Transition to Leadership

For a new leader, the most daunting part of the transition can be the differences from previous roles. As a staffer or manager, the expectations were probably clearer and more defined. The emphasis on balancing strategic decision-making with day-to-day operational decisions was less; the operational took clear precedence. As a successful staffer or manager, the participant was aware of, and invested in, overall strategy. But in a leadership role, determining team expectations, the balance between sharing and retaining power, and creating effective yet not distancing boundaries are more difficult.

Three key components of a successful transition to leadership are:

  • Learning what the team expects of leaders
  • Appropriately sharing power and information
  • Effective delegation

Following a session on the transition to leadership, you can help participants by encouraging them to revisit the themes of leadership definition, expectations, and power over the next several weeks and months. Regularly reflecting on the distinctions between management and leadership can provide an anchor point when day-to-day work makes it difficult to feel the distinction. Thinking about the information that the participant has and what needs to be shared, as well as what makes an effective leader can also help reinforce this transitional phase.

In each case, image-based activities outlined in the Participant Guide are designed to amplify these issues and help the leader identify their own authentic answers.

Take a look at the Transition to Leadership Sample Agenda.

Learning Team Expectations

Even in situations where the organizational expectations of a new leader are clear, it can be difficult to determine what the team itself is looking for. Do they need lots of structure, or just to be left to their own devices? Are they already high-performing, or do they need to work on more fundamental team dynamics?

In approaching this area, the first thing participants must embrace is authenticity. Good or bad, the most effective leaders are their authentic selves. (The better ones then work to improve their authentic selves!) So participants may need to initiate some self-reflection about values and what is important to them.

The next component is to learn more about the team itself. This kind of exploration is outside the scope of leadership development per se, and more in the vein of team-building. The VisualsSpeak Building Great Teams tool contains lots of activities for opening the lines of communication on teams.

Without any additional tools, though, developing leaders can spend time observing team members in meetings and other interactions to see how they frame their conversations. Do they talk a lot? Do they listen thoroughly before offering an opinion? These hints of the individual dynamics will help the new leader know how best to interact.

Finally, it is helpful to compare the participant’s perceptions of team expectations with those of the team itself. One way to do this is for the developing leader to share the images they created through this section with the team and solicit feedback. Merely the act of being transparent and open with the leader’s perceptions will help align expectations.

Sharing Power and Information

In some settings, information and power are the same thing. Those who are decision- makers (“the powerful”) are those “in the know.” In the best settings, though, the reverse isn’t always true. Th at is, there are many people “in the know” who aren’t the decision-makers.

As a developing leader, it can be tempting to keep the cards close to the vest, to mete out information sparingly to increase one’s sense of self-importance. In actuality, this sets up conflict between the leader and the team because when it finally comes out that the leader had important knowledge that wasn’t shared, the team feels let down.

Conversely, there are pieces of information that are inappropriate to share widely. Confidential personnel matters, for instance. Speculative rumor. A CEO’s idle comment in a what-if session can trigger panic throughout an organization if it gets over-shared. So how do you find the balance?

Again, because authenticity is important, the budding leader must figure out what level of information sharing is comfortable for them. At a minimum, they must share whatever information will help the team do its work, to remove obstacles and help keep them from forming in the fi rst place. Beyond that, it’s a question of comfort and situational awareness.

One approach favored by many is to start with the negative: what information is off-limits? Areas like the personnel matters and gossip come up first. Anything else? Once that list is made, if it’s not on the list, it gets shared. The emphasis is on transparency. Many—though by no means all—top-performing leaders operate in this manner.

The other commodity that new leaders often have difficulty sharing is recognition. It is sometimes said that a good leader takes the blame, but not the credit. Developing leaders are often still making their career ascent, so not taking credit for team accomplishments seems counterproductive. But the more that team members feel their efforts are broadly recognized, the better the team will perform.

Similarly, if team members feel they will be punished for ideas that fail, they will respond by no longer offering new ideas. It is essential, to the extent possible and reasonable, for leaders to shoulder the blame. Becoming known as a leader who shields the team members from that kind of chastisement will also attract the best new members to the team. It becomes a virtuous cycle.

Effective Delegation

For staff and managers who do not have significant leadership roles, the only goal is to Get Things Done. If that means logging a bunch of extra hours at work and doing it yourself, well, then that is the approach. Transitioning into a leadership role, however, shifts the focus a bit. The goal remains Getting Things Done, but it’s also Growing Big Capacity. That is, always developing team members and growing their strengths.

A key difficulty arises when these two areas come in conflict. If a project comes up that the leader has great experience with, could handle quickly and easily, yet it is really the work of a staffer or manager. What then? Absent extraordinary circumstances, it is a better idea to focus the energy on supporting a team member then on personally completing the project.

Will it take longer? Almost certainly. Will it be harder? Probably. So where’s the upside?

By focusing on the development of the team, the new leader is performing one of the core tasks of leadership. As the capacity of each team member grows, it will be easier and easier for people to take on these new projects and tasks. Eventually, it will be second nature to delegate new things. Initially, though, it can be very difficult.

During these initial stages, you can help participants to think about what tasks are really appropriate for the developing leader. By asking questions about the nature of a leader’s work, the areas where new projects crop up, and the places in which it is most difficult to delegate, you will help them identify the “red flags”—the indicators that perhaps the leader is taking on too much personally.