So you have just taken over your first leadership role, and truth be told, it is extremely hairy isn’t it? Whereas you previously had to only handle your own productivity, your own output, your own quality, you now have a whole team to take care of. Suddenly, the issue is no longer about how YOU are going to deliver, but how you are going to help YOUR TEAM deliver. You are called to become bigger than yourself, and for some of you, that can be very scary! So for first-time leaders, this article may well help you power through the next 365 days!
Your first month
During the first month, you might still be a little shell-shocked. Everything is coming at you in a flash and you may be scrambling to connect all the dots and getting things done. If you have been promoted from, and continue to contribute, within the same department – though not necessarily in the same team - there might be some familiarity to the processes. However, you are expected to think along a higher plane, and you are given more information about the way things are run, about decisions, and you are expected to bridge departmental leadership's intent with your team members'. It is extremely crucial at this stage not to make any changes. Instead, let things flow as how they have been doing, even if they seem irrational to you. This is because you need to get a handle on what your boss expects of you, what your team expects of you and what you expect of yourself and of your members. Hence, in the first month of leadership, you should be spending time to get to know your boss and your team, and create a line of communication that will help you smoothen rough edges that will inevitably arise when challenges hit, rather than improving processes.
Your second month
You will probably have survived your first departmental meeting, and while your department head cuts you some slack as you get yourself up to speed, she does not expect that productivity and output will fall. In fact, there is an expectation that things will be better than it was before, since you are the bright new star coming in to lead your team further. It is during this time that you see how your team plugs into the larger scheme of work, and you also understand even more of how the system operates. You might be called upon to answer certain things that you might not have full knowledge of, or worse, didn’t happen during your watch. As the leader, you have to take the responsibility to look into the matter, and even to resolve it, regardless of who was the leader then. Here, you must resist the urge to jump in with a solution without digging deeper; even if you have an inkling of what the solution is. This is because there are many issues that look obvious on the surface, but have systemic issues that can only be uncovered through more deliberate thinking. It is also at this time you start to think about what you want the team to achieve, aligning it with corporate objectives.
Your third month
It is important that by the second department meeting, you can outline your team’s goals, and how they are aligned with your department’s and, ultimately, with your organisation’s. This means that you would have to run your own internal meetings, your own internal planning, your own internal training. You need to review how the team has performed over the last few quarters, where they have done well and where they were lacking, and co-create a solution with your team members to move forward. This is an important point – you need to work out the solution with your team members together, while you lead the discussion. This is your first major contribution as a leader, and how well you do here will determine if you will get a cohesive team, or a disruptive one. The keys to leading your first planning session are:
Do not prescribe
Decide on a process and work the process
Ensure that there is full participation from all team members – do not accept anyone's preference to pass, or to defer to the majority. Say to all that their views are important and you would like to hear what they have to say
If you have a better solution, put it out there in the planning session and allow the team members to agree or disagree with it. The last thing you want is a passive-aggressive team – one that agrees in front of you, but privately subverts your plans. Better to have a good plan that everyone agrees with, and carries out wholeheartedly, than a better plan that everyone tries to sabotage.
Get everyone’s buy-in by asking them to reiterate their contribution to the plan, raising any doubts, and getting all questions answered.
Put it down in writing, and get every team member to sign off on it.
Your fourth and fifth months
These are your two relatively quieter months as you allow the plan to work, and the results to unfold. Where there are areas of poor outcomes, you dive deeper to understand the contributing factors, and identify solutions. You are also monitoring both the individual output and team output, verifying the success metrics, ensuring that you are proceeding along the right path, and pivoting the team’s direction if it is straying off course. You are, all this while, engaging with your team, as you are keeping your department leaders apprised of goings-on. And this latter part is crucial. While you build rapport with your team members, you must also build a good connection with your boss. You must show to her that you are both a good leader and a team player. Being a team player to her may sometimes mean that you will do things that your team members might not support. You cannot allow your boss to think that your team will not support the departmental effort, even if, on the surface of it, this effort doesn’t sound totally logical. Ultimately, if the departmental leadership has decided a course of action, everyone in the department must support it. And that, therefore, means that you play the bridge between departmental goals, and team goals; and you need to exercise your influencing skills.
Your sixth month
Ah! Half a year! Time to review how well you have done! At this point in time, you need to speak to each member of your team and ask him/her how you have done as a leader. You must create a space of relative safety so that they can provide you their feedback with all honesty without you having to justify for yourself, nor feel slighted for it. The whole intent of asking for feedback is to make sure that you are leading the team well, creating the right conditions for progress, and supporting each of them in achieving their personal intent on the job. You will also be engaging with your boss, understanding what she thinks about your progress, asking for specific feedback to get things better.
Along the same time as you are seeking feedback, you would also be providing your sixth-month feedback for your team members. By this time, you would already have identified the different personalities in your team, knowing what motivates each of them, what dreams they have, what priorities they have and who are your greatest allies. You would also start coaching both weak and superior performers, so that the team is levelled up.
Your seventh to ninth month
So you’ve gotten to stretch your leadership legs and you received your first feedback sessions, providing coaching, and starting your team on a developmental track. Hopefully, all is going well for you, and you and your team are on the right path. The next quarter would be one of great productivity for you. During this time, you can start to initiate team projects. Projects are a great way to allow your team to stretch itself, develop its own identity, and pull itself away from the pack. Do not try to bite off more than you can chew; start small and working on low hanging fruits. Try to complete the project within a 3-month time frame. This will help you keep the focus sharp, the project narrowly defined. The intent is to give your team members an opportunity to show their mettle without having to feel that it is a chore. After all, their daily KPIs must still be met! This, in a sense, is an outside-of-office-hours-KPI, and hence must be both clear and succinct. Of course, not all members of the team will be sold on this project idea, and this provides another great opportunity for you to flex your influencing muscles, pulling everyone together, and working the best win-win solution for all members.
Your tenth and eleventh month
You are coming up to your crucial one-year timeframe, and it is time to take stock of your achievements. You will need to assess the impact of the projects both on the team members and on the business. There are the developmental aspects to look at, and the bottomline aspects. Although not all projects have a direct impact on bottomline, you should still quantify the importance of the project on the business, and then measure that. If all goes well, you will find your projects hitting a nett-positive impact. They might not hit 100% of your project goals, but your scoring rubrics should include tangible and intangible effects, so it also emphasises the learning as well as the accomplishing. During this time, you will also gather a sense of the strengths of each team member, and the areas that they need development. Start the developmental process soon, and not wait for the end-of-year performance review session to highlight that. This is because a team member's relative weaknesses are as much your responsibility to develop as it is theirs. True, you cannot be held responsible if they don't want to make the changes, but you cannot give them the opportunity to retort and say you didn't do anything about that if you knew about their shortcomings. And that is true. Hence, you should already have started to look at helping them improve their position, and allow them to make the necessary efforts to change. Then you can reflect that in the PM report when you do the review.
Your twelfth month
It's been one year! This is the time to take stock of how you have been doing, and what you will be focusing on next. It is during this time you should reflect on all your leadership development lessons, focusing on the following areas:
leading problem solving
your ability to separate fact from fiction, and lead to a balanced viewpoint
creativity in looking at situations from different perspectives
your ability to influence action from all team members
empathy and even-handedness in dealing with personal matters
Yes, there are a whole host of issues that you will have to deal with within your first leadership year - and we hope that you come up tops! Then, with your personal assessment in hand, you enter into your performance review with your boss with your head held high, knowing that you have discharged yourself with the utmost of professionalism and aplomb!
You will see that being a leader is so much more than being a good individual contributor. You are now responsible for the output of not just yourself, but of your whole team. You will also realise that at departmental level, you represent your team as you do yourself. Hence, if you do well, your team will be seen in similar light. If you do poorly, your team will also bear that brunt. It may not be fair, I know, but that is how the cookie crumbles. You therefore need to take your leadership position with great responsibility because your team members rely on you to carry them forward. Some new leaders actually feel that, after taking on this mantle, cannot live up to the responsibilities, and then opt to return as an individual contributor. We must not judge them poorly for this; instead we need to applaud their courage to stand up to some level of snickering and ridicule, but ultimately to take the right course of action. After all, not everyone can become a leader, and every leader needs to discharge his/her role with humility and empathy, constantly learning, developing and reinventing themselves. But the rewards are immense; not simply in monetary terms, but in the satisfaction you get when you see your team members grow from under your charge, they excel, get promoted and they, too, might take on leadership roles. And all these because of YOUR leadership. Now that is something no amount of money can buy; and is all the reason to being a great leader.