A few weeks ago, I was reading some research on new leader development in which the authors (who were all academics) concluded that the best approach to developing leaders was to “rotate them through a series of challenging, hands-on leadership experiences”. I smiled as I reflected on my formative leadership experiences, and those I created for new leaders over the course of my career. While I agree that hands-on experience is essential for developing leaders, the idea that those experiences can be reliably created and managed within the context of the crazy-busy day-to-day reality of most organizations today is fanciful, especially for first-level leaders.

The team leaders that form the frontline of today’s organizations face a broad range of complex challenges. They may be expected to inspire shared leadership across a global virtual team one day, manage a local project team the next, and in parallel play a contributor role on a third team. These first-level leaders are critical to sustaining quality, service, innovation, and financial performance. Yet, few get high-quality training, if any at all. Any training they are offered is increasingly given as an online series of courses, or the lucky ones get a one- or two-day seminar built upon 20th-century models (think Tuckman’s Storming, Norming, Forming, and Performing – circa 1965) focused on ideal leader traits and tips for managing teams through various stages. In addition to being of questionable value for 21st-century team leaders, those programs rarely provide follow-up to support the transition into people leadership, nor do they provide tools and metrics to measure progress and demonstrate the effectiveness of the concepts from the training.

Coming of Age

In the 21st-century world of shared leadership and global virtual teams, the approach to first-level leader development must evolve. One of the most challenging turning-points and transitions at work is moving from the role of an individual contributor to having formal responsibility for managing and leading people – a.k.a. becoming a first-level leader. Historically, much of the leadership development advice focused on this workplace ‘coming of age’ process extolled the traits of great leaders and encouraged imitating their behaviors.

I recall the feeling of satisfaction that came with my promotion from Product Manager to Senior Product Manager in the late 1980’s – my first people leadership responsibility. The leadership advice that I received was along the lines of: be good at what you do; continually demonstrate your skills; and, if you want to be promoted, consistently perform better than others. It was all about me, and (at the time) it seemed like sound advice as I was ambitious and eager to climb the corporate ladder. For a while, it worked. A decade later, as the pace of technological change and competitor innovation began to accelerate, I witnessed the folly and painful consequences of fostering that inwardly focused, somewhat narcissistic mindset among front-line leaders.

By the late 1990s, I was in a VP/GM role at Kodak responsible for the commercial imaging businesses. I vividly remember a conversation with Clay Christensen of Harvard Business School who was consulting with us at that time. The digital imaging teams were struggling as technology and competitors were evolving rapidly around us. The team leaders were spending their time working to prove themselves in their current role, and demonstrating that their skills were better than others as they competed to move up in the organization. Looking back, Clay (very correctly) observed that if those first-level managers didn’t change their focus to developing new skills and performing better versus the competitive environment, they would fail to inspire the energy and innovation the company would need to survive. He likened it to people competing for deck chairs on a sinking ship.

As the 20th century corporate model of hierarchies and hero leaders gives way to the 21st-century world of shared leadership and technology-enabled global teams, it has become increasingly apparent that the approach to first-level leader development must evolve.

Last century’s solutions are increasingly irrelevant to today’s organizations. As the people at Kodak and many other companies discovered, an organizational culture that encourages managers to prove themselves internally versus focusing on the external environment and developing the people on their teams can have tragic consequences.

Developing 21st Century Front-Line Leaders

Despite the critical role that teams play in an organization’s success, few companies ensure that new team leaders develop the skills and habits they need to forge an adaptable and resilient team that consistently delivers superior performance. The results of this failure to invest are all too predictable: deteriorating performance, disengaged people, disappointing results, and increased turnover.

You may have also experienced the occasional terror of rapid, unexpected change in conditions or equipment, and the powerful bonds that form when a crew successfully overcomes those challenges.

The key to making early development experiences meaningful and formative is less about trying to craft a specific experience, and more about coaching new leaders to embrace a mindset that focuses on inspiring the energy, motivation, and engagement of their teams. Developing a new first-level leader is more akin to helping someone learn to captain a sailboat versus drive a powerboat. If you’ve ever been sailing, then you know the importance of adaptability and resilience on a team. You’ve experienced the unpredictability of the wind and waves, the importance of acquiring a sense of when to turn or raise and lower your sails and developing the skills to lead your crew smoothly through those transitions. You may have also experienced the occasional terror of rapid, unexpected change in conditions or equipment, and the powerful bonds that form when a crew successfully overcomes those challenges.

To craft an effective team, leaders must embrace the idea that success in their role depends less on their skills or brilliance, and more on their ability to inspire the best in their people. Extraordinary leaders do that by:

  • Establishing a healthy team culture and norms, and using those norms to both guide and assess behavior on the team.
  • Helping people on the team find meaning and purpose in their work that aligns with the team’s mission and goals.
  • Supporting people in developing the skills they need to realize their purpose and continuously perform better.
  • Identifying and closing experience versus expectation gaps among their team and other key relationships across the organization.

The transition from the role of an individual contributor to having formal responsibility for managing and leading people is one of the most exciting, and challenging, turning points in a person’s career. Senior leaders who want a world-class front-line must embrace the fact that learning to navigate relationships is by far the most critical capability for new first-level leaders to develop. That is the key to inspiring team performance and ensuring team member well-being in the short-term and developing habits that will serve those new leaders and their organizations well over the long-term.


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