So, You’re A New Leader. Now What?

Like many things, leadership is not a “one size fits all subject. What works in one situation, may not work in another. However, it’s always good to have a standard approach – a general concept for how you handle challenges. It just makes things easier. Over the years, a lot has been written about handling the most common, day-to-day questions that leaders face.  Here’s a short list:

  • Dealing with an insubordinate employee
  • How to approach a conversation about mass layoffs
  • Resolving conflicts and infighting on your team
  • Onboarding new employees

I’m positive that most people reading this have at least some ideas about handling the situations mentioned above. Experienced leaders have usually seen these situations at some point thought their career and have a solid plan for handling them. And, while some new leaders may lack experience, they’ve probably benefited from enough mentoring to figure them out. However, two types of newly promoted leaders struggle when facing the most fundamental leadership challenges. Two types of people come to mind: those promoted solely because of their technical skills and those elevated due to tenure.

We’ve all seen how the technical expert rises to power. Since they are the most skilled employee in a department, senior leaders think they will make the best manager. After all, the employee is the fastest widget maker in their department. And so, with the (often empty) assurance of support from their boss, the newly appointed leader is baptized in fire.

Sometimes, long-term employees are promoted because there is some type of leadership gap, and the hiring manager thinks this will be an excellent reward for the employee’s loyalty to the company. And, why not? This employee has persevered through it all (mergers, acquisitions, layoffs, etc.). Senior leaders think they are a great fit because they have been through the gauntlet and come through unscathed.

Before I continue, I want to clarify; promoting these two types of employees does not guarantee that they will fail. I’ve seen managers from both situations step into their new roles and excel. However, when the leaders from these two categories fail, they usually rely only on Position Power or force to get things done. While some employees might initially respond to those two things, it gets old rather quickly. Complicating the matter is that these new leaders are on their own most of the time. We’ve all heard the stories: a newly promoted leader is left to figure things out on their own. Frustrated (or, encouraged) by the fact that they have zero oversight from their boss, they lead how they see fit. As a result, the complaints to Human Resources begin to mount.

So, what should you do if they find yourself in this situation? Fortunately, there are plenty of choices that new leaders have. Here are a few:

Go back to school – For those willing to take the plunge, a formal education might be the way to go. Plus, advanced degrees are often a requirement to be considered for management/leadership positions. On the flip side, it might also be worth negotiating your educational requirements as a condition for accepting an offered promotion. Many organizations have tuition reimbursement to help with the cost.

Get training – There are tons of training organizations that offer professional development courses in leadership and management (Many are certification courses offered by prestigious universities). This might be a good place to start for those that want to acquire knowledge, but don’t have the time or the money to take a full load of college courses.

Look for a mentor – Mentors are a valuable resource for those in new positions (When your mentor has experience with challenges you are facing for the first time, it makes life significantly easier. However, if you choose to use a mentor, avoid using the relationship as a crutch. Instead, do the heavy lifting and go to your mentor for advice on your choices and ask them to critique your results.

Ask for help – It’s never a bad idea to get advice from someone who’s “been ‘there’ and done ‘that’ before,” but executives are very busy and may not have the time to mentor you officially. However, that doesn’t mean that you should just give up. You can simply ask someone to meet with you informally over lunch. A few words of caution: Let your boss know who you are thinking about meeting with and why. You don’t want to be stepping on any toes by going over your boss’s head. You should also be honest with your informal mentor about why you hope to meet with them. Be prepared to ask salient questions (you don’t want to waste anyone’s time).

Join or create a support network – Believe it or not, you’re not the only person dealing with issues in your organization. Creating an informal “think tank” for the leadership issues in your organization can be very helpful. It’s an excellent way to grow your internal support system and you and your colleagues can brainstorm solutions to common organizational issues. This network can also be key in anticipating problems that may surface due to organizational change initiatives.
This can be done formally (sponsored by the organization), or informally (over lunch). No matter how you decide to implement your network, keep it focused on solutions, not griping or gossiping about senior leadership – It’s a good idea to put some ground rules in place.

Grow your leadership library – There are literally tens of thousands of leadership books. A quick search on Amazon.com will produce 60,000 results. If you’re going into a leadership or management position, growing your reference library is imperative. I often recommend two books to newly minted leaders: Introduction to Leadership by Peter Northouse and The 27 Challenges Managers Face by Bruce Tulgan. Additionally, you can probably come up with solutions (or, at least ideas) for most of your leadership challenges by reading some of the Harvard Business Review Press offerings.  I particularly like HBR Guide To Managing Up And Across and HBR Guide To Dealing With Conflict.

If these suggestions seem like common sense, that’s because they are. However, you’d be surprised just how many individuals will take on a new position without the least amount of preparation.

I’ll wrap this up with a story. A few years ago, I began coaching a struggling leader who needed help building rapport with his team. He had been with his organization for 15 years, and, although he was technically skilled, he didn’t have the faintest idea about how to lead people. As time went on, some members of his team began to be routinely insubordinate. Unfortunately, this behavior became catchy and eventually turned into a full-blow departmental rebellion.

As we got into our first session, I asked what I thought were two pretty straight-forward questions:

  • Why do you believe this is happening?
  • What do you think caused this the escalate the way it has?

The leader was utterly stumped. I asked a few more questions and we learned that his primary tool for dealing with blatantly insubordinate employees was threatening to write them up. However, he never actually wrote up anyone. He thought the threat would be enough. It hadn’t occurred to him that he should make an attempt to find out why the employees were being defiant or follow through with corrective action! It was a shame because he could have found the solution to the problem in any number of books with a bit of research. In fact, that was the very first thing that I suggested.