5 Important Mindshifts First-Time Leaders Need to Make

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Sixty percent of first-time leaders underperform in the first two years on the job, says The Learning and Development Roundtable.

Haven’t we all seen it happen? Star performers get promoted to head a department, but are unable to get along with fellow managers or lead their team to hit the targets. Unfortunately, the failure hits particularly hard. They’re used to being the best (that’s why they were promoted!), but now they’re playing a much bigger game that can’t be won just by working harder.

“In their prior jobs, success depended primarily on their personal expertise and actions. As managers, they are responsible for setting and implementing an agenda for a whole group, something for which their careers as individual performers haven’t prepared them,” says Linda Hill, Harvard professor and author of Becoming a Manager.

So if you’re a new team leader, take that as a sign that you’re not failing -- you’re learning, just like everyone else. The trick is to learn actively. Know that you have to shift to a new mindset, pick up skills, seek feedback, and look for insights in each challenge. These tips can help you.

Myth: You’re managing facts

Mindshift: You’re managing situations

As an individual player, you were expected to hit personal targets and deadlines. As a team leader, your job is to enable other people to succeed, which usually means giving them crystal-clear objectives and removing obstacles. Unfortunately, that isn’t as easy as it sounds.

You may be facing:

External obstacles

  • Conflicting demands from multiple stakeholders
  • Multi-layered business issues
  • Limited resources and information

Internal obstacles

  • Pressure from upper management
  • Resentment/resistance from peers or direct reports: Who’s this manager and why does he deserve this job?”
  • Realization that people have different cognitive and working styles
  • Lack of psychological trust within your team and your company -- especially if your promotion came in a time of upheaval or change

You won’t be able to resolve these situations right away. Give yourself time to understand both the business scenario and the people scenario -- and remember not to take any conflicts or resistance personally. See yourself as a psychologist who is gathering facts and trying to understand motives and context. This can help you become more sensitive and aware of the particular needs of your team and organization and ultimately make relevant and timely decisions.

Myth: I have to be close to my team

Mindshift: I have to empower my team

Don’t start out by trying to be the cool and popular team leader: you need respect, not friendship. “While a rapport between manager and employee is always desirable and can help create engaged employees and elicit strong performance, if that rapport crosses over into friendship it can easily compromise a person's ability to objectively exercise control and manage a situation,” says Victor Lipman, author of The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World.

The challenge, of course, is being authoritative without being autocratic. Autocrats set impossible standards and expect the team to submit unquestioningly -- a stereotype unfortunately fueled by successful CEOs like Apple’s Steve Jobs and Vogue’s Anna Wintour. Sadly, this style of leadership only works in extreme situations (Apple was going through major upheaval and was on the verge of bankruptcy, and Vogue needed a concrete fashion vision amid an explosion of new competitors). It also depends entirely on the creative genius of one single person: if Jobs and Wintour were wrong, the whole company would go under -- and they were willing to take that risk.

Most new team leaders can’t and shouldn’t make this kind of executive decision: you don’t have all the answers, and your success depends on being able to get everyone in your team to give their best. This can’t happen if they’re afraid. Studies show that the most high-performing teams have psychological safety: they are able to share their ideas, trust they get the respect and recognition they deserve, and understand that any criticism and reward is based entirely on performance.

Myth: I have to know all the answers

Mindshift: I have to know how to listen strategically

You may think that being a good team leader means having all the answers, but the best leaders actually know how to ask the right questions. How else are you going to gather all the information you need to make the right decisions, or even understand and motivate the members of your team? Imagine the difference between saying, “These are your targets -- hit them or else” versus  “I am here to help you succeed. These are your goals. What are your obstacles? This is what we did before, what can we change to get better results?”

You also need to become more aware that people communicate and think differently, and it’s your job to make sure that everyone has a voice. Don’t let one or two people dominate meetings; ask everyone to speak, and get information in different ways. Some prefer PowerPoints and reports, while others are better at brainstorming or small group discussions. This is one way of encouraging cognitive diversity -- and you’ll see that your team will solve problems faster and better, while feeling valued.  

Myth: I am protecting/leading my team

Mindshift: I am negotiating interdependencies

A lot of team leaders think, “I have to protect my team.” But that implies that everyone else is an enemy or an obstacle, and creates the silos that can cripple an organization and your team’s performance.

So instead of seeing yourself as a shield, see yourself as a bridge. Your team works within a universe of other people’s deliverables, agendas, territories, and even belief systems and cultures. To succeed, you need to learn what Linda Hill calls “negotiating interdependencies.” You understand other stakeholders’ goals, align them with yours, and persuade them that you’re moving forward in the same direction. You pick your battles and know when to compromise. You also learn to control your desire to control -- and for many achievers, this is the hardest lesson to learn.

Myth: I want to shine

Mindshift: I want to grow

You will make mistakes. You will fail to hit some targets. Not everyone will like you or appreciate you. And there will be days when you will lose your cool, hate your job, or make a complete idiot of yourself.

You’re a leader, but you’re still human.

You have to learn to love small victories and know that even what looks like a failure is still falling in the right direction. Whatever happens, you are learning and growing. Just commit to your growth. Seek advice from mentors, and feedback from your peers and team. Read books on leadership. Spend time processing your experiences and feelings, especially when you are feeling stressed or triggered -- you can’t take charge of a team if you don’t have enough self-awareness to take charge of yourself.

And don’t be afraid to admit to yourself or to your team that you are a young team leader who still has a lot of room to grow. In fact, you can invite everyone to grow with you. Commit to learning about leadership together, because leadership is never about a position but an attitude.

“The beautiful thing about personal growth is that it is win-win,” said Rudi Ramin, Grow CEO. “When you grow, you benefit, but so do those around you. And you develop better when those around you are developing themselves too. Grow provides a platform that facilitates and fosters a learning culture within the team and that allows team members to grow together.”