Moving On Up! Transitioning from Individual Contributor to Leading Others

Congratulations!  You’ve just been promoted for your hard work and are moving up the ladder! Along with the promotion you are gaining direct reports which is an honor that your boss believes you have what it takes to coach, mentor and grow team members.  This is all great news, but it’s important to understand that the skills that made you successful working for your boss individually can get in your way as you start leading others.  I struggled with this myself and thought it might be valuable to share some of my challenges.  Here are 4 key things to think about if you are transitioning or are already in a management role and feel like you are not being as effective as you would like.  

  • Training – When I was first promoted to supervise a couple of food technologists it was because I had been successful in managing my own projects.  The promotion was a great reward, but it didn’t come with any formalized leadership or management training.  Many promoting managers assume you already have the skills or they came from the school of hard knocks where you are expected to just figure it out.  I didn’t receive formal leadership training until a couple of years after starting to manage people.  I had to learn by trial and error.  Through many adjustments it has worked out for me, but I have seen many new managers fail and eventually move back into individual contributor roles.  Managing people takes a different skillset, the most important being trusting others and coaching for growth.  Ask for training if you haven’t been offered it.  Career development is best when you are driving it and don’t wait for your boss to suggest something – just ask! 
  • Delegation with Trust – When you are responsible for others, it is expected that your work responsibilities change and that your team will take over at least some, if not all of the type of work you used to do.  Many new managers are nervous to pass along work, fearing they will be seen as too good to do the work. The flaw in this thinking is that your role and responsibilities have changed so you must give up what you used to do in order to accept these new responsibilities.  A common pitfall is when there is a lack of trust in delegation.   This shows up when you feel like you could do the task better or faster and therefore never hand it off.  It is important that you trust your people, give them the opportunity to receive higher level work and support them if they ask for it.  Without this transition and trust you’ll earn the dreaded Micromanager title.  No one wants wants that! Trust your employee with the next assignment.  Set high expectations and then let them take it and run.  I think you will be surprised that most employees will exceed your expectations!  If you are getting nervous, stop by and ask how things are going and if they need your help with anything.  It is very important that you show support but don’t take the assignment back from them.  Over time you will get more comfortable with delegation but it can be quite uncomfortable at first.
  • Separating Friendship from Management – A challenge I faced in my first promotion was that now some of my peers were my direct reports.  This can be very challenging, especially if you are also younger than them by more than 10 years and have less experience at the company than they do. Don’t fear, you can manage this situation through effective communication and setting expectations.  The most important strategy here is to not let imposter syndrome or your own thoughts tell you lies.  You were promoted for a reason.  Your boss saw something in you and believes you can be an excellent leader.  It is possible that you may run into a situation where someone who was your friend tries to use that to get what they want. If that is the case, they aren’t a true friend who wants to do a good job and see you succeed. Evaluate with caution and then make a decision about how to manage the situation in a way that won’t put your effectivity in jeopardy.
  • Strive For Fairness Rather than Equal Treatment – In the high-performance leadership style, there is a significant difference between what is equal and what is fair.  If you try to treat your employees equally, you will please some and disappoint others.  For example, two of your employees may have completely different ideas of what is considered a reward. One may be more of an introvert and appreciate a gift card to their favorite store where a more social employee may prefer to be taken to lunch for some 1:1 time with you. We are all individuals, and it is important to consider what each employee needs and wants in terms of communication, direction, support, and training.  If you can figure out how to meet each employees’ needs, they will grow and exceed your expectations.  The ultimate compliment as a leader is when your individual employees feel like they are successful, have an amazing boss who understands them, and they know you are their biggest supporter of their career development.  

I hope these suggestions are helpful.  I have learned a lot over the last 15+ years of leadership and continue to hone my leadership style for effectiveness.  If you have additional advice you have picked up along the way, please share with us all in the comments.  


3 thoughts on “Moving On Up! Transitioning from Individual Contributor to Leading Others”

  1. Natalie, This is a terrific topic — so on point and relevant for so many. In addition to being a gifted leader, you are a gifted writer. Love your posts — the common sense, the real experience, the learning — Keep writing. This is excellent.

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