The Honest Truth about Leadership Transition

All leadership roles are not the same. And while we might agree with that statement on paper, in practice we violate it regularly.

In practice we promote a high performing individual contributor—a leading salesperson or a leading researcher—to the role of frontline manager and are surprised when that person struggles to win the support of his or her direct reports. In practice we promote a successful frontline manager to the role of executive leader, and are surprised when that person struggles to sustain the same level of performance he or she had as a frontline manager.

The honest truth about leadership transition is that we do this because we really don’t believe that all leadership roles are not the same. We do this because we think that leadership development moves on a linear continuum from one logical step to the next, when, in fact, it’s just the opposite.

“The most common cause of executive failure,” writes Peter Drucker in his classic book, The Effective Executive, “is the inability or unwillingness to change with the demands of a new position. The executive who keeps on doing what he has done successfully before is almost bound to fail.”

In preparing people for successful leadership transition, then, the dissimilarities of one leadership role from the other must be well understood and adapted to fully. Here are three of these transitions:

1. From Individual Contributor to Frontline Manager

2. From Frontline Manager to Executive Leader

3. From Functional Head to Cross-Functional Leader

Let’s look at each one of these in turn and learn how to master them.

Leadership Transition One: From Individual Contributor to Frontline Manager

The primary difference between being a leading individual contributor and a frontline manager is the difference between personal productivity and organizational capacity. An individual contributor excels by putting their head down and doing the work at hand to the best of their ability. This technical expertise results in success in the role and promotion to management.

Technical expertise, however, is not what makes a successful frontline manager. In fact, it can backfire terribly. Sure, a successful frontline manager needs technical expertise to be respected by his or her team, but this leader’s focus must be squarely on developing that expertise in others, not on doing the work themselves.

When you’re really good at something, however, it’s extremely hard not to jump in and do it yourself. Every time you do, however, you stop being a leader and act like an individual contributor. Every time you step in as a sales manager and close a deal for a rep so you can hit the number stunts the growth of that rep and diminishes the capacity of your sales organization.

But that’s not all.

Failure to understand the difference between personal productivity and organizational capacity will eventually burn you out. Why? When you think like an individual contributor, you tell yourself that if you work hard enough, everything will be okay. This thinking sets you up for failure as a frontline manager. Working harder does not develop organizational capacity because you’re not duplicating yourself in others, you’re just doing their work for them. That’s the honest truth about this leadership transition.

What is the secret to successful frontline leadership?

The secret to successful frontline leadership is learning how to be a good coach. Learning how to work one-on-one with your people so they become exceptional individual contributors in their own right. Note this well: coaches work hard, but they don’t play in the game. Coaches prepare their people to play in the game. And when they do, their people perform at the highest levels of excellence and the entire team wins.

Leadership Transition Two: From Frontline Manager to Executive Leader

The primary difference between being a frontline manager and being an executive leader is the vastly different dynamics of visibility and accessibility in each of the roles. Here’s a visual representation of that difference:

Executive Leadership, versus Frontline

Frontline managers have low visibility within an organization. However, due to their relatively small span of control, they have high accessibility. This allows them to be hands-on in leadership, giving their direct reports the individual attention and one-on-one coaching they need to excel. This up-close-and-personal approach to leadership works very well and qualifies the frontline manager to take on a more expanded leadership role within the organization.

The problem is, to quote Marshall Goldsmith, what got you here won’t get you there. That is, the dynamics of executive leadership are just the opposite from the dynamics of frontline leadership. Due to a dramatically increased span of control, accessibility to your direct reports is decreased and the raw mathematics of the situation prevents you from providing the personal attention that led to past success. Trying to will end in utter exhaustion

Conversely, visibility within the organization is greatly increased and people jump to conclusions about you from the slightest word or action in a way that you’ve never experienced before.

“We often tell our coaching clients that the more senior you become the more perception matters,” executive coaches Amy Jen Su and Muriel Wilkins write in their brilliant book Own the Room. “You are increasingly under a microscope. Your team members, peers, and superiors interpret your every thought, word, and gesture with greater nuance. And these interpretations drive how they respond to you.”

For example, how presidential does New Jersey Governor Chris Christie look when he jumps up and down in the luxury owner’s box hugging Jerry Jones after a Dallas Cowboys touchdown? Say what you want about his “right” to do this, the wisdom of it is questionable.

The honest truth about this transition is that executive leaders must learn how to manage their visibility, utilizing a powerful concept I refer to as authentic executive presence, to maximize their impact on people. Then they must learn how to leverage the limits of their accessibility by equipping a handful of trusted leaders who represent them to the larger group.

Leadership Transition Three: From Functional Head to Cross-Functional Leader

Within executive leadership there are two different kinds of roles: the head of a functional area, like finance or sales, and the cross-functional leader, like a general manager or a CEO. These, as with the above transitions, are two very different roles that must be approached in two very different ways.

When I was the head of sales, I lead my sales group like many sales leaders do. It was us against them. David versus Goliath. I bred a fierce devotion among my salespeople, and together we killed it. I went to battle for them at every executive team meeting and came back with the spoils of war, product changes, increased compensation, whatever. In short, I advocated for my sales department every chance I had.

When I became the CEO of this company, however, I was shocked to find out how many people I had alienated by acting this way and how many bridges had to be rebuilt for the rest of the leaders in the firm to follow me. I had to learn the skills of inquiry, leading by listening, creating alignment, and forging alliances.

That’s honest truth about this leadership transition, from functional head to cross-functional leader. What makes you effective in a functional role is not the same for a cross-functional role. In specific, the advocacy that rallies the troops in your functional area, alienates people in other parts of the business. Cross-functional success requires a blend of advocacy and inquiry, expressing your point of view and listening intently to the point of view of others. Not one or the other, but both.

What Leadership Role is Right for You?

Here’s one final word of advice. Understanding the dissimilarities between various leadership roles is critical to managing your career path.

There is tremendous pressure to accept any leadership promotion that comes your way. But only you know if a promotion is a good fit for you. If you give in to this pressure and take on a leadership role that you’re not well-suited for, it’s like beating a square peg into a round hole. Both the peg, the hole, and the hammer will be damaged in the process.

Do you love putting your head down, working hard on your own and getting things done? Then be the very best individual contributor you can possibly be. Do you love working with people up-close-and-personal, coaching and developing them one-on-one? Then be the very best frontline manager you can possibly be.

Do you love taking on a challenge and building a kick-ass department in your area of expertise? Then be the very best head of a functional area you can possibly be. Do you have a systems view of the world and love the coordination and collaboration of getting lots of moving parts operating in concert together? Then be the very best cross-functional leader you can possibly be.

In this way you’ll know the success and fulfillment that comes from doing work that’s right for you. And that, too, is the honest truth about leadership transition.

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