Your leadership journey is unique to you, but there are three distinct stages almost every leader will go through on their way to the top. The best ones make moving through the levels look easy. But it isn’t.
How do we promote our leaders? How do we decide that a person is ready to take on a role with a brand new remit and unfamiliar responsibilities? We do it trusting that a person will succeed, based on often nothing more than a hunch. “But wait!” I hear you cry. “People are promoted based on their success in their current role. It’s how it works everywhere.” This is true. People are promoted to the next level based on their previous performance. But does this make sense?
Leaving the first stage of leadership: onward we go
Let’s look at the first stage of leadership, which is about doing. These are the technical specialists, the people at the coal face. The marketers, the writers of code, the designers of systems and the writers of speeches. If they show initiative, get things done, mobilise projects and make stuff happen, they get promoted to a position of authority where they have some power over other people. Their passion and ability to influence is evidence, to their employers, that they can become a leader.
The problem is that we have absolutely no evidence. We recognise people and give them accountability and leadership responsibilities based on what they do now, not what they’ll do in the future. The attributes needed for getting stuff done through others are very different to the attributes needed to get stuff done by yourself. At the new level, you need to develop, enhance and build other people’s capabilities and strengths. It’s a hands-off process.
One of the biggest switches at this level is letting go of the things you’re good at doing. It’s a challenge for every person who is promoted to a management position. All too often, they still behave as the individual expert, micro-managing and focusing on the method rather than the outcome. They believe there’s a right and wrong way of doing things irrespective of the outcome, which disempowers others. Individuals have different ways of doing things and to succeed they need your encouragement, not your control.
Moving from stage one to two is the biggest transition. Letting go of the things that got you to stage two in the first place is hard. You can’t just do more of what you’ve been doing. We say “Congratulations! You’re a brilliant specialist. Now forget all about that and learn a new set of skills.” Doing that feels like sitting on your hands.
It’s a complete gamble promoting someone from the first stage to the second stage. I don’t have any official stats to back this up, but in my experience it’s a 50/50 chance that it comes off. We’ve all worked with managers who continue to behave as specialists. It’s debilitating. But then, there are people who make that transition and become even better leaders than they were specialists.
The difference between these people is consciousness. The people who become great managers have invariably made the transition knowing full well that they need a new toolkit. A lot of people simply assume that because they were good at their old job, they’ll be good at the new one. They’ve been handed a golden platter: a bigger salary, a bigger office and a bigger status. How many people will greet that prospect by saying, “But Boss, I don’t know how to do this”?
The higher you climb as a leader, the more difficult it is to put your hand up and say “I need some help.” But that’s the key to your success. Develop a plan, along with your bosses, on how to be effective at your new level. Being prepared and aware is crucial.
From 2 to 3: creating the environment for excellence
The third level is about multi-functional leadership. At this level, you’ll be leading teams who specialise in things you know nothing about. In a way, this is a massive benefit. How can you micromanage something you don’t understand? Your background might be in marketing. If so, it will be pretty hard to get into the nitty gritty of what the IT department is doing.
At level two – as a team leader – you might have had direct contact with 10, 50 or 100 people. You’ll have known them all by name and you’ll have spent time with them all, probably individually. It’s a high-touch relationship. At the next level up, you could be leading a big corporate or a region of a big corporate – of 1,000 or more people – and you can’t know everyone by name. It’s difficult to specify the leaders here by title, but you’ll be leading a lot of people across multiple functions who don’t directly report to you. They may do so indirectly through the hierarchy, but when you get to this level you have diverse functionality among different specialisms.
You can’t know these people the way you knew your people when you were head of one department. Your job now is about creating an environment where people can excel at delivering the strategy and priorities of your organisation.
The will to build
As you move up the levels, you don’t just drop the skills from the other levels. For instance, if you’re a CEO you do still have a high-touch relationship with people. It’s just with fewer people who are directly below you. So you always mould and build on your previous skills from the level before.
At the second level, you’ll always have an expert view from your discipline that you need to bring to the table, or your point of view from your own perspective. You’ll always need to state your expert opinion, but you’ll need to do it in a way that empowers and supports your team in the way you see fit. At the third level, you have a new dimension: here you need to create the right environment for the levels below you, where those leaders can use their own initiative and expertise to excel in executing your strategy. You set the levers: the compensation, the performance management mechanisms. You role-model the values and the culture. Remember that you do this in an indirect, intangible way. It’s not about going down to Johnny or Jane’s desk and telling them what to do.
People get hung out to dry because they fail at these transitions: their stress becomes their team’s stress. Whole organisations have gone under for this. If you, and the people you lead, can make these transitions consciously, you’ll be a step ahead of the rest.
Be conscious of the new skills you’ll need. Be aware that the old skills are still needed on top of the new ones. And know that you’ll need help. None of the world’s best leaders today got there alone.