Growing pains: moving beyond contributing individually.

When I coach new organizational leaders, one common growing pain that I hear again and again is:

“I find it hard to let go. It’s hard for me to move away from the day to day and learn how to deliver results through others.” It’s one thing to be a rock star individual contributor with control over your own deliverables; it’s another thing to look your team in the eyes and ask them (depend on them!) to achieve results.

This growing pain is brought about by fear:

–       The fear of not knowing how to drive results as a team and through others

–       The fear of being unsuccessful

–       The fear of the team members not taking your direction

–       The fear of looking incompetent

–       The fear of not being taken seriously

–       The fear of not being liked

So what should you do about it? Shift your focus and learn how to lead with a service mindset. Begin by adopting the three truths listed here to step out of your fear and lead from a place of service.

Truth #1: Power is inversely related to service. 

Imagine your company’s organizational hierarchy. You might envision a triangle with the President/CEO at the “top”, then (in order going down) VPs, Directors, managers, team leads, and finally, the individual contributors at the “bottom”. 

Now, turn that hierarchy upside down: put the individual contributors at the top, supported by the team leads, then the managers, directors, VP’s, and the President/CEO at the very bottom. THIS is what leadership in service looks like: the higher the title, the more time you need to spend in “service” to others. 

Take the time to understand what they do and what makes them happy at work and at home. Learn all about their unique talents and skill sets. Provide regular positive feedback and words of encouragement. Promote inclusivity on the team and create space for continued advancement and learning. Leaders need to take the time to make sure their employees have everything they need to accomplish their goals.

Truth #2: Your team doesn’t work for you – you work for your team.

If you’re a new leader you probably still remember what it was like to be an individual contributor. This experience is leadership gold! Take a moment by yourself and make a very honest list of:

  • The things your leaders did for you that helped you succeed as an individual contributor
  • The things you wish your leaders had done to help you succeed as an individual contributor

Keep the topics broad – for example: “my leader took the time to know Me.”

I’m often asked whether there’s a shortcut to this step – whether researching the top things teams look for in leaders would work just as well as introspection. Though research might be a quicker means to the end, the end won’t be as meaningful to you. The shift must begin with you: it has to be personal to be impactful.

Truth #3: The human experience knows no title.

It’s easy to forget that we’re all human when we’re focused on benchmarks, KPI’s, and profitability. The list you created in #2 brings the human experience of working with a team to focus. It’s an experience you share with everyone on the inverted hierarchy – we all need some, if not all, of the things on your list.

Your next step: go over the list thinking about one of your individual contributors at a time. Choose 3 (or more) things that you think would help support him/her at work. Whether you’ve already spent time getting to know your team or not, this exercise is essential. Knowledge gaps about any team member will be highlighted; these gaps – and filling them in – are your guide for future conversations. In contrast, if you already know each team member well, you will only deepen that knowledge by identifying how you can lead each person with the greatest impact. 

Inverting the organizational hierarchy is a useful visualization technique. By doing so you  situate yourself not as a boss with subordinates, but as a leader who serves his/her team. It is also a great way to remember that those “above” you in the organizational hierarchy are there to support you, too. In the leadership landscape, teams stand on the capable shoulders of their leaders. It is up to leaders to encourage, motivate, align, and support their teams from the ground up.


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