Moving into leadership country

Being a professional and being a leader are not the same. They represent "countries" with two different sets of norms. Phil Hodgson and ...

Being a professional and being a leader are not the same. They represent "countries" with two different sets of norms. Phil Hodgson and George Binney offer a passport so you can live happily in either realm.
Moving into leadership countryThe director of support services was letting off steam about the chief executive of the research institute. “Martin,” he said, “is a fine scientist with clear vision and a grip on all aspects of our work. But he just doesn’t get it when it comes to leadership. He delays decisions and looks for more data when the organisation just needs a decision, right or wrong. He drafts and redrafts the annual report, trying to make it perfect. He discusses issues in detail with our non-executive directors when they just want to hear that everything is in hand. On many issues, he still thinks and acts like a research scientist, not the leader of this organisation.”

The challenge is a familiar one. Many professionals – doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants, academics, consultants – find themselves being asked to lead and manage. You struggle over many years to qualify and become respected. Then, just when you have built a reputation for knowing what you are doing, you find you are being asked to spend increasing amounts of time leading and managing people. The nature of your work changes, and your considerable professional expertise has little to contribute.

It is as if you are spending more and more time in a foreign country where the language, values and behaviours are different. Probably you still devote part of your time to maintaining your professional skills, but now you have to learn how to be effective in a different field. You have to learn new norms while also continuing to be effective in your own country. From moment to moment, you have to move from one country to the other. The challenge is to make yourself understood and effective in both worlds.

This isn’t easy. Behaviours in the two countries may conflict. The attitudes, assumptions and approaches that helped you to succeed as an expert may be the opposite of what is needed for you to learn to be an equally effective leader and manager. We can chart the differences, as demonstrated in figure 1.

What Can Be Done?

We suggest that there is nothing magical about the process by which competent experts learn to be equally competent leaders and managers. However, our research suggests that there are a number of traps for the unwary on the leadership journey. We have identified a series of transition points that most experts have to face as they acquire leadership skills. In our experience, these transition points can be traps or opportunities, so we call them “checkpoints”. These are places where developing leaders can stop and ask if they are handling effectively the demands of being a leader and manager.

Checkpoint One – Do you really want to be a leader?

The most obvious and overwhelming part of the role of leader and manager is “all that people stuff”. We’ve listed just a few aspects of what that means:

  • Building good enough relationships with people who have very different interests and perspectives
  • Taking responsibility for the work of others; delegating effectively
  • Setting clear enough expectations: ensuring others can work together well
  • Encouraging others and holding them to account
  • Addressing conflicts and tensions in your team
  • Dealing with personal issues This is often the point at which professionals are tempted to say “thanks but no thanks”.

As one health expert put it to us, “We spend the first half of our careers seeking to become leaders and managers and the second half of our careers regretting it.” For some it can seem too physically and emotionally exhausting with all those “cats to herd”. For others, there is a deeper reason that links their expertise to their real purpose and focus of effort: their identity is wrapped up in their expertise. We once met a physicist who had been part of a Nobel Prize-winning team. He now held a senior position in a world-famous research lab. He told us how he used to love physics, but now he estimated he only spent 10 per cent of his time actually doing physics; the rest was “just admin”. He was the saddest man in the group, having lost something vital about himself. Nonetheless, others conclude that they must take a leadership role if they are to achieve what they want in their professions. They ask themselves: “If I don’t take on the leadership role, who will?” For many senior professionals some leading and managing is unavoidable.

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