How to transition into your first leadership role

Transitioning into a leadership position for the first time is an exciting career change with new opportunities for growth and development. However, it can also be a daunting prospect when you have no experience in managing people or delegating work. Recently promoted employees may have clearly excelled in their previous role, but being a good leader needs completely different skill sets and qualities. Great managers are those who foster a culture of open communication and trust, and celebrate their teams’ achievements. With current figures suggesting that the number of women in leadership positions in the UK is on the rise, we are looking at the potential challenges you may face when transitioning to your first leadership role, and also the steps you can take to make this career change work for you and your team.

leadership role

Challenges of moving to leadership

Moving from being an individual working on your own projects to becoming a leader who must lead the work on multiple projects from multiple individuals is a challenge for many reasons. Some of the challenges you might face include:

Finding the difference between management and leadership

Many people use manager and leader interchangeably, but in reality the two qualities are completely different. A manager’s role is to control a team and workload to deliver on specific objectives. Being a leader however is more of a challenge and a skill not everyone finds easy. Leadership is about influencing other people to follow and work towards a goal, and ensuring they are happy, motivated and do the jobs they were hired to do.

When you are promoted into a role where you are responsible for managing one or more employees, it’s important to consider that you are also now responsible for their personal development as well as your own. It’s your job to mentor, guide and support them through their work life and to motivate them to be the best they can be. It’s possible to be a great manager and be really good at things like budget control, delegation and hitting targets, but not so good at the leadership side. This is when you’re likely to lose the interest of your team, as they don’t feel motivated and inspired to excel in their own job. This is the core difference between management and leadership and should be considered when moving to a leadership position.

Learning the team dynamics

Another challenge you will initially face when starting a leadership role is working out the dynamics and personalities in the team you are managing. In some instances if you have gained a promotion internally to the new role, you will have some knowledge of this already. However, it’s very different when transitioning to being your colleagues’ manager. In fact, in these instances there are often tensions due to team members being funny about having someone as a manager who was previously on their level.

It’s important to take steps to get to know each individual team member and learn what kind of management style will suit them. Some people prefer a more hands-off approach, with a manager being more of a sounding board / passive influence. Others may need considerable support and attention (often more junior members of the team). Managing people is not ‘one size fits all’ and it will take a bit of time to gauge the dynamics and ways of working. This is one aspect of leadership which women can thrive at, with studies finding that women are more empathetic than men, owing to the emotional side of managing people.

Adapting to being more hands-off

Moving to a leadership role means that you will likely be ‘doing’ less of the work and instead you will be leading it and delegating to your team. This can sometimes be tricky for new managers who find it an alien concept and prefer to keep their work to themselves. However, leading a team should not be put on the back-burner, it’s a demanding and time-consuming role. It’s important to learn to let go of some tasks to allow you more time to spend managing the people in your team and their outputs. Delegating your old tasks will also help to motivate and empower your team with new responsibilities, helping to grow their confidence and develop their skill sets.

5 steps to take in your new leadership role

  1. Preparation is key

The best way to prepare for a transition to a leadership role is to feel as equipped as possible. Not only are there many different management courses and qualifications you can look into, simply spending the time to understand the different roles and responsibilities in the team you’re leading is imperative. Integration into the team is one of the most important aspects, and this doesn’t just mean the people you’ll be directly managing either. Familiarise yourself with the structure of the team and other senior leaders too. Having great working relationships with these people will not only look good, it’ll help you too. Often new leaders will ask advice from others, creating a non-official mentorship relationship which can really help you thrive in your new position.

  1. Take a step back

Moving into a new role at any level can be daunting, especially if it’s a role which has been vacant for a while. There will likely be a mountain of tasks ahead of you, all seemingly urgent, and it can be easy to make the mistake of tackling them all too quickly and rushing decisions. Instead, take some time to step back from the situation and really think about what the priorities are, and how to go about solving each one. Just because the previous manager did things a certain way, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best way for the team or the business. Look for ways you could streamline processes and relieve workload from yourself. Are there some things you could delegate to other members of the team to help with their own development? Is it the best use of your time to be working on a certain task? Taking a breath and looking at things from a more broad perspective can be really helpful, and help you to form a better decision-making process going forward.

  1. Assess your knowledge and identify gaps

A common misconception is that a part of being a leader is to know everything. It’s not. Your team are your greatest assets and the best thing to do is use them for knowledge sharing. Consider doing a self-assessment to identify where you could grow and learn, and start to look at how you can do that, whether it’s through your team or external sources like training courses. Have the confidence to ask for help when you need it and don’t suffer in silence – everyone needs to grow into a new role and there is no shame in looking to learn more.

  1. Take time to set goals

A big part of your new leadership role will be based around your team/department’s KPIs and expectations. As you get onboarded, you should have a good understanding of the business objectives, but take time to consider how these fit into your team’s work. For example, if you run a team of software developers, what are the deliverables they are working on and are there deadlines to go with them? Your team will need you to communicate the changing needs of the business and prioritise what they’re working on. It’s also helpful to involve your team in setting KPIs for themselves – that way, everyone will be aligned and work much better together.

  1. Celebrate the wins and don’t dwell on the losses

Humans thrive on recognition and praise – it’s how we know we’re doing a good job. A huge part of being a leader of a team is about recognising their hard work and celebrating it. Acknowledging and applauding achievements will give your team members the motivation to complete the next task – and it doesn’t need to be a big gesture. Sometimes, a message expressing gratitude can change someone’s mindset and give them motivation to do a good job. If you have regular team meetings, they are a great environment to acknowledge team achievements. LinkedIn is also a great tool for praising your team with a post of appreciation once a project is complete.

On the other side of the coin, leaders must also recognise when a team member makes mistakes or isn’t delivering on their workload. Don’t sweat these situations – most of the time they are not a reflection of your management. Take time to listen to team members to understand why they might not be performing their best, and work on a resolution together. It might be that they made a mistake because they don’t fully understand the task, in which case you can support them in more training and development. Remember that your team are humans and you are too – nobody is perfect and everybody makes mistakes.

Being a successful leader can be a thoroughly rewarding career, as you are not only responsible for your own career development, but also your teams. By taking the time to immerse yourself in the role, get to know individuals and their ways of working, and nurturing these relationships, your journey as a leader will be much smoother.

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