From Individual Contributor to Manager: How do you know when you are ready?

Manager, me? How does one evolve from individual contributor, leading oneself, to leader of other people? When are you ready to take on a leadership role?

You join a great company as individual contributor in engineering, sales, marketing, customer service. You like your job and you perform well. You start to feel that you know what the job is truly about. At some point your boss will ask you whether you would like to be on a management track.

Your boss is asking you the question because they are seeing you taking responsibility. You do small things nobody specifically asked you to do. You invent small improvements in the work you do. You step up when needed. You run to the fire, not from it. You trust and you verify. You help when asked to help. Those are signs of a person who takes responsibility.

Are you willing to lead?

From that mindset you can become a leader if you find inside of you a willingness to lead. Do you genuinely want people around you to succeed in their job? Are you ready to help them advance in their careers? Are you willing to give them the advice they need? Are you prepared to spend time trying to understand them and their motivations? When the answer is Yes to these questions, even if somewhat tentatively, you are ready to try out leadership.

The first leadership role is typically a player-coach role. About half of your time you continue to be an individual contributor (IC) doing the job you did. The other half you spend managing and leading a small team. The good news is that you are not thrown 100% into leadership. You can continue to do what everyone knows you do well. The bad news is that the mindset of the player is different from the mindset of the coach.

As a player-coach, you will have to learn to switch mindset in the middle of your workday depending on whether you are acting as the IC or the team lead. The IC solves problems but the team lead empowers others to solve problems. The IC provides answers to questions but the team lead figures out the right questions. The IC thinks in the moment but the leader thinks for the future. If and when you run out of time in your workday, you need to prioritize your leadership role over your IC role, even if that means not living up to the expectations of a customer or an internal project.

This is why it gets stressful as player-coach. You feel you are failing both your regular work duties and your new leadership role. You have to balance different priorities. Focusing on just one thing until it is done is not an option any longer.

Tough or soft?

A typical challenge of first-time managers is to know when to be tough and when to be soft with your team. Perhaps you are tough with yourself and you need to be softer with your team. Perhaps you are soft with yourself and you need to learn to be tough when the situation calls for it.

First-time managers often are soft when they feel good and tough when they feel stressed. Or they play tough to assert themselves. But softness and toughness should be seen as tools that you use depending on what the team most needs, not what you feel in the moment. We also must learn to see the difference between toughness and discipline. There are situations where softness in leadership leads to great discipline in the team, and toughness in leadership creates apathy which leads to loss of self-discipline. Toughness and discipline are not the same thing.

Dealing with competing priorities

When leadership situations are difficult, there is a universal key to resolving the tension. Focus on the intent of those involved, and ask each one, yourself included, to state their intent vocally as clearly as possible. Ask the team members to explain to the team what they are trying to accomplish.

One team member will say “I am just trying to make sure we serve this one customer well”. Another will say “I am just trying to make sure we follow the documented procedure”. Someone will say “I am just trying to follow the decision, plan or order of our boss”. One may say “We are understaffed for our task so I am just trying to do as little as possible for each customer and project so that I can deal with all of them.”

All of those statements are noble and selfless, yet they easily lead to conflict in a team. This is where leadership gets tested. You as the leader will have to listen to everyone and then determine which principle should rule the situation. Once you have done that, you can say “Team, I have listened to all of you and I am impressed by everyone’s commitment to success of our team. We have several possible avenues to take, with different priorities. I have thought hard about how to balance all competing priorities. Here is what I came up with, and I will ask you to commit to this model for the time being. When we work together, we will get on top of our issues, and we can revisit this topic again to make new decisions. But first we need to work on the pressing priorities of today.”

The more you as the new leader go through challenging situations, the better you will become at seeing what’s around the corner. Your foresight will improve. You will be able to make plans and projections. You will find a certain calmness and confidence in your ability to anticipate both problems and successes that are lurking behind the corner.

As a first-time leader, when you learn to navigate a situation like the one described above, you are on a path to greater leadership. There is a lot more to learn and master, but you have taken an important step.

Basic components of leadership:

  • Taking responsibility for results. Looking for ways to get stuff done. Looking for ways to get stuff done faster or with better results. Not being afraid of the boring or unpleasant tasks that must get done.
  • Seeing the potential in every human being. This is what constitutes willingness to lead. You see upside in everyone, and you are ready to help unlock the potential in every member of your team.
  • As a player-coach, prioritizing the coach role over the player role. In essence this means prioritizing the success of your team member over your individual success.
  • Thinking ahead and not losing composure when things go wrong. Leaders spend time thinking about future scenarios. They think about how bad it can get and how good it can get. Then they aim for the good outcomes. They do not freak out if a bad outcome happens every now and then. When things go wrong, they engage in damage control and lead the team back to the scenario with the good outcome.

Focus on three things

The key to good leadership is to take responsibility for results and to acknowledge everyone’s contributions. Peter Drucker put it well: “The task of management is to make people capable of joint performance, to make their strengths effective and their weaknesses irrelevant.”
Drucker gave the leader three things to focus on:

  1. Joint performance, i.e. enabling the team to work together and being more powerful than if each team member worked in isolation
  2. Making strengths effective, i.e. identifying the unique strengths in every person and helping them maximize the use of that strength
  3. Making weaknesses irrelevant. Drucker meant that all humans have weaknesses and we may not be able to eradicate them. But we can organize the team so that every individual weakness is irrelevant. Team members can and should support each other where the other one is weak. Together, the team becomes invincible.

If you are an individual contributor considering the management track, go for it! It is OK to try even if you are not sure about the outcome. If you fail, you can go back to an IC role (and go back again to the leadership role at a later point). And you will have a newfound understanding of the point of view of the manager. If you succeed, you will not look back. You will find fulfillment in building teams and empowering the success of others.

The world suffers a chronic shortage of good leaders. When you give leadership a try, all collaboration will improve.

Marten Mickos

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