Chris* worked in Technical Support and had been with his organisation for almost 7 years. He was a skilled and diligent worker, popular with his peers and trusted by his bosses. When a team leader role became vacant Chris was the obvious choice. Fast forward 6 months and things had not gone as well as expected. Chris was struggling. He was missing deadlines, appeared overworked and somehow less confident. What had gone wrong?
Leadership promotion opportunities arise for a range of reasons such as natural attrition or back-filling, where succession planning, if done well, has identified and developed one or more candidates for the roles. However, new leadership roles can also arise as a result of a relatively sudden change, such as a new project or acquisition, which may involve a bigger team, a new leadership structure, and a host of new project management responsibilities.
Often these new roles are filled by an existing staff member. There are huge advantages to promoting from within; it clearly demonstrates that an organisation provides career development opportunities, and new leaders have the organisational knowledge and relationships to hit the ground running.
However, there are a host of challenges to overcome for the new leader, particularly in this first, "technical to leadership" transition. Here are 6 of the most common challenges we’ve seen.
- Renegotiating relationships
Moving from being "one of the gang" to a team leader means people will treat you differently than before. They may be wary of what they say around you or expect that their relationship with you should not change and become annoyed when it does. It takes time and effort for new leaders to reframe and then renegotiate each relationship to that of supervisor and team member. It starts to feel lonely pretty quickly.
- Letting go of technical or specialist expertise
Successful leaders often say the hardest part of the transition to leadership is having to let go of the specialist expertise that made them so successful as an individual contributor. There is not enough time to maintain and build on that expertise and that is not what a leader is paid to do. While leadership roles still need a high level of content knowledge to be able to understand issues and context, the role of a leader starts to shift the balance, requiring the individual to develop new skills in non-technical areas such as people management and strategy. This can put a new leader back at the beginning of the learning curve and make them feel uncertain of their capabilities for a time – at a time when they are ‘supposed’ to feel like the expert. Herminia Ibarra, in "Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, The Competency Trap" writes that we all like to do what we already do well. Stepping successfully into a leadership role requires a conscious effort to break away from what is comfortable - often easier said than done.
- Shifting identity to be that of a leader
Related to letting go is the concept of identity. The primary role of a leader is to lead others so that the team achieves its required outcomes. When leadership is seen as an extra duty, or an overhead on top of their day job, the individual has not made that shift to having the mindset of a leader. Without such a shift they will not be providing the support, coaching and direction their teams need to succeed. Becoming a leader requires reconceptualising who you are now and from where you get your sense of self-worth. The self-talk needs to be: “I am a leader now and leadership itself has inherent value – this is how I add value, which is different to how I used to add value”.
- Keeping out of the detail
When you have done a particular job, and then you manage others who do that job, it can be very hard to allow them to do the work in their own way. This is especially true when your performance is now dependent on the performance of your team – something you have less direct control over. Nobody likes a micro-manager, and those undergoing the "technical to leadership" transition often fall into that trap.
- Learning to deal with ambiguity
On the flip side of keeping out of the detail is dealing with uncertainty, ambiguity and not having all of the facts all of the time. Professionals who work in complex, technical roles are taught to collect the facts, analyse data and make logical decisions. Ambiguity increases with each leadership level, and learning how to be comfortable with this is critical. Leadership is about charting a course through uncertainty with the confidence that each step will move toward an ideal future even if the exact path is unknown.
- Working outside the team
Paula* worked in Finance and was promoted to a leadership role in a team involved with strategic planning, an important function with broad impact across the organisation. We were asked to work with Paula in a coaching capacity to help her increase her effectiveness in the role, as she was not achieving outcomes on time. Paula was highly capable and worked extremely hard, so what was the problem? Pretty quickly we uncovered that Paula was reluctant to "bother" people in other departments when collaboration, information sharing and understanding their priorities was critical to achieving the required outcomes. Getting over her reticence to work with people outside the team removed a major roadblock. Interactions with a diverse array of current and potential stakeholders are not distractions from the real work but are at the heart of most leadership roles.
With all of the challenges faced when transitioning from a technical to a leadership role, what can organisations, more specifically HR and line managers do to support new? Luckily, there are many things an organisation can do to set up new leaders for success.
There is ample evidence that good leadership can be learned. However, the enormity of stepping into leadership should not be underestimated, and new leaders need to be prepared and supported before, during and after their appointment. Just as you cannot expect a layperson to perform the work of an electrician without training, people need to be developed into leadership positions.
To give new leaders the best chance of success, organisations can:
- Help the leader to focus on the leadership aspects and KPIs of their role. When having goal setting conversations, set goals based on their leadership performance. This will help them shift their focus and also help them experience early success as a leader.
- Have a clear leadership framework in place for the organisation, defining what good performance looks like as a leader.
- Provide an experienced internal mentor to help the new leader to establish themselves as a leader. For example, the mentor can help them understand the role is to be linchpin between the team and the rest of the organisation. They can also help to navigate through internal politics.
- Create a psychologically safe environment for the new leader to raise issues. While a mentoring relationship should and usually does provide this safe environment, it is far more important that the leader's manager does this. Their manager must have good coaching skills themselves, and allow the new leader to learn. Learning from one's own mistakes can be extremely valuable if the reaction from the manager in response to a mistake promotes learning, rather than retribution.
- Teach the new leader coaching skills, either through a training course or providing reading materials (e.g. The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. Bungay Stainer, 2016). Coaching is arguably the most important and impactful skill a leader can possess, and investing in this area will always pay off.
- Provide training in the specific areas that the leader might be struggling with, such as time management or having difficult conversations. These needs are best identified if the leader's manager has created a safe environment so that "areas for development" can be openly discussed. Ideally, development discussions are happening regularly and frequently between the leader and their manager.
- Last but not least, invest in a coaching program for the leader. This offers a completely confidential and safe environment for the leader to raise issues, brainstorm solutions, and debrief on what they have tried.
We end with a quote from Colin Powell: “The art of leadership is doing more than the science of management said is possible”
* Names have been changed.