Not all superstars are supervisors: how to support new leaders
PA Consulting's Nick Shackleton-Jones on why the transition into a leadership role can make or break a budding leader
I’d like to tell you a story about Andy:
Andy was, without a doubt, good at his job. That’s why they made him a leader. He was pretty thrilled about this – at least initially.
The team that Andy inherited quickly got an impression of the kind of leader Andy would be: he wasted no time picking holes in the way they were doing things, without – they felt – taking the time to understand why. Some complained of micro-management, others just didn’t appreciate his personal ‘style’. As a result, most of them left in Andy’s first few months.
Beneath his directive facade, Andy was feeling far less confident than he appeared to be. The whole transition into leadership had felt pretty chaotic, there was less handover than he would have liked, and his own manager (Martin) seemed to expect him to ‘get on with it’. As a result he had a nagging feeling that he had no idea what he was doing.
When some of the team left he took the opportunity to recruit some ‘solid’ performers; people he could depend on. People like himself.
But the transition from superstar to supervisor still wasn’t easy. It seemed like technical competence didn’t translate easily into leadership capability. People kept telling him to delegate but he didn’t trust the team enough to do that, so he was still taking on a lot of the work himself. It didn’t help that HR kept nagging him to produce ‘Development Plans’ and ‘Performance Reviews’.
When he finally found time to sit down with his team and talk about performance, he felt it was time to share a piece of his mind – especially with some of the underperformers. So he gave them both barrels. A week later he found himself subject to a ‘grievance’ process.
The process dragged on for months. Andy felt like it was bringing everyone down. When it was eventually over, Martin suggested Andy go on a leadership course. ‘I don’t have time for that’ Andy thought.
Over the last decade or so we have worked with dozens of organisations looking at leadership and the transitions that people make into leadership, by talking to leaders themselves.
Although Andy’s story isn’t the only story we hear, it is remarkably common. As people move into a leadership role they experience a roller-coaster ride of uncertainty that inevitably takes its toll on the organisation: people leave, engagement dips and mistakes are made.
By the time a leader is booked onto a leadership programme there is often already a trail of wreckage in their wake, untold cost to the organisation, and scant likelihood that they will change what is now a hardened approach.
Our view is that the time when leaders are most receptive to new expectations and behaviours is immediately before and during their transition into leadership. This transition represents a critical period in their development, and if it’s mishandled the toxic effects are likely to be felt for years to come. For this reason, our focus has been on providing leaders with what they need, when they need it. In a word: guidance.
New leaders crave guidance. Coaching from a more experienced colleague is always welcome, but in a pervasively ‘on-demand’ world this increasingly means digital guidance. Guidance is not training. Guidance is stuff that you can use to get the job done - a checklist for your first 100 days, a jargon-buster, questions to ask your team, templates, short war-stories from people who have been through what you’re going through.
So that’s what we do. We enable leaders to access useful stuff, easily, on their own devices. In turn, this reduces the time it takes for them to get up to speed, increases their confidence as new leaders, and reduces the risk that they will damage things early on in their role. It may well be the biggest single step you can take towards improving your organisational culture.
To support leaders with the guidance they need in their new role, we’ve developed a Leadership Essentials web app, giving people access to the stuff they need on their mobile device or computer. It contains a rich mix of resources designed with and for new leaders. It also comes with a simple-to-use content management system that allows you to keep your content up-to-date and in step with organisational change.