In a coaching session a client they asked me, “what were the main things I wish I’d known that would have helped me become a better leader sooner”.
This got me thinking about my first real leadership role, which was over 25 years ago when I took over the lead on a Project that I had been working on for 2 years. I had worked on the project in a number of roles – architect, development lead, test manager and then implementation manager. So I had held some team leader roles, but this was the first time that I had been involved in leading people who were also leading people. This meant that my hands-on skills were now less relevant as the role was a 100% leadership role.
I had a lot of respect from the teams as I was extremely knowledgable about the project, and also because of my lead from the front, hands-on work ethic which had helped us to go live with the first phase of the project on time.
But all of these were just table stakes, the qualities that gave me the opportunity to take on the leadership role but they hadn’t really prepared me for leading a team of over 50 people.
I had done lots of project management training, but again none of this really covered leadership. This training was more focused on how to run a project, what were the mechanics of scoping, planning, documenting, tracking and implementing plans.
I was very fortunate to have such knowledge about the project and project management as this gave me the time to focus on leadership and boy did I need it.
My very first day was a huge wake-up call for me. I arrived at the office at 8.30, and at 8.35 I was dragged into a 1-2-1 meeting with a very distressed colleague who wanted to speak to me immediately. She was the test manager, and this was a new role for her, but having been the test manager myself previously, I was sure that whatever issue we were facing, I would be able to help with.
How wrong I was!
As we sat down in the room, she just looked at me and said “I have a lump in my breast, I think it’s cancer and I don’t know what to do” and then burst into tears.
Nothing in my career or training had ever prepared me for this moment.
After freezing for a couple of seconds, I did the only thing I could do which was to show my concern, to try and comfort her and ensure that she sought the proper medical attention.
Fortunately, it was just a lump and nothing too serious, but for me, it was a clear indication that as a leader I still had a lot to learn.
Here are five things I want to share about what I wish I had known before taking on my first leadership role that would have helped me become a better leader sooner.
It’s all about the people
As that example above clearly showed, the people aspect of leadership is very significant. In fact, I would go so far as to say it is the most significant.
I would love to have known more about how to engage and motivate people. What were the things that they were looking for from their leaders? How to get them to buy into the goals and visions that I was setting.
If you can take care of the people, then everything else is plain sailing, if you don’t then everything is going to be a challenge that will probably result in failure.
Not communicating enough is the same as not leading enough
It always comes as a surprise to people, but in spite of being a public speaker, I wasn’t always that keen to get up in front of people and talk. But as a leader, you have to communicate the vision, the goals, the purpose, their roles, and the progress being made. And you have to do this more than once, and also in more than one way.
We need to learn that there are different communication and learning styles and we have to make sure that our messages get through to everyone. There is no such thing as too much communication, yes one or two might get the message earlier than the others, but my advice to anyone moving into leadership would be communicate, communicate, communicate. Good communication helps build connection, engagement, and understanding all of which are keys to success.
Everyone wants to be successful
Too many of my previous bosses complained that many of their staff were lazy, disinterested and were just showing up to take their paycheck. I heard this so many times that it became one of my beliefs too. If so many people are saying it, then it has to be true, right?
This was something that took me a while to learn, but in reality, most people want to be successful. Yes, some people want to pick up a paycheck, but the majority would prefer to be successful while doing it. Let’s face it its pretty soul destroying to come to work every day and experience little to no success.
Over time what I found was that if you can put people in a position where they can be successful, then the majority of people will take that opportunity.
The challenge was many of my previous bosses had used this perceived lack of desire as an excuse for them not to do their jobs, which is to put people in a position to be successful.
The importance of creating belief
In line with the previous point, one of the critical things I have learned is that most people are not afraid of hard work, they are afraid of failure. If they cannot see, or understand how success will be achieved, or if they believe that success is not possible, then many will quit at the first sign of trouble.
One of our key roles as a leader is that once we have put people in a position where they can be successful, is to explain to them how that success can be achieved and to let them know that we will be there to provide support if needed. We need to work on creating belief in themselves, and also in us as leaders. Do that and your teams will become excited and will look to move mountains.
The power of recognition
I have always been a believer in recognition, I think it came from my love of sports and seeing the effects of cheering crowds and compliments.
But what I didn’t realize was that we need to start the recognition process right at the start of our endeavors. We have to start be recognizing effort because what get’s recognized gets repeated, and we want people to repeat those efforts. Then when we plan we have to include some quick wins which then allows us to recognize those early successes, all of which helps to build momentum.
As leaders, we do need to become chief recognition officers, because recognition, in my experience, is one of the critical building blocks in creating high performing teams. But it starts at the beginning of the journey not the end.
While there have been many things that I have learned on my leadership journey, I think these are the five things that would have helped accelerate my progress as a leader the most and that I wish I had had a better understanding of them before taking on my first leadership role.