Last reviewed 25 June 2018

Every year, thousands of people are promoted into management positions for the first time. Many of those find themselves facing a series of significant but often unforeseen challenges that leadership presents to the inexperienced; challenges which, if left unresolved, result in high stress, seriously damaged relationships with team members, and a great deal of wasted time. Jude Tavanyar examines some techniques to make the transition to leadership smoother.

Gaining credibility

Leadership, especially for the uninitiated, is not necessarily about knowing more than your team. Of course it helps if new team leaders, indeed leaders on any level, know their stuff. However, being an expert on any area of knowledge is really not what leadership is, or should be, about. The challenge this idea presents is that very often new leaders — particularly those who may feel under pressure to prove themselves and establish their credibility early on — feel obliged to do so by showing that they know their subject inside out and can provide detailed solutions to almost any challenge that arises.

It’s not difficult to see why the “content expert” as leader may very often run into difficulties within just the first few weeks of occupying the new job. While having informed ideas and being able to provide in-depth analysis of any problem on the horizon is certainly a valuable asset, it is not the same thing as running a motivated, high-performing team.

Knowing your subject inside out as a new leader is of course not really the problem. Constantly airing that knowledge so that your superiors and team realise early on that you are on top of things, is the real issue here.

New leaders who have always operated in a competitive environment may often forget this. The art of leadership is not (only) about showing how well-informed and competent you are, but, crucially, needs to focus far more on building trust by helping your team members realise their full combined potential and unique individual strengths. Without that focus, team members become rapidly demotivated and disengaged — after all, if the boss provides all the answers all the time, what more is there for any of them to do? And — most critically — how will they ever learn anything or prevent themselves from getting bored?

While it’s tempting to be the “know it all” leader who fixes everything, always remember this: it’s a distinct turn-off and powerful demotivator for others, and sooner or later they will detach and withdraw their energy and effort. At which point you may find, in the most extreme of circumstances, that you are now a team of one.

Managing one-time peers: with transparency and acknowledgment of change

Another challenge new leaders face is building trust when the people they are managing were once their peers and they now have to redefine their role with them and establish a different kind of relationship.

All too often new, inexperienced team leaders face up to the challenge of establishing their credibility with one-time peers in two opposed and equally ineffective ways. They either resort to “command and control” tactics — the “Just do it, I’m the boss” style of leadership — or, conversely, act as if nothing at all has changed — perhaps in order to minimise their own anxiety about facing potential hostility from people who were previously operating at the same level of organisational hierarchy as themselves.

First-time managers who achieve this tricky transition with effectiveness, even elegance, do so by being honest about the change of role and, rather than seeking to justify or ignore it, make clear from the beginning of their time in the role that their overall concern is a constant focus upon the needs and aspirations of the team as a whole, and the individuals within it, and that these intentions are at the very heart of what they strive to achieve as leaders.

Talking to all team members individually, actively seeking out their thoughts, perspectives, feelings and needs will help to air any tensions and difficulties, and also indicates the manager’s primary concern to put the team’s development and success at the centre of his or her ambitions as leader, and to use a collaborative, consultative approach to do so.

Listening, reflecting back, summarising and asking powerful questions — still the core skills of leadership

Leaders who learn to listen really well, to reflect openly and appreciatively on team members’ perspectives, to offer powerful, specific feedback, to invite new ideas and perspectives through explorative questions, and to acknowledge them with enthusiasm and appreciation — are leaders who will excel in motivating and stimulating their team to give of their best. These skills require humility, self-reflection, versatility and a strong ability to work in collaboration with others.

Build trust by giving feedback and taking action

Perhaps even more importantly, leadership is not just about communication with team members in order to encourage and energise them. It’s also about acting upon what is heard and understood in those communications.

It’s astonishing how frequently overlooked this is. Inexperienced leaders who welcome their team members’ ideas on the surface but are secretly thinking that they don’t agree, or have a better solution, may often quietly “park” those suggestions and deliberately ignore them, hoping their originator will forget they ever offered it. The opposite of this is also sadly common: new leaders forgetting to acknowledge and recognise team members’ innovative thinking — or worse, publicly representing the ideas as their own.

It’s not hard to see how such actions erode trust among team members, and also co-operation and goodwill. Leaders need to dare to show transparency and invite it in team members so that immediate, specific and constructive feedback can be offered and (if relevant) useful ideas can be fine-tuned and developed further, and less useful ones can be further worked upon. Following that, an outline of the actions the leader will take to support team members in progressing their thinking and ideas further should be set out and shared.

The result? Greater commitment and goodwill among team members, and very often an enhanced degree of confidence and self-awareness among all team members, including the new leader. And those are the elements which help people develop and learn as individuals, and support and understand each other better as a team.

For that is the ultimate measure of a new leader’s credibility, not so much his or her ability to meet individual targets and show competence and subject knowledge par excellence. More the understanding and skills to engage with a variety of individuals with varying personalities, needs and challenges and help them come together as an effective, collaborative and powerful unit, in other words, a high-performing team.