You’ve done it! You worked the long hours, you sweated the details, you provided some innovative thinking, you earned the respect of your peers and your firm’s leadership. You’re being rewarded with a promotion that, for the first time, places you in “management.” Wow. Congrats to all the new leaders out there!
Now what? What type of leader will you be?
It’s a significant question. I fear too few new leaders give it much thought. Instead, they tend to focus on their to-do’s, thoughtlessly assuming that their new direct reports will fall in line, know what to do, and know how to interact with their new boss.
Sometimes that can work: for example, if you’ve been on the same team with the same colleagues for a while, the leadership qualities that brought the promotion were likely also recognized by your colleagues and the well-established work patterns just shift a little to accommodate your new role.
More often, however, wonky stuff happens. Maybe you’re not clear on how your role is supposed to change. Maybe your newly-minted subordinates are difficult to manage. Maybe you’re being asked to manage former colleagues – some of whom may be older than you!
This is why it’s important for new managers to ask that question above: what type of leader will you be? Where will you fall in the spectrum between autocratic or collaborative? Between micromanager or loosey-goosey? Between standoffish or too-friendly?
As a new leader, it’s a good time to perform some mental wargaming. What will you do if an employee complains of unfair treatment? What will you do if an employee’s performance is subpar? How will you handle disputes within your team? How will you react if you’re asked to make budget cuts? How do you want to be perceived by your own managers?
Along the same lines, it’s worthwhile to think back on your career to-date. You probably had terrible managers and inspiring mentors along the way. How would you have handled the challenges you witnessed them tackle?
Maybe this sounds a little too blue-sky. You’ve gotten this far on instincts and perseverance. Maybe you know everything you need to know. Yet, we’re talking about your career here. Not just your job: your career. It’s worth it to pause for a beat and genuinely think through these issues. Better to map out your approach than to wing it along the way.
All new leaders should try to create guardrails for your leadership behavior: you want to know in advance how the type of leader you want to be would handle the types of situations you’re likely to face. So when you do face those challenges, you react in a way that is in keeping with your values and less likely to embarrass you when you look in the mirror the next day.
My last piece of advice is more tactical, yet in many ways the most difficult for new leaders: your subordinate colleagues are not your friends. You need to walk a line that allows you to make tough calls about your employees’ performance, if called for. This is difficult to do if you’re partying with them on the weekend. And your dilemma becomes twice as hard if you fear being called out by other employees for showing favoritism if you don’t make those tough calls. You can, of course, have warm and collegial relationships with your team, but successful leaders stop short of fraternization. There’s a reason why they say it’s lonely at the top!
Many young executives are daunted by the challenges of leadership. I say, cast aside those fears! Having been in leadership positions since I was 24 years old, I can assure you that the benefits outweigh the worries – from a financial perspective, sure, but moreso because your youthful energy and ambition can make a huge impact on your organization. Witnessing your ideas blossom and bear fruit within an organization you care about is how you create career highlights that will boost your prospects in good times and buoy you through the tough times. It’s worth it. Get after it!