I guess you could say that very early on I was demonstrating what might be described as ‘leadership potential’. In other words, I was a bossy kid – and no one you ask will deny it. I naturally assumed a specific role when participating in group activities; I took charge. I was the one making sure that all aspects of the project were under control, that everyone was included or doing their fair share, and that the cabin was suitably tidy before cabin inspections at camp.
However, in the early years of my career, I thrived in roles with a large support component, where I was spending a large portion of my time helping people. I could’ve been helping customers or helping my colleagues, and as long as I was getting some sense of making peoples jobs or lives easier then my job satisfaction was pretty high.
I’m not just talking about direct customer service roles here. I’m also talking about being a BA in an agile development team. I knew that if I played to my strengths and did what I was great at (like backlog management, scheduling agile rituals and stakeholder communications) then I could free up the tech lead to also play to their strengths so that our team could be more effective. I loved bringing the team together as a cohesive unit, pushing our limits and pushing each other to be the best we could be, and be great together.
There is a stark contrast between the mentality I had as a child and the skills I developed as an adult. As a child, I would say I tended towards management, but as an adult, I aspire to be a good leader. Harvard Business Review sums up the difference between management and leadership quite nicely.
“Management consists of controlling a group or a set of entities to accomplish a goal. Leadership refers to an individual’s ability to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward organisational success.”
There is a big difference between management and leadership. If you’re aiming to be a leader, this blog identifies the things you’ll need to know about yourself in order to transition from manager to leader.
Reflect on what you have loved about your previous roles and look for patterns
I have come to realise that my previous roles supporting people weren’t just about being nice and taking one for the team, they were about supporting the success of people around me. Likewise, decorating someone’s desk or bringing cake for their birthday wasn’t just about the celebration (though that was certainly part of it!), it was about celebrating being part of an awesome team and creating a culture where people wanted to come to work and be their best selves.
When you think about what you have loved about your previous roles, think about what those elements were really about, and then look for patterns throughout your career. Also consider whether you’ll get any of that same stuff in a leadership role. Will you get to do that thing that you really loved, or some variation of it? If not, put some thought into whether that’s a deal breaker for you.
Understand why you want to be a leader
Fast forward a few years and I was embarking on the first formal leadership role of my career. Quite honestly, I decided to take on a leadership role because I felt that I had been fortunate to work with, and learn from some incredibly inspirational leaders. Those people had helped me, supported me, held me accountable, and pushed me when I didn’t even know I needed pushing.
The time had come to do the same for others. I encourage you to actively understand why you want a leadership role. What is it about the role that appeals to you? If your answer is simply that it’s the next obvious career progression, then I would recommend pausing for a moment and thinking about whether that’s enough to get you out of bed in the morning.
So there I was, excited to be ‘paying it forward’ so to speak, but did I remember any of that when I met my team for the first time? Absolutely not! Because just like any time we meet someone new, you first have to break the ice, get to know each other and build rapport before all else. And this leads me to the next tip…
Recognise and play to your strengths
I was the last person on board with a newly formed agile development team. A new workplace for some of us, and a new project for all of us. We had a product to understand, and some looming deadlines to meet. I knew I needed to play to my strengths so that my team could play to theirs.
However, time waits for no one. I didn’t have months at my disposal to get to know each individual’s strengths and weaknesses. I consider myself to be a very open, friendly and welcoming colleague. I genuinely like getting to know people, and because I value authentic connections I find it easy to move beyond the initial niceties.
By utilising this skill, I was able to jump right into the activities required, to get a new agile team into project-planning mode while also engaging in some of the meatier activities around building high-performing teams. By building a culture based around psychological safety, I watched a group of people who were very recently strangers become a cohesive team with a sense of purpose and a common goal. To this day, that remains a huge career highlight of mine.
When you think about some of your key skills, consider which ones could be beneficial when easing yourself into a leadership role. Whether it’s interpersonal skills, public speaking or an uncanny ability to name a song in the first two seconds of the intro, I can guarantee that if you play to your strengths you can make your introduction to leadership a smoother experience.
Take note of what fills your cup
Earlier I told you about how I had always loved helping people. I specifically worded that so I could take you on the journey of self-discovery that I went through – but let’s dig a little deeper here.
Think back to the last week or two of work. Which activities or parts of your role have dominated your focus? Pay particular attention to the thing that you prioritised despite it not being the most important thing on your to-do list, or the thing that left you with more energy than you had before you did the thing, or the thing that made you feel just as amped as that first sip of coffee in the morning. Okay, not quite that good, but you get the picture.
The first thing that always comes to mind for me, is cracking a complex problem or challenge that I’d been working on for a while. Succeeding always made up for the frustration of actually doing it. Another thing I enjoy is taking masses of unorganised information and simplifying it, identifying patterns and summarising it.
As a leader it’s your duty to help your team grow and develop in their roles. It’s important that you are able to give your all to your team, because there is a chance that supporting them is the majority or the entirety of your role. With this in mind, you need to be replenishing your energy in the way that is best for you. Before taking a leadership role, ask about the opportunities to get involved in the areas that interest you – doing the things that fill your cup. When starting a leadership role, seek out these opportunities as soon as possible.
In retrospect, I discovered that while I loved support activities and roles, I also needed to balance them with challenging situations, project deliveries and complex problems. I needed to balance team work and culture building with a healthy dose of individual contribution to a project. That’s how I fill my cup, so that I can give my best efforts to helping those around me.
I find my niche by getting involved in some internal projects that were happening in the organisation – both in previous roles and at Media Suite. Doing this allows me to get to know people outside my department, try something new and contribute towards the success of the project or initiative. By setting aside some time to do this I am sometimes less available to my team, but the time that I did spend with them is much more impactful. I find the context switch to be refreshing, and I am able to swap between tasks and return with a refreshed perspective each time.
I am able to recognise the kinds of things I can do on a daily basis to lift my energy up which allows me to give my all to the team around me. In my current role, though no longer in formal leadership, I have learned to use my leadership skills from within a team and not just in a hierarchical sense. I also find satisfaction in helping people around me grow without having to be their team lead or manager.
If there is only one thing you take from this post, let it be this; understand what fills your cup and what gives you energy. Not just when it comes to a leadership role either, but in life in general. Knowing the kinds of things that replenish your energy could help you get through all kinds of situations in life.
What fills your cup?