You have been thinking about taking on more responsibility professionally for a long time. You finally convinced yourself to apply for that management position and got the call that you were selected. Now the nerves kick in…
- How do you establish yourself as a leader within the team?
- Will the team follow you, or will they ignore you because you are young and inexperienced?
- Will you be successful?
- What should you do first?
- What if you fail?
As you get closer to your first day, you get more anxious. These questions and so many more go through your mind in an endless loop. You’ve never led a team before, and you want to succeed, but how do you lay a solid foundation for that success?
I have had the privilege of leading teams for the past 10 years now. I’ll be the first to tell you this anxiety is normal and comes back each time you move to a new leadership position. My first leadership position was when I was 24 and had just graduated college. I had no experience in my field, no resume to back up my position, and no idea what leading people truly took. For nine months, I worked with my team to develop my leadership abilities, creating success for the team while preparing myself for future endeavors. That initial experience laid the groundwork for my leadership success over the past decade.
My first piece of advice to you: RELAX!! You were selected for this position for a reason. Congratulate yourself! Your proven record while working as part of a team is the lead contributor to your selection to now lead teams. You already have the necessary skills to be initially successful.
That being said, there are some things you can do to set yourself to lead effectively from the start:
Ask Questions, Be Curious
Nobody Cares How Much You Know Until They Know How Much You CareTheodore Roosevelt
Instead of attempting to reshape your organization immediately upon arrival, take time to ask questions. Asking questions and genuinely listening to the answers is vital to building the foundation for a trusting relationship. Theodore Roosevelt’s quote, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care,” demonstrates the importance of building relationships with subordinates. You should continually seek to understand what your team members are doing, why they are doing that, and what is required of them to complete their tasks. By learning about your team members, your organization, and the processes that affect both, you can start to understand the thought process behind procedures. Armed with that knowledge, can begin to affect change if required. Making changes without fully understanding the current environment may lead to uninformed decisions that may inhibit forward progress or erode professional credibility.
Resist the Temptation to Change Things, For Now
One of my early mentors provided some of the best advice I ever received about preparing to assume a new leadership position. Speaking to a group of young leaders, he recommended that we should observe our new team and organization for a minimum of two weeks before trying to implement changes. His justification for this observation period was three-fold;
1) Immediately making procedural changes erodes the professional image of the previous leadership. Making changes before establishing rapport may place you in a vulnerable position. You risk losing subordinates’ trust and respect if they had held the previous leader in high regard. Allowing time for the actions and effects of the previous leader to fade reduces the risk of tarnishing their professional reputation while also allowing you to focus on building rapport with subordinates.
2) Teams and departments within an organization often have little to no control over when accomplished leaders need to be replaced. A variety of external agencies impact the creation of these vacancies with little to no consideration for current and future operations. These disruptive changes to managing and leading teams are compounded when new leaders institute extensive modifications to existing processes. Destruction of momentum and continuity follows substantial changes, forcing leaders to address internal frictions before the unit can function as a cohesive team once more.
3) While organizational policy provides a framework for how departments operate, teams have small nuances that make up their internal working arrangements. By observing the current processes and making a conscious effort to understand why these processes exist, a new leader can gain clarity as to why the unit operates the way they do. Armed with an understanding of these processes and the background behind why they exist, a leader can begin to initiate small changes, targeting specific bottlenecks or unnecessary steps without detriment to the mission and operations.
Set Goals and Communicate
Many people become frustrated with the constant turnover of senior leaders within their organization. The driving factor in this frustration is that few leaders take the time to clearly define their expectations. This leaves subordinates, often long-standing team members, forced to discover their leader’s expectations of them every time there is a change. When everyone understands their leader’s expectations, the leader leaves, and someone new comes in.
Leaders need to clearly articulate their expectations to the most junior team members as early as possible in their tenure to mitigate these frustrations. These expectations can be communicated by a written leadership philosophy and guidance or by merely speaking to the team and explaining what you expect and why you have those expectations. Before sharing your expectations with your team as a whole, it is crucial to discuss these in-depth with your leadership team and ensure complete buy-in and understanding of your expectations. Buy-in is critical; without buy-in, there is an increased chance for competing priorities and expectations, leaving the rest of the team confused, conflicted, and disenchanted.
For some additional insights into how to start your leadership career with success, check out these articles:
5 Tips for New Team Leaders Harvard Business Review
For those who have recently transitioned from team member to team leader, we would love to hear your insights into what worked or didn’t work for you.