Going Up: Transitioning from Team Manager to Business Leader
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Going Up: Transitioning from Team Manager to Business Leader

It’s a common enough story. A dedicated employee gets promoted for doing great work. Perhaps the move takes them from an individual contributor role to one of team manager. Then, from there, they get promoted to managing a business unit. But they don’t have the tools or training to understand the shift in leadership ability that promotion requires.

The bigger the role, the bigger the impact. Leaders responsible for a larger section of an organization need to do many things in new ways. Along with a new title comes a shift in mindset, responsibility, and approach. They need to manage their time differently, manage their communication differently, and even manage their organizational relationships differently. No longer can they be good at just doing the work. Leaders need to be great at making sure the work gets done and financial obligations are met. That is a different skill set.

I recently conducted a leadership workshop for 60 leaders at a fast-growing company. While these individuals excel in their respective positions, their opportunities for leadership development have been limited. This is despite many of them receiving promotions to higher management positions or being on the verge of similar advancements.

Newly promoted leaders can no longer be good at just doing the work. They need to be great at making sure the work gets done and financial obligations are met.

The participants had many questions, but a few consistent themes emerged…  

How do I hold people accountable?

How do I get the resources I need to be successful?

How do I work with key stakeholders?

What work do I continue to do?

Which tasks do I delegate to others?

It’s easy to think that moving into leadership means just teaching others how to do what you already do well. But it’s a new role, and you have to learn new skills to succeed. And then, you have to clarify how your unique skills and gifts can help others in your organization grow.

I coach many ascending leaders. Each has their own style that we work to define and polish to ensure that they succeed in their roles. However, I offer some universal guidance for managers ascending into leadership to help ease the transition.

Look Beyond Today. Start zooming out to see the bigger picture. As a manager, you likely excelled at executing tasks and projects within your realm of responsibility. Now it’s time to think not just about next week, but about next year. Think about the long-term goals of your company, its positioning, its competitors, and what may be coming next in your industry and the greater economic landscape. It’s not just about planning; it’s about envisioning and executing a roadmap for success.

Know Your Story. Effectively communicating your vision, plans, challenges, successes, and resource requirements is crucial for how others perceive your area of responsibility. This is as important as your actual performance. Gone are the days when you could let your work speak for itself. Now there are too many distractions in a business world that is fraught with noise and constant change. Practice telling your story in a brief and compelling style that invites questions and opportunities for discussion. One-size-fits-all will not work. Understand your audience and tailor your story to their needs and concerns.

Empower Others. As a manager, you may have been accustomed to being directly involved in every aspect of your team’s work. However, there’s a world of difference between doing something and getting things done. Delegate tasks clearly, empowering team members to take ownership of their responsibilities. Hold them accountable for their work by trusting in their abilities and provide latitude for them to find the best way, while providing coaching support when needed. Oftentimes leaders delegate without following up to provide clarity in a business that is changing quickly.

Adopt a Growth Mindset. It’s time to humble yourself rather than puffing up with pride. You’re back in class now, and the subject is becoming a great leader. Seek out opportunities for learning and self-improvement, whether it’s through formal training programs, mentorship, or self-reflection. Also, if your direct manager or HR business leader recommends coaching, view it as a positive! They would not invest the resources and time in you if they didn’t believe in you. Today’s business environment requires that leaders continually add to their tool kit to support relationship skills, resilience, and responsiveness.

Develop Your Emotional Intelligence. Effective leadership isn’t just about making decisions; it’s about understanding, motivating, and meeting people where they are to help them grow, while also achieving defined business results. Emotional intelligence (EQ) plays a pivotal role here. Take the time to actively listen to team members, understand their strengths and weaknesses, and develop a communication style that inspires and empowers them. Developing your EQ will increase a leader’s ability to respond to the challenges of an ever-changing business environment.

Effective leadership isn’t just about making decisions; it’s about understanding, motivating, and meeting people where they are to help them grow, while also achieving defined business results.

Cultivate New Relationships. New leaders now have a different set of peers. Being able to develop same-level colleague relationships will be key to success as a leader. Collaboration and leadership influence play a preeminent role in leader success, much more so than when the organization expected just individual contributions. Develop relationships across the organization with those in similar positions to yours so that you can share best practices and knowledge, learn from each other, and collaborate across boundaries for the good of the organization as a whole.

Communicate Clearly. Clear and transparent communication is the cornerstone of effective leadership. Keep your team informed about company goals, initiatives, changes in direction, or circumstances that affect their ability to deliver. Provide opportunities for the free exchange of ideas and concerns. Remember, communication for leaders is not just about conveying information; it’s also about receiving information from those that report to you. Sometimes they will have insights about the work that leadership does not have. Listening to those closest to the work builds trust and brings greater alignment with a united vision.

Give Grace to Others AND Yourself. We all make mistakes. When team members do, help them move forward in constructive ways and learn from the experience. And then turn around and help yourself in the same way. Remember that errors and blunders can pave the way for growth and, often, the next great idea.

Create Feedback Loops. Consider yourself in constant dialogue with your peers and direct reports. Ensure you’re listening more than you’re talking. Ask coaching questions that help others find the answers that work for them rather than expecting everyone to work the way you do. Seek ongoing input to find out how you’re being perceived and received as a leader.

I have recently coached a leader who has received feedback from both peers and direct reports regarding their leadership style. Because of their previous responses to feedback, I was concerned that they would dismiss their colleague’s observations. This leader often looks for motive in negative comments rather than absorbing useful information about their performance, because they viewed criticism as painful and personal. When we reviewed their 360º assessment and found similar observations about their leadership style, it was difficult for them to accept.

To guide them through this, I used an analogy involving customer feedback. I asked them how they handle feedback from customers. Do they ignore it, or do they use it to improve their future decisions? Their response was that they use customer feedback to make better decisions. I suggested they approach their own feedback in the same way – as information to help them make better decisions and improve their leadership. By looking at feedback as a tool to achieve better results when working with others, we shifted focus to changing behaviors and processes rather than judging character or personality. In other words, they don’t dislike you, they disliked that interaction. How could the next interaction be better? A strong leader learns to apply feedback so that they can grow while helping others grow.

Ascending into company leadership requires a shift in mindset, behavior, and approach. Remember, leadership is not about the title; it’s about the positive impact you can have on your department or teams, and the organization as a whole.