Transforming Manager to Leader

pawn chess piece casting the shadow of a queen piece
Contributing Writer

9 minutes

Key strategies for the shift include building trust and inspiring followers.

For many people the road toward a managerial position is relatively clear-cut and well-defined. But managers with their eye on the “corner office” may discover that route is a little murkier and harder to figure out.

How does one go about finding the way forward from manager to higher-level leadership? And, most importantly, how does one judge if this destination is the best match in terms of skills, temperament and passions?

According to Deedee Myers, Ph.D., three traits are required for effective leadership:

  1. Intelligence along with the ability to learn.
  2. A degree of subject-matter expertise in the areas in which the individual will lead, knowing enough to ask the right questions and to challenge others when necessary.
  3. The ability to evoke trust among others and to demonstrate competency, care, connection and commitment.

“If one of these is absent, the individual needs immediate support,” says Myers, CEO of CUESolutions provider DDJ Myers Ltd. a Phoenix-based executive search firm that provides consulting services to credit unions, banks, credit card companies and others.

Michael Neill, CSE, president of Michael Neill & Associates Inc., Franklin, Tenn., and CUES’ strategic provider of Servistar and Vertex, says that although leadership is about many things, the ability to inspire trust and having a strategic vision are among the most important qualities.

“Ultimately, a good leader is asking employees to follow him or her to somewhere the leader may never even have been,” he explains. “Employees will not follow someone they can’t trust. And the vision has to take people to a desirable state.

“For example,” Neill continues, “credit union people love their members. If I communicate how this new place will positively impact members, I’ll have a better chance of creating followers. However, if I communicate how it will improve profitability, I will have fewer followers.”

Additional skills Neill says must be present to successfully transition to a larger leadership role include the ability to delegate, motivate, think strategically and handle difficult conversations, along with team building, performance management and accountability.

Self-examination is essential for those contemplating leadership above the managerial level, says Dan Rockwell, owner of Williamsport Pa.-based Leadership Freak. Rockwell, who delivers workshops, keynotes and leadership coaching services to a variety of sectors including financial services, says would-be leaders should ask themselves if they want to be of service.

“Managers are ready to assume leadership roles when they have big hearts,” says Rockwell. “They see leadership as serving the best interests of others. That includes serving the best interests of organizations, employees, customers and other stakeholders.

“Ask yourself if you’re willing to disadvantage yourself in order to advantage others,” he continues. “Selflessness is central to leadership. I’m not saying you have to be a martyr; successful leaders take care of themselves. But the purpose of self-care in leadership is to enable other-care.”

Effective leaders are future-focused and “consumed” by possibilities rather than by problems, Rockwell says. It’s also important to identify your frustrations and complaints as these may reveal information about your priorities, attitude and values, he adds.

“Finally, look around and see if anyone already respects you as a leader,” Rockwell says. “Titles don’t make leaders. Followers make leaders. Who is currently following you? If you don’t have followers now, a title won’t help.”

There from Here

If a manager is going to successfully transition into a leadership position, the role must be clearly defined, says Myers. Additionally, all participants must have a shared commitment.

“Too often a senior leader will have a certain expectation of what leadership looks like, feels like and sounds like, which isn’t aligned with the manager’s expectations,” she cautions. “And if there isn’t a shared commitment on the definition of leadership, there will be dissatisfaction and disengagement. Thus, it’s important to align the internal perspective of self with the external perspective of those who observe us lead and those whom we lead.”

Myers uses a proprietary guideline to help define and reveal the expected leadership competencies. The process consists of an in-depth dialogue between those involved, lasting from three to four hours, to ensure everyone is on the same page.

“Using an evidenced-base framework is critically important to all participants for the sake of creating aligned expectations for competency, character, decision-making, time and priority management, and ongoing employee development and coaching,” she explains.

Neill says his company deploys a variety of assessment tools to help people know if they’re ready to move up. Among these are a 360 evaluation (Myers also utilizes a 360-degree assessment tool) via the Checkpoint 360, a leadership assessment measure designed to evaluate skills and effectiveness; and the Profile XT Select, created to “help select the right person for the job, retain them and enhance their performance.”

Armed with the results of these and other tests, managers can strive to close their skills gaps, identify which of their professional attributes are strengths and which are weaknesses, then work to overcome their weaknesses and leverage their strengths, he explains.

“It is very important to understand that both skills and attributes impact performance,” Neill says. “They are very different, but both can be assessed. From that assessment comes a better understanding of when and how to move forward.”

Rockwell advises thinking about what you might do to become the leader you wish you had (or have), suggesting actions one might take to achieve that objective, such as:

  1. seeing strengths in others;
  2. not talking constantly about what is wrong, but instead asking “forward-facing questions” and trying to come up with three or four potential solutions to a problem before deciding on a path forward;
  3. rejecting the need for perfect solutions;
  4. practicing self-reflection;
  5. affirming more than you correct;
  6. leading more productive and effective meetings. “You’ll run the company if everyone loves the way you run meetings,” he quips;
  7. delegating authority rather than tasks;
  8. sharing your intentions and what you’re really trying to accomplish; and
  9. learning from failure. “Run pilot programs,” he says. “This works for everything except brain surgery and flying airplanes.”

Other tactics? Explore formal leadership training and education through classes and workshops. Find a mentor, who can help guide your efforts and provide you with not just opportunities but honest feedback as well. Courses on coaching can also prove valuable, says Rockwell.

“In addition, volunteer for tough assignments,” he says. “If there is a nagging problem that bugs everyone, set up a team and work to make it better. All you need to do is make a little progress on a nagging issue to be a success.”

Read articles, newspapers and books. A book Neill recommends is What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith. One Myers especially likes is Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box from the Arbinger Institute.

“And anything written by Chris Argyris, especially Organizational Traps,” she says. “Also join (the Harvard Business Review) for timely and relevant articles. And learn and practice the ‘Language of Leadership,’ one of the teachings in our Emerging Leaders Program.”

Maintaining the Trajectory

It’s easy to make a misstep or two on the ascent to leadership, potentially delaying your progress or halting it altogether. One impediment can be the fact that we’re not always adept at accurately seeing ourselves as others see us, says Rockwell.

Assessment and skills testing along with 360-degree evaluations offer a means of gaining a more objective perspective about a person’s leadership capabilities, potential and where improvement is needed. Also useful is seeking out feedback from those with whom you routinely interact in the workplace.

“Share your aspirations with others,” Rockwell advises. “Explain what you think leadership is about. Talk about your strengths and weaknesses. Ask others what they see in you that indicates you could lead. Also ask what might hold you back.”

Once you are in a leadership position, it’s also important to realize that your way isn’t the only way to get things done. Don’t expect other people to be the same as you; their skillsets are likely to be different, says Rockwell. Supporting and encouraging their talents is a better approach and will make you a more effective—and probably a more well-liked—leader. Besides, he adds, enabling people’s skills is what true leadership is all about.

Obviously, the organizational culture plays a big part. And this starts at the point of hire, says Myers. “My observation is that we need to, as organizations, do a better job of defining leadership in our recruitment philosophy. Each of us needs to assume we are a leader from the very day we start working for an organization.

“We lead ourselves,” she explains. “We make decisions on how to use our competencies and fulfill our commitments. If the culture is not a learning culture and does not see individuals as leaders of themselves first, then that dramatic step from a management role to leadership is a huge chasm to bridge.”

Gems & Nuggets

“A successful practice is daily check-ins. Start each day with a check-in so each person can orient themselves to the day in partnership with others. These check-ins can be a stand-up hall check-in for 15 minutes or conducted remotely via teleconference or video chat. Another practice is after the completion of a project or initiative, conduct an after-action review that includes the successes of the project and of the leadership.”—Deedee Myers, Ph.D., CEO, DDJ Myers Ltd.

“Observe others who seem to lead well and those who do not and learn by observing their behaviors. Know why you want to lead. If it’s more money, don’t do it; the money will never be worth the responsibility and disappointments. Lead because you feel you have to or things will be worse if you don’t.”—Michael Neill, CSE, president, Michael Neill & Associates Inc.

“Don’t run around telling everyone you want a leadership position; express interest quietly. Ask your leader how you might earn a leadership role. The key word is ‘earn.’ You aren’t looking for any favors; you’re looking to add value. Make life easier for the people around you and especially the people over you. Don’t wait for a title. Do the job before you have the job. Start today, even if leadership seems like a distant dream.”—Dan Rockwell, owner of Leadership Freak

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, Calif.

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