building trust with your team. Trust is the foundation of any great performing team and organization. Get to know the individuals on your team and allow them to get to know you. What fuels them to come to work each day? What are their aspirations? Their challenges? How can you best support them? This is an important first step in truly creating a high- performing team.
Next, strengthen your emotional intelligence. The value of emotional intelligence in leaders is frequently overlooked, and yet research shows it’s the differentiator between one who manages people and one who leads teams and organizations. Author Warren Bennis, an organizational consultant, recognized as a pioneer of leadership studies, said, “Emotional intelligence, more than any other factor — more than I.Q. or expertise — accounts for 85 percent to 90 percent of success at work. I.Q. is a threshold competence. You need it, but it doesn’t make you a star. Emotional intelligence can.”
Take the time to improve competencies such as empathy, self-awareness, inspirational leadership, and emotional self-control. Leading with just your I.Q. limits your potential to be a great leader. Get smart with E.Q.
Lastly, get a mentor. Find one you can trust to be supportive and who will provide honest and direct feedback. Unfortunately, you can’t always count on your supervisor to provide the feedback that will allow you to be the best you can be. Your mentor is someone you respect, has a proven leadership track record, and whom you’d be proud to emulate. It could be someone inside or outside the organization, and not necessarily from the same industry or profession. Look for someone who will push you to get outside of your comfort zone to perform at your highest potential.
The transition from individual contributor to supervisor and leader of others can be one of the most challenging transitions of your career. It can also be the most meaningful and rewarding. Make, and take, the time to focus on what’s most important during the move from one role to another: develop a catalyst leadership style; focus on something other than being liked; build trust with your team; get smart with E.Q.; and find a mentor. Leadership author John Maxwell summed it up simply, “To keep leading, keep learning.”
Leadership development is an ongoing journey no matter where you are in your career. Enjoy the ride.
Cindy Masingill is a partner with Emergent (formerly Productivity Leadership Systems), a provider of executive coaching and leadership training, based in Baldwinsville.
Originally appeared in the Central New York Business Journal October 26, 2015