If you’re a newly appointed leader, or even an experienced one, this might be your most important play: stop being the subject matter expert, and lead!
BECOMING A leader is like being given a role in the end-of-year charity play, but with no script. You just get told, “OK, you’re playing the bad guy,” and you have to make it up as you go along. This is especially true for newly appointed leaders who get selected out of a team of peers. No wonder that’s one of the most common reasons why people come into coaching!
You can imagine, or you’ve experienced, that being a newly appointed leader for a team of peers presents particular challenges. For one thing, you’ve been part of the team. So perhaps you were one of the people complaining about the previous leader doing X, or Y or Z. You knew they were doing it because of a certain process, or political game, that exists in the company, but that was not your problem. Now it is. Now you’re going to have to represent the company on those matters and enforce those processes and procedures. Plus you’re going to have to play whatever political game exists at that higher level.
Or perhaps you always believed you would change those things if you got half a chance. Now you’re feeling a bit like the bully in the playground who’s been called on their threats. Will you take on those senior stakeholders or not? Or perhaps there’s just the good old politics that goes on inside every team. And maybe that just became worse because you were chosen over somebody else.
Newly appointed leader? You’re up next!
In other words, it’s exactly like being given that role as the bad guy in the charity play, but with no script. You’re expected to know how to show up as a leader, even when you were never taught that. You were taught the hard skills—the maths, the science, the technical skills—that you need to do your job. (That’s changing now, but to a large extent those leadership skills weren’t taught.) Now there’s you, on stage in front of everybody, having to come up with the right lines, say the right things and get the audience to laugh, to clap. That audience is your former teammates, and not all of them are loving the show!
This means learning to coach your people—who may once have been your peers—to solve their own problems.
So here’s your most important play. And, you can be sure, this is going to be relevant to many experienced leaders too.
Whether you’re a newly appointed leader, or you’ve been in your leadership position for some time, chances are you rose to your position as a result of your expertise, skill, or talent in your particular technical area. Whether your field is medicine, engineering, or advertising strategy, it doesn’t matter. You’ve most probably demonstrated a high level of skill and very soon you became the top dog, the go-to person. You’ve always had the answers, or you’ve produced things at a certain level of efficiency, accuracy and so on. It’s for those reasons that you were selected to be the leader.
And guess what? As a leader, you’re no longer going to be doing all that stuff!
You’ll need a new range of skills
When you move from being a technical expert to being a leader, the job requirements change and so the range of skills has to change. How does it change? Well, if you were a carpenter, the material that you’re working with as a newly appointed leader is no longer wood. It’s people, and their personalities, their stuff. Yikes, I hear you say, That’s as scary as being in the charity play! Exactly!
If you pay attention, you’ll see that people express themselves using language. So, as a leader, instead of working on the wood using machines, you’ll be working on the people using language. Chances are, you’ll have to develop new language—not so much new words, as new ways of combining words, new phrasing, a different tone and rhythm, different energy. For example, when you were on the machines in the noisy factory, you could get away with barking orders at people. You could also just jump in and solve whatever problems you saw.
As a leader, you’ll find, that approach doesn’t work so well anymore. You’ll need to be more circumspect.
Nobody wants to see a self-conscious actor
Firstly, you’re going to want to rise above whatever politics existed before or around your promotion. You’ll do this by firmly and confidently assuming the role and ditching any self-consciousness you may have about it. After all, nobody wants to see a self-conscious actor. They’ll be watching your every move and the more authentically and wholeheartedly you say your lines—however made up they are in the beginning—the more the audience will buy it. And, you’ll find, the more you’ll buy it from yourself. So, instead of feeling embarrassed, let them marvel at the transformation. Without losing your humility or your connection with them, of course. This same approach will help you take on that politics that exists at a higher level as well.
Secondly, you’re going to want to make sure that you’re not solving their problems for them. Yes, even though you got appointed because you’re the expert. This may feel strange at first, but if you don’t do it, you’ll be working at the wrong level. You’ll be like a pilot serving drinks instead of flying the plane! Plus, your people will wonder whether you’ve really moved up and on. They’ll also get frustrated, because whoever’s filled your previous role will feel like you’re interfering and that they can’t grow. See? Now it’s about people, and their personalities, their stuff!
Stop being the expert and start leading
As you can see, your main shift is to stop being the expert and start leading. This means learning to coach your people—who may once have been your peers—to solve their own problems. Your marker of success will be, not how much they need you, but how much they can move forward without having to ask you all those technical questions.
To work with your new material, which is people, you may need to develop a whole new range of skills. Mostly, those dreaded soft skills.
Within that, there are what you could call the hard skills of the soft skills. These are particular tools or models that you can learn and apply in a fairly programmatic way. For example, you can learn a particular model of communication that enables you to recognise what phase of a conversation you’re in, and you can have a set of rehearsed questions that you refer to for each phase. This approach works well for people who are indeed more hardcore technical experts. That means you if something like “active and compassionate listening” is about as foreign as speaking Chinese would be for the average Westerner.
Active and compassionate listening, on the other hand, could be seen as one of the soft skills of the soft skills. It means being present to what the other person is saying, instead of queuing up your own arguments in your mind. It means being open to what they’re saying instead of judging it or shutting it down before they’ve even finished. You could also include things like self-awareness and sensitivity. That means taking into account the other person’s values, emotions, personality style, and how they need to be spoken to in order to motivate them.
Why should you bother?
If you’re a hardcore technical person, you might well ask why on earth you should have to deal with such nonsense. People should be grateful to have a job. They chose this career because they enjoy doing this stuff, surely they don’t need a pat on the back every day?! These are questions that many reluctant, newly appointed leaders ask. You may also feel that you didn’t sign up for this. Sure, some people do decide that they don’t want a leadership role. Yet, as you get older, these responsibilities get thrust on you more and more until they become unavoidable. So, like it or not, you’re going to have to make that shift. You’re going to need to deal with people. You’re going to need to speak their language. That’s your new material.
Fortunately, in this day and age, you have coaching and leadership programs that are designed to support you to develop and hone those new skills. You’ll find that the more you do this, the better you’ll learn to work with the material—and the easier your job as a leader will become.
So, let’s say that while you were chosen for the office play for your good looks, or for that angry stare that you give people, you ended up impressing people with your acting skills. Not so hard to imagine is it? Ha ha, perhaps for some! Now imagine that, as a newly appointed leader, while you may have been chosen for your technical skills, you end up being known for your people skills and your ability to lead. Come on, you can do it, can’t you? Or, because you’re a leader and your material is language, let me rather be more precise and say: you will do it, won’t you?