By Christine Tao
I often think of promoting an employee to a new executive or managerial position as what it’s like teaching someone how to drive. The driving student might have spent years as a passenger, watching others effortlessly navigate long distances and suspecting driving wasn’t hard. They might have even read every training manual there is and feel certain they’re prepared for any situation. But that confidence often changes the instant they merge onto a busy highway — when the car’s motion feels completely different from anything they had imagined.
At my company, we frequently work with clients who are entering management or leadership roles for the first time. If there’s one thing they can all agree on, it is that leadership is quite different from what they imagined as employees in ground-level positions. To prepare for this new role, simply reading books or training manuals isn’t enough. I believe you must adopt certain mindsets that help you tackle new challenges and avoid old habits.
Mindset No. 1: You are no longer an individual contributor.
Imagine that you’re a high-performing software engineer. One day, without time to prepare, you are made the head of engineering for the entire company. You are asked to lead, strategize and delegate tasks when all of your prior experiences are rooted in hands-on contributions. In my experience, the problem is that most leaders in this scenario fall back into hands-on work. They already know how to contribute as an individual, so it feels simpler to do it themselves.
This is an understandable hurdle for new leaders, but it must be addressed immediately. Success within any organizational structure is based on team contributions, not personal accomplishments. As a leader, your role is to hire capable employees, delegate key tasks and provide resources that help teams work as effectively as possible.
Managers’ past expertise is best deployed by measuring their teams’ success — not completing every task themselves. Otherwise, leaders will find themselves managing two full jobs at once, which overwhelms them until they can’t fulfill either role effectively. The better approach is to practice delegation on a daily basis. If you cultivate the habit of matching each task to team members with relevant skills, you can leverage the abilities of an entire organization to complete tasks as effectively as possible. Effective delegation is a skill that takes time to learn. But it also ensures the right people are working on the right assignments and frees up leaders to focus on tasks that help the company grow and thrive.
Mindset No. 2: Emphasize broad strategies over daily objectives.
I’ve found there’s a stereotype that executives and managers don’t take on “real work” compared to ground-level employees. The truth is, a leader’s work is still work; it’s just rooted in high-level strategy. Leaders are responsible for generating and implementing directives that benefit the entire organization, which requires strategic thinking that goes beyond immediate tasks.
Strategic thinking works the same way as planning a long car trip on a GPS. You begin by inputting a destination (or a high-level goal). Then, the GPS generates a list of routes that account for distance and traffic congestion (aka your high-level strategies). Once a route is selected, the driver is asked to focus on a short-term destination, which makes the first step of the journey (or an immediate outcome).
A driver who plans each stop before picking a final destination is unlikely to get very far. Companies are not so different. Establish your strategies first, and then rely on employees who can tackle any immediate objectives. New executives who are used to focusing on daily tasks often struggle with strategic thinking, but it’s a mindset that helps them lead the business far more effectively.
Mindset No. 3: Put the team over yourself.
A business might represent hundreds of employees or a humble dozen, but leaders are always the public face of the organization. They are the figures who will be recognized for the brand’s success and associated with its failures. This image of one leader determining a company’s future is rarely accurate — businesses often succeed or fail as a team. But this story is so compelling that I’ve found some leaders often begin to believe it themselves.
If you ask the top business executives why they are successful, I believe they will often attribute it to their teams or sheer luck. In my experience, they will almost never say it’s because of personal smarts or skills. However, self-focus isn’t strictly about overconfidence. Sometimes it goes the opposite direction when leaders assume too much responsibility for incidents beyond their control. The common thread occurs when leaders attach the company’s successes and failures to their own actions, which puts ego at the center of all activities.
Team focus is an important mindset for new leaders, but it’s also the easiest for long-time leaders to forget. So much of the language we use in daily conversation is rooted in ourselves, making it easy to slip out of a team mentality. Have you ever heard a manager discipline an employee by saying the employee’s actions made things more difficult for them? This statement unintentionally sends the message that managers are more interested in their own careers than helping employees improve. Get in the habit of making every communication — even casual conversations — about the team instead of yourself.
Leadership is an ongoing process, and these mindsets are only the first steps. Mastering them helps you learn to delegate, motivate your employees, create high-performing teams and much more. As with any habit, changing these mentalities isn’t easy. It often takes months of practice. (Then again, so does driving.) With time, effort and the right guidance, it’s possible to become a confident leader while managing a highly effective team.Forbes San Francisco Business Council is the foremost growth and networking organization for business owners in Greater San Francisco. Do I qualify?
Christine Tao Forbes Councils
Christine Tao is CEO & Co-Founder of Sounding Board, helping companies grow their leaders through scalable, personalized leadership coaching…
This article was first published in Forbes Entrepreneurs.