Whether you’re stepping into your first official leadership role, are moving up the organization, or are moving into that highly coveted corner office, there are always challenges and opportunities associated with these transitions.
I’ve worked with individuals at all levels of organizations. While there are different expectations at different levels within the organization, there are some common challenges that leaders face, regardless of how anticipated and positive the role change.
1. Managing and leading your former peers. You were a peer and a friend and now you are their leader. You now have control over the team while previously you were a member of the team. How does that work? The relationship changes. It has to. Things that you could previously share with your former peers are now inappropriate and you may feel lost not having your confidantes.
This feeling of discomfort will dissipate over time and you will find new confidantes at an acceptable level within the organization. You will become accustomed to your new role and learn how to deal with being ‘friendly’, not friends, with your former peers.
2. Thinking you need to make changes right away. In order to prove that they are ‘worthy’ of the new role, leaders often make immediate changes to their teams. They feel that this shows that they know what they are doing and will instill a feeling of confidence in the people who are on their teams.
In fact, the opposite is true. Making changes without knowledge about the organization and how it works breeds lack of confidence in the leader, and questions about his/her competence and judgement.
The most successful leadership transitions involve leaders taking the time to get to know their new team or organization by listening to their employees and stakeholders. This allows leaders to learn about what’s going well and what requires improvement, and enables a true understanding of what is going on in the organization. Changes made after the ‘get to know you’ phase, which incorporate feedback from employees and stakeholders, creates greater buy-in to those changes.
There’s nothing worse than a new leader coming in and making large scale changes without knowing the team and the organization, and without consultation. Immediate change is only successful in situations where the organization is in crises and there are no alternative options. That doesn’t, however, preclude the need to consult with others in the organization. In these situations, the consultation process may not be as inclusive or extensive.
3. Thinking you need to know it all. This often goes hand-in-hand with #2 above. Many leaders think that they need to have an answer to every question.
Exceptional leaders know that they don’t have all the answers. Nor should they. Having all the answers means that you are either micromanaging, not open to new ideas, lack the confidence for other people to have differing views, or all of the above. Being seen as having all the answers discourages others from bringing their ideas and perspectives forward. Shutting down your team in this way will decrease productivity, morale, and increase dissonance in the long term.
Effective leaders have as many questions as they have answers. They admit that they don’t know everything and rely on other members of their team to support them.
4. Making the mental shift. You are now a leader. The expectations of leaders are different than those of managers. We’ve all seen the infographics illustrating what a leader does and what a manager does. While reality is not quite as black and white as those graphics, there is some truth in them.
Making the shift requires becoming clear on your new role, knowing what your team’s priorities are and focusing on those priorities. While it is tempting to look back at what you used to do and how well that worked, the path is now forward.
5. Letting go. Effective transitions require letting go of the old and embracing the new. It can be challenging to let go of what you did well in your previous role (your comfort zone) to take on a new role with unknown challenges and opportunities. New roles require whole-hearted commitment.
Many new leaders never fully make the transition, choosing to have one foot in the old and one foot in the new. The space in between the two is often uncertain and uncomfortable, and not without its associated anxieties. Applying what you learned in previous transitions can be helpful. Speaking with a mentor or a coach may also provide the support necessary to move through the discomfort to fully embrace the new role.
6. Getting people on board. You will likely be integrating into an already established team. They will be looking to you to determine who you are, what your expectations will be, and making comparisons (good and bad) to the previous leader. Coming into this situation with a ‘know it all’ attitude will not win you any points; recognize and acknowledge the dynamic and seek to build relationships instead
Engaging and involving your new team in your leadership transition will reap the benefits you seek. Your new team will help you be successful in the future if you are committed to building strong relationships with them. Take what you learned from your previous role and team and apply it to your new role. Leverage the knowledge and experience that you have to set you, and the team, up for success!
7. Living up to expectations. With news leaders come associated expectations that things will be either better or worse than before. This perception is often based on whether or not the previous leader was viewed negatively or positively; loved or hated. If the person was loved, it will be challenging to live up to the person’s reputation. If that person was hated, the team will be looking for clues to determine if you are like that person. In the latter case, there is nowhere to go but up! The greater challenge is if the previous leader was loved.
It is not enough to have high expectations of themselves; leaders are also faced with the expectations of others. Rather than assuming what those expectations are, savvy leaders exchange expectations with their team members. They ask them how they would like to be supported, what they expect from their leader and share their expectations with the team. The ‘get-to-know-you’ process is an important one, without it being colored by the invisible presence of the previous leader.
Making assumptions about what people are thinking is generally not helpful. Asking them what they’re thinking shows that the leader is interested and cares about what they think.
These are some of the challenges that I have seen leaders face as they moved into new roles. What are some of the challenges that you have seen or experienced? Would love to know.