The “Pretty Good” Leader: Part II

Last November, I wrote the blog post “The “Pretty Good” Leader: Part I”, in which I compared “good” leadership to “great” leadership. I consider this current blog post—“Part II”—to be a companion to the original article rather than a sequel. I doubt there will be a “Part III”.

I would like to share a few more thoughts for those who are transitioning from jobs or professions where performance is highly dependent on specialized training and technical competence (think neurosurgery, applied economics, chemical engineering, etc.) to leadership roles where results are more likely dependent on how well you motivate a team to achieve a goal (think launching a new product, managing a major project, or pursuing a major strategic objective). Often, the highly competent, technically-gifted individual contributors are motivated, self-reliant, and have “perfectionist” tendencies that have served them well when success is dependent only on their work.

When this high-performing individual is promoted to a leadership role, success becomes elusive if the new leader fails to articulate a clear vision and is unable to inspire the team to work together to complete a project that no single person can do alone. The technical skills and prior work product that got them promoted, in the absence of a leadership skillset, can create a situation where, for the first time in their career, the inexperienced leader will fail. It’s kind of a “what got you here won’t get you there” situation.

So, a few thoughts for you if you find yourself in the position where you are contemplating a career transition from technical “expert” to executive leader. If you have already accepted the new leadership position, congratulations! The mere fact that you have been chosen to lead a team suggests that someone believes that you are capable of success in the new role. Some of my thoughts are very practical and some are more about the mindset changes that might help you in your transition to executive leadership:

  1. Attempt to take a little time off between your “expertise job” and your “people leadership” role. If you are staying in the same organization, you may be expected to do both jobs during the transition while your employer looks to fill your technical position. When you ultimately make the full transition, try to take a little time off. You want to be seen as the new leader, not someone doing your old job in a new role.
  2. Listen to The First 90 Days, by Michael D. Watkins. This audiobook has a great deal of good advice about how to start in a new leadership role. The book is good to read, but I found the audiobook easier to digest.
  3. Remember that most everyone knows that you were good at your technical job. You don’t have to spend a lot of time proving to people what you know. In fact, the more you talk about yourself, the less people will listen to you. Your success now is more about how fast you can learn about your team, their personal abilities, and their career goals. You may also be “learning” a new company: its culture, the “unwritten rules”, and long-term strategic objectives. Plan on the fact that there will be times when you are completely surprised by what you are finding.
  4. While there is a pretty fast cadence to “on-boarding” (often called “getting up to speed”), this transition to executive leadership takes time and is not all that easy. Make sure you don’t ignore the habits that support your personal resilience: sleep, exercise, time with family and friends, and hobbies. My personal experience was that there was enough continuous change that the pace of learning never really slowed, and I did much better if I focused on my “self-care” and “relationship-care” in addition to managing my work.
  5. You will have a boss—a real stakeholder who will make demands on your time and how you do your work. Spend some time trying to figure out how best to fit into his or her leadership team and how (s)he likes to communicate. I have had good and bad bosses in my leadership career. This may be one of the first times your work effort will be criticized (fairly or unfairly) so prepare yourself for that situation. I certainly made some mistakes during my transitions. When you are a technical expert—in my case, a neurosurgeon—I didn’t really have a boss telling me what to do, think, or say, though my patients and colleagues gave me performance feedback every day. You can learn a lot from both good and bad bosses, although working with a “good” boss is definitely more fun.
  6. Get used to the fact that there are often no right answers and that, from time to time, you will need to navigate difficult choices. Fortunately, you rarely need to make a snap judgement. Take time to get input from as many stakeholders as possible and recognize that not everyone will be happy with your decision every time.
  7. When challenged or stressed try to resist the impulse to revert to your former “expert” mindset even though it might be where you are most comfortable from an emotional point of view. Everyone will be watching how you react. It’s fine to have a strong commitment and point of view, particularly if it is consistent with the shared values of your team. If you are too reactive, self-centered, critical, volatile, or unpredictable, people eventually will avoid you and you won’t get the information you need to do your job.
  8. Often leaders believe what they think, and some don’t like their ideas challenged. Don’t be that leader. I have found that the best leaders seem to be curious about dissenting points of view, even when they already have an opinion. Constructive dissent does not mean disloyalty; and you may learn something unexpected that changes your opinion.

After I had been in an executive leadership role for a year, I asked a very respected senior vice president what I should try to do in my next year on the job. He said, “Get good at something, and try to become indispensable”. I was a little taken aback, as I thought I was already “good” at multiple things. I took his advice to heart and I just focused on getting better. I realized that I didn’t get to decide if I was a “pretty good” leader. Only those who were willing to follow me would be able to determine if I was good at my “new” leadership job.