How can you best prepare for leadership?
What can organisations do to support their new and emerging leaders?
We should all recognise that being a technical expert, or having an outstanding record of personal delivery doesn't automatically translate into being a great leader.
All too often companies' 'high potential' lists are actually made up of 'high performers': they may well have the foundations for leadership, but a successful transition requires its own focus and development. Without this, companies risk elevating staff to a position that they are not equipped for and therefore don't succeed in. For the individual, the impact of not living up to their own, or the organisation's expectations can have a significant (sometimes irreversible) impact on their confidence and their reputation.
There are many fantastic leadership programmes to equip future leaders with the practical know-how and tactical management skills needed. However, it's also critical for future leaders to focus on developing a leadership mindset: the self-awareness to allow them to look at what the transition means to them, what the risks and barriers are and, importantly what tools they'll personally need to overcome them.
Throughout my career I've witnessed top talent being promoted into leadership roles only to feel lonely, isolated and inadequate. I'd confess to not feeling fully equipped when I first moved into a leadership role too. What this meant for me was that I struggled, for longer than I was comfortable, with a nagging sense of underperformance. It was only through having an incredibly supportive boss and through discovering coaching, that I was able to recognise that I was simply missing the thrill and sense of achievement I had when I was personally delivering. I hadn't clearly translated my ability to add value to my new leadership position.
If I'd recognised this, and begun to plan for it early in my leadership career, I would probably have been a happier, more confident and more effective leader in those early days! So, in no particular order, here are just a few of the things that I believe are useful considerations to help enable, equip and empower new and future leaders to transition more smoothly; to be able to value themselves more, to be satisfied and, in turn, be more confident and effective leaders in their own right:
Adjusting to delivering through others: Adjustment is needed to move from the sense of achievement gained by directly delivering and adding value to delivering through others. A similar (if not much greater) sense of pride can be achieved, but new leaders need support to change their mindset and reframe their vision of what success looks like for them. This will invariably include the need to let go of many areas and learn how to leverage their teams effectively.
Being comfortable with not having all the answers: An important aspect of mastering leadership is to recognise you don't have all the answers, to have great people working with you who do, and to inspire those people through belief in their trust and ability. Having the confidence and support early on to acknowledge, accept and do this will allow for a new leader to be clearer on how they add value in their new role.
Adjusting to thinking strategically: Successful leaders understand their organisation's strategy and are able to effectively communicate how their team's goals align to it. That's not a skill that most people have: it's learnt, and future leaders need to be disciplined about creating the space to develop this area. The most important first step is actually carving out the time to think and plan strategically. They can then use that time to explore things such as: What does the future for my team look like? What are the main challenges for us over the next 3-5 years?
Having sufficient responsibility early on: People learn best when stretched out of their comfort zone: allow your new leaders the opportunity to do this. It is important to allow your new leader to have responsibility early on so that they don't develop a habit of working in a new role with an 'old' mindset.
Encouraging self-awareness: This is key for so many areas. Often we are too focused on what we are doing or trying to achieve that we forget about how we are conducting ourselves. It is incredibly important for new leaders to be supported and encouraged to develop self-awareness, to understand what practices help them to be at their best and to allow them to be more intentional in how they show up.
Recognising the benefits of a bespoke approach: Training programmes are not the holy grail. When it comes to development, focus on your people as individuals rather than a collective. In helping someone to become a leader it's crucial to look at their unique skills, their values, their personal challenges in transitioning to a new role and what drives them. This will allow them to become an authentic leader in their own right.
Focusing on building networks: One of the key (but often overlooked) characteristics that sets successful leaders apart is their ability to build and use their networks. It allows them to increase opportunities to learn from and share with connections, and in turn increase performance and innovation. Therefore encouraging emerging leaders to do this early in their careers is critical. It also helps develop a more strategic mindset as it requires them to look more widely than their immediate focus and to think ahead and outside of where they currently are.
Having exposure to different role models: There isn't a case of one size fits all when it comes to leadership. Exposing your future leaders to different styles of leadership allows them to identify role models that resonate with them, encouraging them to consider who they are and what kind of leader they want to be.
Learning to really listen: New leaders need to recognise that listening to hear and understand rather than listening to respond are very different things. Listening to hear allows the other person to feel truly heard and this helps to build the trust needed to lead a team effectively. It also creates a culture of creativity and encourages new ideas as everyone feels that their views are valid and important.
Looking outside your organisation: Considering options outside of your organisation to support the transition can help give your future leaders a completely objective insight, and a safe reflective space to work through some of the areas outlined above. And importantly this helps support the development of a real awareness of their own leadership style and approach.
Working with an amazing coach outside of my organisation helped me to understand the beliefs that I was holding onto that were impacting my confidence and, potentially, my credibility and effectiveness. At the time it gave me a unique opportunity as a new leader to focus on myself, helped me to better understand my motivations and develop a sense of how I wanted to lead. It allowed me to look in a fresh way at how I showed up in front of others and the impact this had. It also, crucially, enabled me to redefine what success looked and felt like for me as a leader, and to find the satisfaction I needed to thrive.
Naomi Regan is a Professional Coach obsessed with enabling, equipping and empowering new, emerging and returning leaders and their organisations.