Love the Gap – Transitioning into Leadership
By Ron Ivey
In our recent Leadership Development blog series, we’ve touched on a few relevant topics related to developing leaders in the current complex global environment. We have shared how organizations can develop leaders through strategic experiments and how leaders can play the role of coach in today’s workplace. But what if you yourself are going through a transition into leadership? This can be a big jump for someone accustomed to life as an operational manager or as a subject matter expert. If so, you are probably experiencing a gap between the expectations others have of you and what you currently know how to do. Let’s look at how we can make this transition as smooth as possible and “love the gap” as you leap into your new leadership role.
Understanding interpersonal dynamics – For technical experts, you may have been working by yourself on a known technical problem set in an established field of knowledge. Having all of the answers has been your bread and butter. You may even have high expertise in the most complex elements of your field. Your world is a world of objective facts, figures, and bodies of knowledge. Shifting into leadership, you are forced into a world of dealing with the subjective elements of interpersonal dynamics that requires sophisticated relational and political skills. The technical complexity you have mastered has now been further complicated by the social complexity of working with other people and other organizations to solve a problem. Instead of working through a problem on your own, you will have to work through others and help them ask the right questions to find the answer. You now have to “facilitate” group problem solving by aligning diverse individual perspectives into a shared perspective.
If you are a manager, the planning and organizational skills that have brought you success like establishing operational control, optimizing resource efficiencies, etc. will likely not be the skill sets you need to lead in or across the broader organization. Some of your strengths may actually get you in trouble as you try to lead externally with stakeholders you don’t manage. In these situations, there aren’t always common measures of performance or even shared organizational structures. As you shift from manager to leader, you will need to learn how to set direction, how to motivate others to move towards that direction and then align your stakeholders through persuasion to achieve these outcomes.
Creating a vision – Setting direction for a group or organization can be a scary moment. As a manager, your job has been very past, present, and near-term future oriented. You have been focused on managing change: fixing and improving the current state of your project, team, or unit. Leadership, especially in today’s work environment, often requires setting a new vision beyond what the organization currently sees. We call this type of activity transformation. The vision has to touch, move, and inspire the group to create a new set of tasks and do them in a new way.
How do you develop compelling visions? The reality is that you don’t have to have clairvoyance to set vision’s that inspire others. Most leaders can’t see the future in the crystal ball. They have developed their intuition by listening and acting on it and through nurturing their own creative interests. But beyond this, leaders are able to see around the corner because they are effective at understanding what is meaningful. They can distinguish between the signal and noise. What’s the signal? It is what is most important to the most important people inside and outside the organization. This ability to listen and seek out feedback from these critical stakeholders is the leader’s source of power in setting new direction and vision. The better listener you become as a leader, the more attune you become to what is meaningful to your most important stakeholders and what is happening in the outside world. You can help the organization adapt to the new future that is forming. When you seek to motivate these same people to transform themselves and the organization, you understand what they care about and you can speak into these interests to get their buy-in and commitment.
Challenging yourself – Typically, the hardest challenge to overcome as you transition from expert or manager into a leadership role is what I call “the up and out” problem. You have to pull yourself out of your comfort zone in the work and out of the past role as the expert or the manager. You have to create time to be with customers, your staff, and your peers. And you have to create space to think about the future. For some people, this won’t feel like “work.” But the more you get into solving leadership challenges, you will see that building and nurturing your network is hard work. You may get pushback from others that want you to slip back into your old role, but eventually they will experience the value of your network, your insight and the resources you help bring to the organization. This is the leap of leadership. It takes some faith, but it’s worth it on the other side.
If you are interested in learning more about development as a leader, The Clearing has applied the principles outlined above in our Leading with The PRIMES leadership development program.