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First-time Leader – Excited or Reluctant?

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I often have people come up to me and tell me they got a promotion to a leadership position. I congratulate them and tell them they didn’t get a promotion… pause for dramatic effect, and I tell them, congratulations on your career change. 

I explain to them they have gone from being a doer, to a leader of doers. From this point forward everything changes. I don’t do this to scare them, I do this because that’s reality and when we sugarcoat stuff, we lead people to disappointment. 

When someone begins to think about leadership that’s when we step in and offer support, if asked, as a coach leader. The beginning days of a new leader are critical to their effectiveness and longevity.  We should never place a new leader into that role without a plan and tell them good luck, let me know if you have any questions. They need a 30-60-90 day onboarding plan and when one is not in place we set people up for failure. 

What happens next?

When someone tells me they are moving into a leadership position, whether it is a first-time leader or an experienced leader moving up the core leadership ladder, I book an hour on their calendar 60 days out, subject line: What have you learned?

Here’s what I see. I sit next to their desk or in their office and look around. I often see a desk or office in chaos. Papers all over the desk, multiple calendars printed out and taped to the walls, and post-it notes framing their computer screen and covering the wall in front of them. If I catch a glimpse of their computer screen and other monitors I see their calendars with back-to-back meetings and 237 unanswered emails and they tell me they forgot I was coming by.

The look on their face says it all, they had no idea what they got into. I see a person who was not given the skills, expectations, development, and resources to be a leader. That’s not their fault. It’s the lack of professional development which falls directly on the leaders of the organization. 

When I sit next to a desk or in an office and there is order, a sense of personal pride, organization, controlled or managed chaos, and they are excited to share what has been happening in their new role, I know a coach leader has been involved as well as an onboarding plan.

What now?

An organization that understands the power of professional development usually has an onboarding plan of some form. Many plans are generic because each leader’s role comes with different and more complex requirements. So take the plan and customize it to work for you or the needs of your new leader. You might be thinking, well that’s going to take some time to do that. Yes, it will. Where do you want to spend your time, preparing someone for success or spending twice as much time later developing an improvement plan for them? 

If you don’t have a pre-established plan, ask for help from your peer leaders who have gone through this and have a good sense of what to do. In his book, The First 90 Days, Michael D. Watkins provides many strategies for the challenges and expectations of transitioning into different roles and careers. 

No more sugar-coating

We’ve all been challenged to some extent as we step into a leadership role. Having an open conversation with your new leader about what to expect is not cruel and unusual punishment, it’s showing respect and your commitment to supporting them and their professional growth. 

Encourage them to start a journal if they don’t have one. This is a great way to track and record the challenges and the different ways that worked and didn’t work when facing challenges. This direct learning experience will help them to be good coach leaders to someone else in the future.

When talking with new or reluctant leaders there are a few things I like to talk with them about. They are not in any order, they are important and help the new leader to know that they are not in this alone. 

If you are reading this because there is no one to help you or you feel you are going this alone, these seven statements are a good place to start. If you look around you may find someone who can support you if you ask.

Mistakes are normal and are a part of growth. In their book Master Storytelling, Mark Carpenter and Darrell Harmon explain how to turn stories into an effective approach that teaches, leads, and inspires others. Storytelling is a powerful tool that allows you to share your experiences in a way that demonstrates empathy and as a leader, you understand what happens when a failure occurs and how to learn from it. Let them know that mistakes will happen and when they do, own the mistake or failure. Owning mistakes can create transparency, trust, and loyalty from your staff.

You don’t have to have all the answers. Many of us as seasoned leaders have experiences and different ways to look at and do things, but not all the answers. It’s okay not to know something and the way you handle that will say a lot about your ability to lead. I tell new leaders to respond with some form of this, “Great question, I don’t know, or I don’t have an answer for you, let me do some research or checking and I will get back to you.” What you do after that statement is the difference. Be true to your words and follow up. If you say you will look into something and you don’t staff will lose trust and faith in you and will go to someone else for answers. 

Know that leadership doesn’t get easier, just different. Whenever people are involved things can get complicated. When you are leading a team or a project, people will bring their perspectives to the table. One day they can agree with you and next week they will throw up roadblocks and you will wonder what you did wrong. Leaders need to learn how to adapt to different situations and personalities. It’s the challenges that keep the days interesting, we will fail and succeed and when we succeed or make a difference, those are the moments we know why we choose to be a leader. 

Give them the tools to get started and keep leading. Don’t wish your new leader good luck and walk away. It takes a community of individuals to support a leader both new and experienced. Look to your experienced staff to assist, assign a mentor, schedule coaching time on their calendars, and make sure they know where the team resources are located. If they could benefit from some training help them get it. 

Ask what they are learning about themselves and as a leader. Self-reflection is a great way to watch your growth through your eyes. When you can self-identify what you have discovered about yourself, learning or are learning about yourself, your experiences, failures, and successes, and write this in your journal, the experiences become more meaningful. Always ask your people what they are learning, if they need something they will tell you.

Encourage and support your leaders and staff. Encourage your leader to remember why they stepped up to a leadership position. Help them to stay focused on what is important to them as a leader and what they want to accomplish. Write them a note or a thank you card letting them know you appreciate the effort they are putting in. 

Their reluctance to lead is actually a strength. In many cases, I have seen reluctance evolve into someone becoming an authentic leader. Someone who cares about their people, who demonstrates empathy, and who works to bring their staff to their fullest potential. These leaders can do well as a coach leader.

Leadership is not for everyone. I worked with people who decided to step down from a leadership position for several reasons. The good news is most of them stayed with the organization, what an excellent resource to have on a team. Someone who can have your back when you are unavailable or on vacation.  

Are leaders made or born?  Yes, and I believe there is a third option, leadership is a choice. Don’t leave your staff afloat alone in the middle of the ocean. Get in the boat with them, help them grow, assist them with navigation, and give them a direction so they can set their course.

Exercise | Deliberate practice 

If you are going to lead people or are already leading, be a partner, roll up your sleeves, get in the boat, and row with them. Don’t leave them adrift. Some people are very good at being self-directed, everyone needs a place to start from and a target to reach for, self-directed or not. 

When you schedule one-on-ones with your staff don’t ask them, “How’s it going?” “Have any questions for me?” “Do you need help with anything?” Ask them this, “What have you learned since the last time we talked?” Find out what they’re thinking, what they’re learning, and what they’re struggling with. If they are not learning anything, it’s time to find out why. 

Leadership is not a solo skill, it’s a partnership agreement. 

Don’t wait for tomorrow, tomorrow never comes. What you have is today and this is the best time to begin anything.   

Your personal leader library

If you don’t have a leadership or personal library, start one. It is easy to forget about something when it is on your computer and you turn it off. However, there is something about a hard copy book staring at you every day as a reminder of what you are learning or would like to change about yourself.

Here are a few good books to have on your library shelf:

Master Storytelling, Mark Carpenter, and Darrell Harmon explain how to turn stories into an effective approach that teaches, leads, and inspires others. 

The First 90 Days, Michael D. Watkins provides many strategies for the challenges and expectations of transitioning into different roles and careers. Nice book to have if you don’t know where to start or how to assist a new leader.

More To Explore

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The Exercises: