You’ve nailed that big promotion, started a company, or landed that new job. Congratulations! You’re in your first leadership position.
There are likely millions of discussions online about the mistakes that first-time leaders make and how to avoid them. Everyone seems to have advice, and some of it is great. But it’s not enough to not screw things up. You should want to do things that make you stand out as a first-time leader. Not as a matter of ego, but rather because doing those things will lead to success for the people that you’re leading.
To stand out as a leader, you first need to understand what leadership is. That’s what the +1 refers to in the title of this blog post, so we’re going to start there.
What Is A Leader?
When you look up photos of leadership, they almost always show the worst examples. In nearly every case, it’s a picture of someone pointing in a direction, or standing over their team as a dictator.
True leaders are the ones who will dive in themselves. They offer guidance rather than dictating instructions. They offer mentorship and coaching, not micromanagement. A leader understands that they can’t do everything themselves. So they provide the right environment and level of autonomy to their team to get things done.
With that said, we could end the post here, right? Not quite. It’s one thing to say “these are the qualities that a leader should exhibit.” It’s quite another to dive into the behaviors that form these qualities, so that’s where we’re going next.
Over the course of this discussion, we’re going to look at specific, actionable behaviors. Whether you’re new to leadership or looking to take a new approach, our goal is to give you something that you can implement today that will make a positive change.
Lead By Listening
When you want to stand out as a first-time leader, you’ll want to spend more time listening than you do talking. But you might also need to change how you listen. This is such an unnatural thing for people to do, especially those people who often get chosen for leadership. Those “Type A” personalities are quick to think that they have everything figured out, so they tend to listen for things that verify their assumptions.
Enter into every conversation by first silencing the voice in your head. Listen, rather than waiting to speak. Take notes. Not only will this help you to retain what the speaker is saying, it will also keep you from having to remember questions that you have when they come up. When asking your questions, see if you can make them open-ended. What comes out of those answers might amaze you.
It’s so common for people to approach someone in leadership with a feeling of reverence, which can lead to them holding back their true issues. If problems never surface then you as the leader can’t help solve them. The people working with you need to know that you are not only listening, but you are truly hearing what they have to say.
Lead With Efficiency
Could that meeting be an email? Are you tying outcome to input? Did you provide enough clarity when you handed off a project?
You lead with efficiency when you empower a team member to do their job by providing clarity. Leading with efficiency means skipping follow-up meetings when a hallway chat or an email would suffice. You should always assess your communications, your interactions, and even your own workflow for inefficiencies. Every wasted minute has a trickle-down effect that affects your team.
This carries down to your choice of tools, as well. From task management to text expansion, there are ways to automate repetitive tasks, free up mental space, and improve your efficiency. The tools that you choose and how you use them will provide leadership by example, and your team will appreciate the time and energy saved.
Lead With Why
In his 2009 TEDx talk, Simon Sinek gives a wonderful example of how great leaders inspire action. He said that every business knows what they do, most know how they do it, but very few know why. Conversely, the outstanding leaders in life, business, and elsewhere start with the “why,” and then they answer the rest.
As leaders, it’s easy to get stuck into a rut of handing out marching orders. In Sinek’s Golden Circle, we’re starting with the “What.” We often then leave the “How” up to our team, and we ignore the “Why.”
But what if we started with why?
What if we went into each sprint, or each quarter by having a discussion about the overarching “Why” that our team is trying to achieve? This could differ greatly from the true north goal of the company. For example, let’s say that your team’s task is to implement a new feature this quarter. To shine as a leader, think about the better reality of what that new feature will provide. What is the core belief that your team has that you’re working toward, and how do today’s tasks help you reach it?
Sharing that is how you inspire your team to action.
Lead With Empathy
You’ve heard the adage that people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses. While the truth of the statement is debatable, there is still a lesson that we can all learn in being a first-time leader: If you want to shine, you need to understand your employees.
We often think about empathy as it relates to customers. We put ourselves into their shoes so that we can provide a good experience for them. But that same behavior can help us to build a healthy work environment that attracts and retains incredible talent.
Harvard Business Review published an internal study from Facebook. The company was trying to figure out how to fix an employee retention problem, and “all bets were on managers.” But the results of a survey told a much different story.
…we learned something interesting about those who eventually stayed. They found their work enjoyable 31% more often, used their strengths 33% more often, and expressed 37% more confidence that they were gaining the skills and experiences they need to develop their careers.
When thinking about empathy, we often narrow the subject down too far. Sure, we want to know if an employee is having a bad day, or a stressful time at home. We should be mindful of how their personal life can affect their work and vice versa. But what about their experience? Their personal development? We should have empathy for their feelings on growth (or the lack thereof).
As a leader, step back and view their situation through a different lens. “How would this situation make me feel if I were them?” Once you’ve done that, express those concerns and ask your employees about the challenges that they’re facing. Then it’s time to go back to leadership by listening.
Lead by Learning
Looking back at every one of these points, there is a common theme — being an eternal student. The first-time leader who stands out is the one who never stops learning. They understand that every person has a lesson to teach…even if it’s what not to do.
The stand-out leader listens to those around them. They are humble enough to know what they don’t know. They are constantly seeking new knowledge, whether in a conversation, a book, a course, or a podcast.
This leader is always looking for ways to improve their own processes. They know that even incremental changes can create growth. They’re always open to learning about new tools, or new ways to use the old ones.
As a first-time leader, it’s critical to learn the “why.” It’s also important to learn when you reach the right why. Hint: “We do this to make money” is almost never the right why.
Gaining the respect and trust of a team comes with learning who they are. What drives them? What do they care about personally, professionally, and otherwise? The first-time leader will shine when they not only put a vested interest in learning about each person, but when they’re also open to learning from each person. They see every member of their team as an asset, and they know that there is a boundless source of information available to them.
It can be scary to be a first-time leader. You’re entrusted with the success of an entire team, and in some cases an entire organization. But if you’re reading this then you’re already looking for answers and you’re on the right track.
We’d love to hear about memorable leaders that you’ve known, as their stories inspire us to keep writing articles like these. If you have something to share, please do so in the comments.