Leadership in most companies is not really something explicitly practiced. Generally, a few people who are naturally inclined kind of do their thing while the rest of the leadership ranks sort of ignore the finer points of people management. But why is that the case? And how do you avoid being one of those leaders whose careers plateau after reaching lower management?
Tell me if you have heard this story before. There is a high-performing engineer. We will call her Carolyn. She is a whiz when it comes to writing code. Her architectural sense is strong, and her code is well thought out, is always tested, and seems to scale well with increased demands on the product. Over time, she assumes more leadership roles, still as an individual contributor, taking the architect spot on a new product effort. She has been promoted from Member of Technical Staff (MTS) to MTSII and MTSIII. There are no more rungs immediately above her unless she becomes a distinguished engineer, but those slots are coveted and typically take a year of politicking to secure.
Her manager knows how important she is, so he gives her solid bonuses and maxes out her available raise every year. But it has been two years now in this pseudo architect role and she is nearing the top of her pay grade. What does he do?
Since she is an exceptional performer, it’s an easy decision: promote her into a management position. And so Carolyn is now sitting with her first management job.
But you know what her manager doesn’t do? He doesn’t talk to her at all about management and leadership. He just puts 4 people reporting to her and continues to assign projects as he did before. Poor Carolyn hasn’t a real clue what she is supposed to do. So she continues to write code and meet with people, the extension of her previous role and what she is really good at. She adds to her prior workload the administrative tasks that come with managing people. The only way to accommodate all of this is to work longer hours. Now working 60 hours a week, Carolyn is just a bit less pleasant to be around and her code is just a little bit compromised.
Meanwhile, Carolyn’s team operates exactly has they had before. They continue their work unimpeded, the only real difference being who they make PTO requests to and who they talk about in the break room when they are together. They aren’t particularly better off other than having a manager who used to be their peer.
Carolyn rides this job out for another couple of years but doesn’t get promoted. Now a manager, her career track is different, and she doesn’t get the same kudos for her code that she used to. In short, she is ill-equipped to take the next step in her career. Why? Because no one told her what she is ultimately measured on. Without guidance any other way, she assumed that she would be evaluated on completing tasks. So she pours everything she has into those tasks, and she calls for weekly and then daily status on her team’s tasks.
During this whole progression, there are two major things that do not happen that would change everything. First, the company did not invest any time in training Carolyn for her new role. There was no sit down meeting where someone explained that her new role meant that she needs to do less of her previous role. She is not measured on being a coding workhorse now; she is expected to lead a team. And Carolyn made this worse by not actively seeking out a mentor to help her grow personally and professionally.
When you get promoted to a management position, no one tells you this, so let me spell it out some. The only measure of a leader is whether your team operates better because you are there. If your team functions more or less the same with or without you, then you are by definition expendable. And that means you are not succeeding at your newfound management position.
Your new job is to lead, and that means you have to make it a first-class element of your daily routine. You need to spend time learning, acquiring leadership skills, and actively leading. Most people do a half-assed job of this because they think it has to be done alongside all the things they used to do. But that’s not true at all. You actually need to stop doing some aspects of your previous job, swapping in the leadership tasks in their place.
So how do you lead? It starts by getting a mentor. Until you can follow, you will never be good at leading. You need to identify someone in the company (not necessarily in your own org) who you admire and respect. Approach this person and ask for mentorship. Most solid leaders will appreciate and respect the request. And then you need to meet with this person weekly to talk about leadership and how to be effective in a management role. This is the single biggest thing you can do to help your career. This is for you, so you need to be diligent. Follow up. Don’t allow mentoring sessions to be interminably postponed. If you want to succeed, you need to do this, so go after it.
And the second thing you need to do is get to know your team. Now, you might think that you already know them because you were once peers, but idle chitchat is not the same as getting to know individuals. Every person operates differently, and it is now your job to make sure that they are engaged, motivated, and can operate without obstacles. What are their aspirations? How can you help clear major hurdles in the workplace? How can you remove the tedium that otherwise fills a day (like meetings and those daily status reports you asked for)? You work for them. And if you don’t really believe that, they will know it and will never follow you the way they could.
The last thing you need to do as a new leader (and I know no one told me this, but I wish they had) is hire great people. When you are first a leader, you hire people willing to work for you. You covet experience over talent, so you hire industry re-treads who have good experience but who have never shown flashes of real career potential. These people have spent 20 years not really advancing but always just doing. They are valuable members, but they aren’t who you build a team around. If you want to get noticed for your leadership skills, you bring in A+ players – even when they might seem more qualified than you. Nothing scuttles a promising management career quite like bringing in a team of B players.
If you do these three things – find a mentor, really get to know your team, and hire big – you can help avoid the natural plateaus that come after that big step into the management gig.