Taking on an executive leadership role for the first time often means discovering the skills that led to your promotion do little to help you meet the challenges of taking charge.
As a business consultant and psychotherapist, I see many people who, while expert in their business, discover they fall short on the emotional skills necessary to lead. Here are my suggestions to help new managers navigate office dynamics:
1 Loosen up
Some of the personality traits that helped your career previously can now work against you. Perfectionism, for example, may have been useful in doing your job well and protecting you from criticism. Now you are a leader, it becomes time consuming.
Similarly, that narcissism that may have helped your promotion should be reined in. Replace grandiosity with empathy.
Micromanaging staff is a common fallback for inexperienced managers, because it alleviates fears that your subordinates’ performance may not be up to scratch — and will reflect badly on you. New challenges and targets may lead to anxiety, that in turn leads you to look for simple solutions. Your need for control must be replaced with a tolerance for uncertainty and complexity.
2 Let go of the credit
With a higher salary and more status come sacrifices. You will lose the pleasure of having close colleagues, for example. And the credit and praise for a job well done now belong to your staff.
Greg Hodder, a former chief executive of Charles Tyrwhitt, the menswear company, says: “What you’re doing a lot is telling the people working for you how well they’re doing, but of course there’s no one doing that for the CEO.”
A 36-year-old newly appointed managing director of a sales company came to me for help in making sense of the tensions in his team. His optimistic nature meant he brushed problems aside, leaving some staff feeling frustrated.
Spending too much time with people he worked closely with created the perception that he had favourites. This divided staff between those for and against him. His determination to keep everyone happy had backfired. The strong feelings directed towards him, both positive and negative, were stronger than he anticipated.
“I underestimated the extent to which comments and actions that I took would be scrutinised and interpreted far more than I would have imagined,” he says. “What I learnt is that you need to be more deliberate and not be too hasty, and that you need to take time to hear all sides of an argument.”
3 Avoid surrounding yourself with yes-people
Those in authority should remember that the people close to them are likely to tell them what they want to hear, says Manfred Kets de Vries, a psychoanalyst and professor of leadership development and organisational change at Insead business school.
“That means you have to listen extremely carefully to what’s said and what’s not being said,” he explains. “I’ve seen too many executives fall into the trap of living in an echo chamber. For example, you’re in a meeting, and people flatter you and say that was a fantastic meeting. And you like it. [While] people who disagree, subtly or not so subtly, [eventually] can be removed.”
4 Adopt the ‘Columbo approach’
Leaders often avoid conflict for fear that matters may worsen. But disputes do not disappear when they are brushed aside: they re-emerge, become more destructive and are difficult to manage.
Investigate your own response to conflict. Are you an avoider, or do you see disputes as a zero-sum game? Reflecting back on how your family dealt with conflicts when you were a child will provide clues to your current behaviour. Learn to tolerate the strong feelings that arise from division without reacting.
This requires self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Remember that feelings can be unreliable. If you react strongly to some situations, use a trusted colleague as a sounding-board to gain perspective.
I often suggest the “Columbo approach” — the US television detective who listened carefully and weighed all the clues and characters, and only identified the murderer once the evidence mounted to an inescapable conclusion.
Being too aggressive or disciplinarian can easily destroy trust, Mr Hodder says. “[If] you’ve given someone responsibility you’ve got to be careful not to attack them for failing,” he explains. “It’s as much your fault if you’ve given them responsibility and they haven’t achieved it. It will spread like absolute wildfire if you develop a reputation for attacking people who haven’t performed correctly.”
5 Show you care
Many leaders fail to appreciate that everyone has lives and families outside work.
Prof Kets de Vries says: “For many executives their ideal employee is someone who is just divorced, lives in an empty apartment, takes a sleeping bag and moves into the office to work 24 hours a day.”
Mr Hodder believes that if you demonstrate that you care about people, you will receive loyalty and trust in return. Get to know your staff, and remember they have personal and professional histories that influence their characters.
Beware, though, of becoming too close. A good rule is to be as close as enables you also to be distant. Otherwise the difficult conversations, which are bound to emerge, will feel too personal.
6 Seek advice
Support inside and outside the business is crucial, from a mentor, for example. If you find that you persist with harmful behaviour, then you might need to dig more deeply. A psychotherapist, or a coach with psychological training may be the best option.
Mr Hodder says: “I never do anything without using a sounding board — and almost never did they not improve what I was going to do.”