Transitioning from being a functional lead to being a leader of people, is a huge leap. It requires both courage, and an understanding of some basic drivers of human behaviour. Ignore what drives people (you and others), and you will have a baptism by fire that could take you and your team out at the knees.

In my coaching and consulting work with high-performing teams, I see some common traps new incumbents in leadership positions fall into, time and again – unless they are conscious of their default behaviour, or ask for help. The two quickest ways to fall on your face include:

  • Thinking you need to know everything from the get-go
  • Feeling you need to command and control those in your team to show you are the leader

Positional power

With the high rate of churn and restructuring I am seeing in senior posts among my clients, functional leads and technical experts are finding themselves being elevated, often ahead of their own career timeline, and without much grounding in leading people.

If this is you, as you take the ball and run with it, you are having to learn how to manage people (which is a whole new ball game) while also delivering on your mandate to the business. The mix can be daunting, leaving you questioning yourself and your ability to take on this new responsibility. Does this sound familiar?

Of course, you now have positional power, which gives you the authority to kick butt (and p*ss people off). However, leading through personal power and influence will take you much further.

There is both an art and science to this, but do not get yourself tied up in knots over complex management theory. Speak human instead and it will engage your team in a way that command and control won’t (especially if you have been elevated ahead of some of your peers who may feel they have been sidelined).

Why you may feel threatened when you’ve been promoted

While there is excitement at being recognised and elevated within the business, self-doubt can creep in quite quickly as you realise you have no road map for this. Self-doubt can develop into a lack of self-confidence and competence. You used to be so good at your job; you were at the top of your game – and now you find yourself feeling somewhat clueless and maybe a little alone.

Whether the leadership change is planned or sudden, it is disruptive. And disruption of any kind is unfamiliar and uncomfortable. When you feel out of control, you feel threatened. Take solace from the fact that you have never been ‘here’ before and you are on a fast-track learning curve. In time, you will feel comfortable again.

What you may be feeling when you feel threatened

As a new leader of people you may feel both excited and uncomfortable at the same time. This ambiguity is part of being human and you may have these feelings:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Feeling out of control
  • Loss
  • Fear

The trap of over-control

With fear underpinning all of the above, the default setting is to go into over-control. On a continuum, this can look like micro-management on one end of the scale, and dictatorship on the other extreme.

If you have competent, skilled people below you, this sends out an instant message that you don’t trust them, that you don’t believe in their abilities, and that you will not be consulting them. This is definitely not a good place to start if you want to build trust and engender their support for you, and the promise you have to deliver to the business.

My practical advice to counteract wanting to over-control

  • Be very conscious about this default setting to over-control when fear and new expectations are in the air
  • Harness the expertise around you to help you succeed
    • Put your ego to bed
    • Be humble – you don’t know everything and you need help
    • Ask them, “How can we help each other?”
    • Allow your team make you look good
  • Be the leader who uses their positional power and influence to get backing and sponsorship for the team, the projects, and the mandates they work with
  • Be the dependable leader who protects their team through thick and thin
  • Be the high-touch leader whose people skills can turn individual fears into confidence and contribution in the workplace

There is a real art to leading people

  • You need to see and acknowledge them for who they are and what they can do.
  • You need to know yourself really well and what your emotional triggers are that make you reactive.
  • You need to have someone more senior to you, who you can talk to who has walked this transition themselves.
  • A neutral outside coach can be invaluable.

Share the big picture

You need to be clear on your deliverables so that you can share that big picture with the entire team – one of the biggest complaints I hear about what weakens a team, is that they don’t know the big picture, or the full picture – how they fit in and how what they do matters.

Stop trying to be the hero

If you are transitioning into a leadership role, stop being the hero who tries to save the world alone. You need to be the hero who saves the world with your team – it’s about ‘we’ not ‘me’. Exert less control in order to feel more in control. In this way you will be able to elevate and enable your team to greater heights, instead of suffocating or sabotaging them through your fear.

Nikki Bush
Human Potential Expert helping you to win at work and life

If you have functional leads transitioning into leadership, work with senior leaders and their teams to reframe disruption of any kind, creating Happy Juice to enhance engagement, performance and delivery. Here is how I work with teams. Drop me a line to talk about what I can do for your team to kickstart 2023.