Three Keys to Success for New Leaders

Did you get the promotion but not the training? Here's where to start.

Three Keys to Success for New Leaders

Did you get the promotion but not the training? Here's where to start.

By Scott Drake, Founder
6 minute read

If you scan through my mailbox, you'll find a lot of messages like this:

"Hi Scott, Next week I'll be starting a position at a new company managing a team of four. This is my first time managing other people. I was hired into the role with no prior formal management experience. I wanted to reach out and ask if you have any good advice, or pitfalls to watch out for, or rules to live by for a first timer?"

This is what it's like for most of us when we finally get that promotion.

We get the job but no training. And too often we spend our early years as a leader learning our new role and frankly, not being a good boss.

So, what should you do if you find yourself in this position?

My answer used to be a recommendation to read a specific stack of books.

Then I discovered that people don't want to read a few books or don't have time, so this article gives you a much shorter answer.

Here are three things that will ease your transition and help you become a great leader faster.

First, stop doing your old job.

Even if you're a supervisor and part of your new job is to keep doing your old job, you need to step back, even if it's just in your own mind.

Stop doing your old job long enough to start seeing yourself through new eyes.

If you're like most of us, your ego is wrapped up in being great at your old job. You were probably great at that job and it's why you were promoted.

But you have a new job now, and you need to attach your ego to that job.

Your old job required one set of competencies, and those don't matter as much anymore. Sorry.

It's important that you step back because you need to give your team space to be competent at your old job.

It's their job now. If you want them to feel good about their work, you need to get out of the way. You need to let your team get the satisfaction from solving those problems and doing that work.

Let your team be the hero of that story.

You have a new job now, with new problems to solve and your satisfaction needs to come from that work. That's where you get to be the hero now. Not in your old job.

Yes, you'll occasionally need to step in and be a coach or mentor. Maybe you'll jump in to help close a deal or tie up a loose end on a project.

But if you keep trying to do your old job you won't have time to do your new job, and you'll drive your team crazy. It's their job now. Don't micromanage them.

Some new leaders want to keep doing their old job because they believe it will help them gain the respect and trust of their team. They think: "If I show my team that I'm great at their job, they'll respect and trust me." But it's a trap. Acts of competency by a new leader rarely end well.

Why? Because your team is trying to earn the respect and trust of their new boss (that's you). And they want to show you how competent they are.

If both sides are trying to out-competent each other, nobody wins.

So, put down your old tools and let your team be the heroes. Embrace your new role. There are better ways to earn the respect and trust of your team.

Second, become a learner and observer.

Stop thinking you know more than you do.

I know, you think I'm talking to someone else. You're shaking your head like you don't jump to conclusions or project your thinking on others. But you're human and we all do it.

As a leader, it's very important that you live in the real world.

That you understand the real problems your team, boss, and customers face.

You'll learn that different teams, people, and projects need different things from the leader (again, that's you).

Startup projects need different things than turnaround projects.

New teams need different things than established teams.

Some people want constant interaction. Some people want more quiet time to focus on their work.

You need to adapt, and you can't adapt if you aren't learning, observing, and living in the real world.

When you meet your new team, assume they are smarter than you. Assume they know more than you do, because they do.

As a human, you're wired to see problems.

When you walk in the door in your new role, you're going to see a lot of problems. You're probably going to have a lot of great ideas.

Assume your team is smart enough to have tried those ideas. Every single one of those brilliant ideas in your head has probably been tried already.

So, ask a lot of questions. Of everyone. Of your new boss, your new team, your new stakeholders. Make curiosity your new superpower.

From their perspective, what's going well and what's challenging? If they had a magic wand, what would they change? Find out why those changes haven't happened yet, and what they've tried before.

Unless it's a startup, there's a lot of history you need to learn about. And even for startups, you need to learn about the history, assumptions, and biases that your new team members are bringing to the table.

So, forget about starting your new job with feats of competence, and start thinking about how you can learn everything about your new world.

Focus on four areas:

  1. Assess the Work: What is your team working on? What is it responsible for? Who are the customers or stakeholders and how do they measure success? Where is the team doing well and where is it struggling?
  2. Assess the Team: Does the team show signs of trust, healthy conflict and attention to results?
  3. Assess the People: How long has each team member been there? What do they like about it? What would they change if they could? Are they challenged and engaged?
  4. Assess the Culture: What are the norms? What behaviors are celebrated and what is corrected? Are those norms and behaviors appropriate for the work of the team?

Start identifying some early wins from the perspectives of everyone involved.

What has been tried to resolve those issues in the past?

What can you bring to the table to make improvements in those areas?

That's where to focus your energy. And you don't have to solve everything yourself. Don't put on your hero cape and try to save the day. Focus on how you can work through others to get things done.

That's your new job.

Third, start building feedback loops.

Welcome to a world that is constantly changing.

Your team, customers, boss, and industry are constantly changing.

And you need to change with them.

What works today won't work tomorrow.

It's critical that a leader knows the truth, and it's even more critical that you have fresh data.

If possible, schedule regular one-on-one meetings with each of your teammates and your boss.

One of your goals as a leader is to help your employees make their best contribution.

You want to help them become engaged and stay engaged. And the best way to do that is to keep them challenged.

Keep them feeling like the hero of their story.

But what's challenging and engaging today is boring tomorrow.

A stretch opportunity this month is a tedious task next year.

It's important that you invest time in your employees.

They will change and grow over time – sometimes very quickly – so you need those feedback loops so you can change and grow with them. You need that fresh data.

There's a lot of debate about how to best run your one-on-one meetings. Search the Internet. Read a few articles. Experiment. And find what works best for you and your unique team.

In addition to one-on-ones, also consider regular team surveys.

Surveys can be something as simple as a Google-form survey asking what the team should start doing, stop doing, or keep doing.

Send those out, then share the results or trends with the team, and ask for their help in how to address issues as they arise. That will help you change with the times.

And again, you don't have to be the hero and find answers to those problems yourself. Give your team some ownership there, too. They'll like having a voice and helping to shape their workplace. I promise.

Those Start-Stop-Keep surveys also are a great place to start building feedback loops with customers and stakeholders.

Get in the habit of regularly surveying a small group of customers or stakeholders. Then hop on the phone or sit down with customers and have real conversations about their feedback.

Think about it. When you're a customer, how do you feel about a team or business who seeks your feedback and is genuinely seeking to improve and serve you better?

For most of us, it's great. And we become more invested in those teams or businesses. We often become the enthusiastic customers or raving fans.

That's what you want, and that's the power of feedback loops.

Start building them.

Here's a recap.

If you only know three things about being a leader, know these.

  1. You have a new job now. Detach your ego from your old job and attach it to your new one. If you don't, you'll be a micromanager.
  2. Learn the truth. To be a great leader you've got to live in the real world. Make curiosity your superpower.
  3. Build feedback loops. Everything is constantly changing. You need fresh data that helps you change with the times.

Who do you know that needs this?