As you continue to rise the ranks as a leader, you’ll gain all sorts of skills and get exposed to many new aspects of business. Do you understand the P&L (profit and loss statement)? Do you know how to manage a poor performer? Can you build and deliver a compelling presentation? Can you build your network and influence internally?
While many of these things might not come naturally to you, I’m happy to see more and more companies investing in training for both hard and soft skills for leaders. We’ve certainly come a long way in equipping leadership to be effective in their roles versus just promoting them to new roles and wishing them well.
And also, as I reflect on where I am regularly stretched as a leader and where I see many other leaders get tripped up, these skills get a lot less air time.
Some people are really really good at executing upon one specific thing. They can handle one type or category of tasks at a time, and they need repeatable work habits to thrive. I don’t mean repeatable tasks like entering in data over and over again. I mean repeatable styles of working and related cadences, like assembling reports that go out monthly or showing up and presenting in lots of meetings. So often I’ll see that when you ask someone to add a new way of working to their plate, they truly struggle to deliver on expectations.
As you move up in your career, what’s needed from you at work becomes less predictable and more varied. You might start your day working on a report, then have to go run to 3 different presentations, then handle an HR escalation all before preparing a budget. This requires tremendous context switching, flexibility and relentless prioritization. You inevitably have to work on things that need to be answered today and long-term projects that will never get done if you don’t carve out time for them. The transition from very clear, repeatable work styles to a more adaptable approach is a leadership skill that is often overlooked.
This sounds so simple that it’s almost silly, but it’s less common than you’d think. So often people show up, do their work and sign off. They aren’t observing what else is going on in the world or the business that’s influencing business outcomes. Great leaders have an almost sixth sense about when something is off in the business, when something is going on with one of their team members or when something has shifted externally, and they pause to assess the situation.
This might look something like, “I noticed that we had a lot of leads come in that didn’t convert this week, so I did some digging to see what has changed.” “I noticed that Riley hasn’t spoken up in the team meeting the last two weeks. This is unlike her.” “I noticed our competitors keep hiring people with this skill set. I wonder if we’re missing something in terms of the opportunity there.”
Removing your own blinders and paying more attention to what is happening around you isn’t easy but is crucial for leaders. To start, I suggest building some checkpoints for yourself to evaluate the health of your team and its goals, and assessing those on a weekly basis.
Getting the ball rolling
A lot of people have great ideas, but presenting an idea to someone without any related action plan is actually more harmful than helpful. You’ve now just distracted this person and made your idea their responsibility versus yours. If you want to do a gut check or get approval or buy-in, that is fine, but also think 3 steps ahead to what you’ll do should you get the green light and communicate that as well.
Other leaders might get stuck when it comes time to put pen to paper. Staring at a white page can be intimidating. How do you go from something conceptual to something that exists? It requires creativity and risk.
And others may be great at execution, but only on what’s been clearly prescribed to them. They can absolutely implement and operate for the world today, but they struggle to envision what will be needed in the future.
If you want to move up as a leader in the organization, it’s time to make the shift from, “I was thinking that we could… ” to “I took the liberty of building out this new process. I want to get your thoughts before we implement something.”
When you start to prove that you are someone who can get something self-generated and forward-thinking done, especially when that thing requires other people or cross-functional teams, you’ll also start to prove that you are ready for more advanced leadership.
Being the bad guy
When people think about leadership, they often think about inspiration. They think about vision. They think about the glorified parts of the job.
No one thinks about delivering bad news. About having to tell someone they’re not performing. About having to make decisions that feel very painful today but will lead to positive outcomes in the future.
If you have people-pleasing tendencies or are used to being a high performer and getting a lot of recognition throughout your career, the transition to occasional bad guy can cause emotional turmoil. As you move up, there are fewer and fewer people left applauding your work and more and more people bringing their grievances. I don’t want to paint leadership in a negative light because it is truly so rewarding and you have the ability to make such a positive impact. But I also want to be clear that it isn’t all rainbows and butterflies.
You won’t always be liked. Your news definitely won’t always be liked. You simply have to be clear and fair.
Navigating unclear territory and toeing the line of contradictions
I often describe leadership as a “job of contradictions.” Be authentic but polished. Hold people accountable but don’t micromanage. Create a culture of wellbeing but drive results.
We all want a right answer. We all want a firm line. But, unfortunately, in leadership that rarely exists. As you continue to mature as a leader, you’ll get more and more comfortable in that messy gray area with no absolutes to lean on.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of coaching and mentorship here. While there may be no right answers, there are certainly wrong ones. Coaches and mentors can help you take a step back, right size problems and make decisions with clarity that also help maintain your energy and mental wellbeing. If anything is worth investing time and energy in, it’s your headspace, so make sure this is a priority.
Leadership is one of the most challenging and rewarding opportunities you can have in your career. Know that no one gets it correct 100% of the time. As long as you are constantly learning, growing, and self-reflecting, you’re doing it right.
To learn how you can enhance your leadership skills, book a complimentary consultation call with one of our Relationship Strategists.