After 15 years as a lawyer, Matt is now the manager of a small team of specialist lawyers. Annie has been an engineer in high-tech electronics for ten years and now finds herself leading the program office covering multiple projects with multi-disciplinary teams. Many lawyers, engineers, economists, doctors, physiotherapists, IT systems analysts and actuaries find themselves moving from being an individual technical contributor to the leader of other technical experts. At first, this may not seem a big deal. Afterall, the content of the work is the same and you are probably turning up to the same office or worksite. But you have significantly changed jobs.
Your default setting
If you are one of these professionals, you know that it takes many years to get to a senior level. You can end up making this transition to people leadership later in your working life. You have deep expertise and your value has been in providing specialist advice or solving highly technical problems. Your default setting is often to get immersed in the technical details. As a latter day people leader, you can tend to pay too little attention to the humans. You might even irritate and demotivate people by re-doing their work, doing their work for them or cutting across the contribution of others in front of clients and colleagues. The transition from technical expert calls on conscious shifts in professional identity and day to day practice.
Here are five important shifts that can help you make this transition.
Transfer the intellectual passion
Senior professional across many disciplines get a lot of satisfaction from the intellectual complexity of their work. It might be the satisfaction of scoping out the conceptual landscape of an opportunity or challenge, cracking the code to solve difficult problems and getting absorbed in data and research. These are the deeper motivational payoffs that lie beneath the specifics of a discipline or academic training. But they can also be found in the intellectual and personal challenges of the leader role. What about the satisfaction of thinking through complex people and organisational issues? What about learning more about individual human beings? What about working out the best way to engage and motivate teams? There is no shortage of complex organisational problems for you to apply your mind to.
Reset your default
What’s your default setting when something has to get done? Get in and do it yourself? To successfully make the transition to the leader, you have to change this default setting. Because it can be hard to break established habits, here are some trigger questions that can help you make the shift. How about; ‘Who else can do this?’ or ‘Who can I best mobilise to get this done?’ or even ‘How can I make sure this gets done without me doing anything?’ Then let other people do it. Okay, sometimes you will do some of the work but less as time goes by and more by intention than default.
Get obsessed by outcomes
There are more ways to get things done than you can think of. Different people find different ways. Often new and better ways. Try to stop obsessing the ‘how’ of getting things done. Instead, get totally obsessed about the outcomes that really matter. Talk a lot about the big picture outcomes, the shorter term objectives and the guiding parameters of the work and then let other people find their way to get there.
Stimulate curiosity in others
When you are the expert, people expect you to always have the right answer. They expect you to communicate these answers verbally and in writing. You are paid to give answers. As a leader you are not paid so much for coming up with the right technical answer. You are paid to mobilise others to come up with the answers. This is one of the biggest challenges leaders work on in coaching. Instead of telling, it’s about engaging and stimulating the curiosity and imagination of others. The best way to do this is by asking lots of open and intriguing questions. Questions stimulate people to ponder, explore and discover. Try open questions and be okay with sitting in silence while other people’s brains do the work. You no longer have to have all the answers. In fact, acting like you do stifles the engagement and growth of others.
Sandpits are chunks of work that come with real responsibility, accountability and authority to make decisions over how things get done. Give people the biggest sandpits you can. Educate people about business requirements for quality, price, timeliness and compliance and then let them get on with it. Get out of their way and let them learn, innovate and deliver the outcomes. Oh and one last thing…turn off your mobile and emails from time to time. You’ll be amazed how much individuals and teams can achieve without you!