Growing organizations go through many changes on the journey of scaling up. A common one is the creation of new teams, and consequently, new team leaders. As startups move from teams of people, to teams of teams, former peers become leaders and must learn to excel in their new role. How do you tackle the challenges of being viewed differently and commanding a new level of respect, while at the same time remaining humble and approachable to your team?
Going from teammate to team lead presents many challenges that are not often openly discussed. As you move into this new leadership position, it’s important to ensure that you have the correct perspective to support the success of your team. In this article I’ll discuss a few main points I typically cover with people making this move, and share some strategies for successfully establishing yourself as a capable team leader.
New leaders cannot afford to take this point lightly. Everything the team now does (or fails to do) is on your shoulders. This does not mean that you alone get all the glory. On the contrary, any victories should be credited directly to the team’s members. However, if the team struggles or fails, you as their leader must take all the credit for those failures, as well as take responsibility for improving future performance. A strong leader is someone the team can count on for representation and support. Teams get the credit, leaders take the blame. It’s all on you.
As leader, you have become the face of the team within your organization. You represent them when it comes to anyone with whom the team will interact. Never complain about circumstances, other business units, or other teams. Be aware of how your personal interactions with coworkers reflect on your team.
Leadership requires constant awareness of the effect that your actions have on others. The key to mastering this attitude is remembering that your presence at work is now a representation of something greater than just you.
People treat and view leaders differently than they do peers. Now that you’ve officially moved into a leadership role, be aware that your former teammates will (and should) relate with you in a new way. When in the past you may have regularly gone out together as a team, you now must give the team space to have those outings without you. Don’t be insulted if you aren’t invited along. Instead, be supportive of your team developing a new interpersonal culture. Your team will have different discussions when you are present than when you are not. Learn when to subtract yourself from a situation to allow them to discuss things on their own.
A certain level of separation is conducive to being respected, so cultivate a professional distance. Maintain personal interest, but frame that interest with the sense of being a supportive coach. If a team member comes to you with concerns, don’t be drawn into commiserating as a co-worker may be. Instead of complaining, present possible solutions, or simply ask how you can best support them at this time. You should know everyone on your team and look out for their welfare, but without favoring any single team member.
Effective leaders are objective and aware of those responsibilities that are not specified in the job description. Build an awareness of your team’s position relative to the big picture of your organization. One way to do this is by cultivating constant communication up the chain of command, and sideways with other team leads. Maintain objectiveness in regards to your team’s performance and ensure that you always consider the success of the whole organization.
If someone on your team isn’t performing as expected, first ask yourself, “What did I, as a leader, fail to do?” Have you been clear in explaining the intent of the project to your team? Have you successfully conveyed the importance of certain aspects and provided adequate resources and training? First looking at yourself is an important leadership practice, and one that will help you enable and empower your team members.
A leader’s opinion carries more weight, and your casual words may unintentionally be taken for a directive. Be hyper-aware of the impression that your words make on your team. Instead of simply providing your opinion, create a culture of open discussion that encourages ideas and input from your team members. You can do this by constantly asking questions that facilitate further discussion. Become an expert practitioner of the Socratic method, using thoughtful questions to lead team members towards end goals. Question assumptions, especially yours, and take care when phrasing disagreement.
Your goal should be to build up a culture of team members who come to you with plans for solving problems and achieving the objectives that you as their leader have set. It’s important that the members of your team have a sense of ownership over how they will achieve these objectives. You can support their sense of ownership by defaulting to their solution whenever possible. Consider that even if you have a 95% solution and they have a 75% solution, the team and the organization overall may benefit from executing their approach. A 75% solution passionately executed has a far greater chance of success than a 95% solution that someone is pushed to implement. Your job is to help the team achieve their objectives, regardless of whose idea becomes the path for getting there. Give everyone a chance to be the team’s superstar.
No leader is perfect, and pretending that this isn’t the case can cause moments of tension and awkwardness. Don’t be afraid to openly acknowledge your shortcomings to your team members. Saying out loud that you’re unsure or uncomfortable as a new leader in a particular situation will not negatively affect your credibility. To the contrary, it humanizes you and instills confidence in your team that you’re aware of your shortcomings or mistakes, and that you’re interested in improving them. Consider these situations to be opportunities to lead by example. You’ll encourage your team members to also practice humility and embrace opportunities to learn and grow.
With that in mind, a leader must still make decisions and take responsibility for the outcomes of those decisions. Expressing that you are feeling unsure and then not doing anything to change that fact will only undermine your authority as a leader. Instead, express that you’re unsure, ask for input and information, and then come to a decision based on that input. This will reinforce your position as a reasonable and measured leader.
Establishing yourself in a new leadership role takes dedication and work, but primarily comes down to a shift in your own personal perspective. In order for your team to perceive you in a different light, you must first relate differently with them. To provide your team members with appropriate support, you must develop an awareness of their needs and of how your team’s performance connects with your organization on the whole. Become cognizant of the increased impact of your words as a leader, build up your team members, and lead by example when openly acknowledging mistakes. By keeping these principles in mind, you can successfully cultivate your leadership presence and grow confidence - both confidence in yourself, and confidence that your team has in you.