December 7, 2021

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7 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became a Leader

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Being given a chance to take a leadership role is an important step in everyone’s career. It means that senior management has seen something that they think separates you from the rest and that you have the potential to rise to the top.

One of the challenges is that so many careers falter at this point, and the opportunity goes begging. 

I know this from the painful personal experience of my first leadership role, which was also very nearly my last.

Here are seven things I wish I knew before being given the role that would have helped me be more successful both then and now.

1. It’s all about the people.

One of the biggest challenges is that most people get promoted into their first leadership roles because of their technical skills. But it’s how you lead and interact with people that will determine whether you are successful or not. 

Technical skills are great, but it’s people skills — your ability to inspire and motivate — that will help you the most. The higher you go, the more critical they become. 

Within the first hour of my first leadership role, my test manager came to me and said there was a problem. I was excited as I knew everything about testing, and this would be an opportunity to get off to a great start. She came into my office, sat down, and said, “I have a lump in my breast. I’m afraid it’s cancer — what should I do?” and then burst into tears.

Only 10% of my time in that first role was spent dealing with technical issues, but the remaining 90% was all about the people.

Related: Why Empathetic Leadership Is More Important Than Ever

2. You don’t need to know everything.

Your job as a leader is to help your teams come up with the best answers. You don’t have to provide all the solutions or need to know everything. 

One of the worst bosses I ever worked for fell into this trap, so much so that he rarely asked his team for input. This just led us to feel that we worked for him, not with him. The teams felt disrespected, especially as in many areas they were the technical experts, not him.

Being comfortable with not knowing and being willing to tell your teams what you don’t know is a great way of building a connection and making them feel valued.

3. Recognition is key.

Of all the leadership and management tools, the number one for driving performance is recognition. People crave recognition. It is one of our most basic needs, that feeling of self-esteem, that we have done a good job and that we have are appreciated is what drives people to exceed.

Quite simply, what gets recognized gets repeated.

4. How to hold people accountable.

One of the hardest things to do as a leader is to get people to accept accountability, and the first step on that journey is understanding that it is their choice. You can’t make people accountable. You can assign responsibility, but that is not the same as them taking ownership of the outcome and being committed to success. There are three simple things you can do to help encourage accountability:

  • To be accountable yourself, role model the behaviors you’re looking for in your teams.
  • Ensure that your teams have everything they need to be successful.
  • Create an environment where they feel safe, and that mistakes won’t be fatal to their career.

Related: 5 Rock-Solid Leadership Strategies That Drive Success

5. Employee engagement is your job.

I doubt I was the first, and I am certain I won’t be the last leader who thought that employee engagement was something for which employees were responsible. Heck, the phrase employee engagement pretty much states exactly that. But the reality is different. 

Employee engagement is actually a measure of how well you’re doing your job, not how well your employees are doing theirs, although it does have a big impact on their performance. That is why it should be your number one priority because team performance is your responsibility.

Here are three tips to help boost employee engagement:

  • Be clear about the goals and objectives.
  • Let your teams know why they are important and how they will benefit.
  • Show them how they can be successful. This will help connect their aspirations to the goal and help increase their confidence, which will help engage and inspire your teams.

6. Everything you say and do is important.

Leadership defines the culture, and your teams watch everything you say and do. That is great if your words and actions are aligned with the goals and objectives, as this will allow you to be a role model for them to emulate.

Everything you say and do is under the microscope, and you need to be deliberate because if there is any deviation between the two, your teams can, and some will, use this and an excuse for them to deviate from the mission.

That applies not just to what you do at work, but to everything you do.

7. Leadership is a 360-degree job.

Your number one priority might be your team, but they are not your only priority. As a leader, we also need to manage upwards and build a solid relationship with our bosses, ensuring that the actions we take will be of benefit to them and make them look good. It helps if you foster good relationships with your peers, supporting them and ensuring good collaboration between your teams and their teams.

Too often, leaders, especially new leaders, focus on the people reporting to them, but this can create rifts that can damage your career. 

Leadership is not easy, especially when you land your first role, but knowing and understanding these seven things will help you navigate those waters more successfully.

Related: The Best Leadership Advice We Heard in 2021

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