Just what does it take to be a leader? From shopfloor to manager, from manager to senior leadership team – what skills and behaviours do you need to adopt to be successful? Lucy Dennis reflects on just what you need to take those first steps into leadership.
Arguably anyone can be a leader. There are well documented skills related to being in a leadership position and a set of behaviours you need to demonstrate to be a leader. But, for many, taking that next big step up, be it your first leadership role (what I call ‘mate to manager’) or from an operational or technical role to a more strategic leadership role, can feel like taking a big leap into the unknown. It’s potentially a massive jump whichever way you look at it. So just what can and should you be doing to prepare yourself?
Fear of the unknown
The biggest fear you are likely to have is the fear of the unknown. It may well be your technical skills and abilities which have got you to the point of being promoted into the role of leader but you are going to need a very different set of skills in your new role and that, in itself, can be equally frightening. Almost every leader I work with wants to be a good leader and wants to motivate their team. But when you are dropped into that role without any preparation or the organisation asks you to step up and you haven’t done it before, it can feel really scary. A leap into the unknown.
You are now responsible for making sure that your team have everything they need to do their jobs. Their needs are now different to yours because every member of your team will be different, with different experiences, different levels of expertise; they’ll even be in a totally different place in their careers to you. It isn’t a case of one size fits all. Right away it’s about adapting to them and the situation you all find yourself in, in order to make the best decisions and set the best direction for that team.
Different skills for different places
Of course, a lot will also depend on the organisation you are working for. The leadership needs of a small start-up, where you might be asked to make quick decisions with a limited amount of data, are going to be different to larger businesses with their hierarchies and greater levels of accountability. In that case encouraging, supporting and praising others, helping them to grow and become confident about taking their own decisions is vital. In a global business the challenges will be different again. Here it may well be about how well you can influence others, about listening to others, and about selling the vision and direction of the organisation.
Key steps to stepping up to leadership
So what then are my key steps to leadership? Here are three – plus one secret I’d like to share.
The hero leader is a dying breed. The challenges we face in business are complex, and not made easier by new hybrid ways of working. Leadership – being at the top – can be a lonely place. But the idea of a sole leader standing out among all the rest, with the solutions of fixes in their own hands, is long gone. As a leader today you need to think of leadership as a collective strength, working with and alongside others in your team and wider organisation, asking questions, looking at how others are working, and being a leader among other leaders.
- Look outwards, not inwards
As a leader you need to give yourself space to build relationships and find out just what is impacting your team – from outside your own organisation, and in your wider industry – and then share that with your team. It’s about being savvy about what is going on inside your organisation, knowing how things get done, and supporting your team to navigate the red tape to ensure they can respond and react to the wider impacts on your business. So look outside, but equally know how things work inside your own business.
- Don’t ask what your team can do for you…
…but do ask what you can do for your team. When you step up from being a colleague to being a leader you take on a very different role, but don’t ever be afraid to ask what the team needs from you. Equally, be clear about your own expectations from them. The relationship needs to be re-set, and it’s both OK and helpful to do this, as both sides need clarity about the new needs which each expects from the other.
Finally, my last secret of leadership is…
It’s OK not to know the answer.
Great leaders ask great questions. The more open you are, at any stage in your career, about not knowing the answer, the better it will set you up for success in any role. If you are open about saying ‘I don’t know the answer to this’ it means you are both curious and open to other suggestions. You need others to feel that they too have ideas to share and contribute, that they too can participate in finding the answers. So don’t feel you have to provide the solution or answer right away. Your role now as leader is to enable others to do that, and to organise and support them, to enable them to drive your agenda forward under your direction, vision and with your shared energy.
As I said at the start, anyone can be a leader, and the skills and behaviours of leadership are clear and well recognised. But it’s another thing entirely to step into that role and still be yourself. That’s the hard bit – letting go of the technical skills that made you a leadership contender in the first place and learning a new set of skills to manage your team to get the best out of them. It’s never going to be easy, but it can be done; and the rewards, personal and professional, are huge.
Executive and team coach