First Time Leadership Challenges: Defining Leadership and Developing Capabilities
I have been building a strategic organizational leadership course, and my mind has been focused on advanced concepts until early last week. Even executive and C-level leaders need help acquiring and developing leadership capabilities. They do not appear in isolation.
I evaluated what capabilities most senior leaders already had. Those are what first-time leaders will work to develop over the next 5-10 years. I researched the foundational concepts of leadership, and this post explores those concepts.
Defining leadership quantitatively is important, even though it is a soft or qualitative capability. Creating a standardized definition of the role and capabilities is challenging in the same way as it is for a data scientist. The role varies from business to business based on size, team composition, business needs, culture, and organizational structure.
These traits are widely accepted. Leadership research, coaches, and trainers agree on most or all the core capability set. However, the details and granular definitions are flexible.
I give each trait sub-characteristics. These specifics can be measured on a scale of 1-10 and connected with impacts on the team, work products, and business benefits. Leaders are multipliers. An hour of their time has network effects.
The core realization for new leaders is their work products are intangible. Quantifying leadership is complex because it’s difficult to follow the network effects to a causal trait or capability. That’s what I have attempted to do.
Coalition Building. Coalitions bring people from different parts of the business together. Leaders learn to create coalitions around a common need or cause. This is the beginning of leading without authority and getting other groups to see how their work aligns to move the business forward.
Communicating For Impact. Leaders speak for purpose and impact. Their communications are built from objectives. The two most common impacts are a call to action or delivering new information that supports a decision.
Negotiation. The conversation doesn’t end after the first no. That’s where negotiations begin. Leaders overcome objections and mitigate risks to turn no into yes. This fits in with coalition building and relies on communicating for impact. All leadership traits build on and amplify each other.
Career Development and Upskilling. Intentional careers are more successful. Leaders help people build structured career paths. Some businesses don’t have these in place for technical individual contributors. Promotions are arbitrary, and it is unclear how people can move into the team from other groups.
Leaders must build the role’s progression and define a learning path for upskilling into each level. Teams are much more successful and cohesive when career paths are well understood. Promotions make sense, and employees understand their career options.
Team Building. Teams are more productive than the sum of the people on them. Well-built teams amplify and support each other. Clearly defined roles and complementary capabilities are the foundational concepts.
Many data scientists can do data engineering work, but that’s not their area of expertise. It could be done, but the team is more productive when the data engineer and data scientist are teamed together. The productivity boost also requires each person to understand what steps in the workflow they are accountable for.
Team building is one of the most essential multiplier capabilities for leaders to have.
Goals and Performance. Clear goals are an important part of reinforcing the parts of the workflow and which work products each team member is accountable for. Goals and performance evaluation amplify career development and upskilling.
Fostering a collaborative culture means individuals need team-level goals. Those ensure people are rewarded for team-level success and individual contributions. There should also be business-level goals, so work products are tied closely to business value.
Creating A Culture Of Belonging. Leaders create a place for each team member. For someone to feel like part of the team, they need to understand how they contribute to the team. They also need to know that the rest of the team understands their role and sees their value.
Leaders build a culture around both sides of belonging. This concept supports cohesion and alignment.
Planning. Leaders combine big picture and execution level views to plan. They need to bring up more complex implications of planning decisions and work distribution. They see resources that will be required and potential conflicts.
Understanding individual strengths and weaknesses is critical to giving each project piece to the best possible resource. Career development also plays into the planning equation because people need the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned.
Planning happens at the project management level, but the team leader level is equally important.
Delegation. A critical shift from individual contributor to leader is letting go. Delegation feels like a loss of control for first-time leaders. Leaders show trust by delegating tasks. They also free up enough time to be a leader by moving accountability for parts of their workflow onto team members.
Risk Mitigation. Another dimension of taking a big-picture view is seeing risks before they become issues. Using their experience and soliciting feedback from their team, leaders plan for the most likely risks to the project. Those come from the timeline, quality issues, missing resources, or collaboration from other teams, among others.
Leaders put mitigation plans in place. They know what to be on the lookout for and have a series of mitigations ready. That lets team members focus on executing their part without worrying about all the ‘what ifs.’
Attention To Detail. Execution happens when leaders sweat the details. Minor omissions can lead to significant problems down the road. Leaders take a step back from executing the project themselves and can spend time looking at the execution plan’s details. It’s a subtle mindset shift and major reason leaders need time to be a leader rather than spending most of their time as an individual contributor.
Decision-Making. Every leader needs a process to make high-quality decisions that answer these questions. How do they identify and gather enough information to make a high-quality decision? How do they evaluate tradeoffs? How do they see implications both near and long-term? How do they continuously improve decision quality?
Cognitive. Leaders have high levels of executive function. They can focus when others fatigue. They rely on data instead of resorting to heuristics. They retain their empathy and self-awareness during stressful situations. These and many other capabilities come with time and practice.
Adaptability. Leaders meet people and problems where they are, not where the leader wishes they would be. That means adapting to difficult or complex challenges. One approach won’t work for every issue. One leadership style will not succeed with every team member. The communication style must fit the audience and situation.
Adaptability requires leaders to evaluate the situation and synthesize their knowledge to novel scenarios.
Research. Leaders need to identify gaps in their knowledge and have a process to fill them. There are two capabilities at play. Leaders must realize when they don’t have enough experience or information to complete a critical function. They must also be willing to seek and accept help.
Finally, they need a process for filling knowledge gaps or delegating to more capable team members. Part of research is letting go of the need to know everything or know more than anyone else. That mindset becomes a bottleneck for team growth.
Character is the set of actions leaders choose to define them. Those dictate their actions, create unifying themes, and set expectations. No one should dictate a list of defining characteristics to a leader, so I’ve built top character-level (leadership-level traits are different) traits that leaders can build around.
Accountability. Leaders don’t just hold others accountable. They are also bound by accountability for outcomes like improving the team, getting resources, removing roadblocks, and setting goals.
Trust-Building. Leaders earn trust daily. Aligning their actions with what they say, planning, sharing their vision, and many other leadership traits build trust.
Aligning Intention With Culture. Leaders create an inclusive culture by supporting different ways of thinking and encouraging independence. They support an innovative culture by not punishing people when initiatives fail. These are examples of aligning intention with culture. It’s toxic when a leader talks about culture and, through their actions, undermines its ideals.
Resilience. Leaders set the tone for how the team handles setbacks and failures. They set an example of taking responsibility and acting to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Motivational. Leaders help team members see their greatness and find their gifts. Motivational leaders are defined by their ability to leave people feeling more confident about themselves after every interaction.
Tenacious. Leaders take intelligent risks and support their team members in doing the same. That mindset turns average teams into high-performing teams. Excellence is impossible until people start taking on the big hairy challenges. That’s where confidence and capability come together.
Optimistic. Leaders help their teams remember success more than failure. They emphasize when challenges were overcome more than times when they were too great. People choose the memories they keep. Optimistic leaders help the team decide to remember the positives and have short memories about failures.
Problem Solving. Problem-solving leaders create a culture where the blame game never takes hold. They keep the team focused on working the problem and driving solutions. Team members feel comfortable coming to their leaders early when things first begin to go wrong because they know their leader is a partner in finding the solution.
The alternative is for team members to wait until the problems get too big to hide before coming to the leader. In those teams, failures almost always end in the worst-case scenario.
Opportunity Discovery. Great leaders are opportunistic. They look for ways to set team members up for success, learning, or taking on a new role. Every scenario is viewed through the prism of “What doors does this open for me, the team, and the business?”
Innovation. Innovative leaders reframe problems so their people are freed up to find novel solutions. They present a different perspective or remove assumptions. Leaders bring insights to the team and ask questions that open new ways of thinking.
Continuous Improvement. A leader’s vision comes from their growth mindset. No process is ever perfect. No one is done learning and growing. They make it acceptable to be imperfect because the emphasis is on better than yesterday not a finish line concept of perfect.
Managing Transformation and Change. Continuous improvement requires continuous change. Leaders must manage the changes that come with growth. As leaders get more experienced and rise through the ranks, incremental change gives way to transformation.
Their vision expands to explain a journey from where the team is to where the leader wants to take them. They align the need for transformation with business value and strategic goals. Change is intentional and follows a roadmap. Leaders align team member goals with the vision to get buy-in and commitment.
Forward-Looking. Vision implies something that hasn’t happened yet and is forward-looking by nature. Leaders go from a big picture to a forward-looking view as they grow. The big picture allows the leader to see the complete project or the team as a unit. Forward-looking enables the leader to see projects and teams as they will evolve over time.
Growth Culture. A leader’s growth mindset extends to their team. They lead by example and are transparent about their growth journey, both successes and setbacks. They share resources and challenge people to bring new knowledge to the team. Team goals should include learning and teaching.
Emotional Intelligence. Leaders accept their feelings and emotions. They think about how others are feeling and how they will respond to the situation or changes on the horizon. It’s easy to describe but much harder to master.
Supportive. Leaders are responsible for setting team members up for success. That means giving people challenging work and setting up safety nets so failures are caught early. Leaders support team members by providing resources and removing roadblocks. Open lines of communication, feedback, and frequent engagement are also critical.
Creating Opportunities For Growth. Creating opportunities is also straightforward to say but harder to practice. It’s another dimension of being opportunistic, but in this case, looking for ways to make opportunities for team members.
Leaders advocate for creating new roles, advanced training, career advancement programs, and bringing external opportunities into the team.
Self-Awareness. Self-aware leaders understand themselves from two directions. They are constantly evaluating their actions and the impacts those actions have on themselves and others. They also assess how others perceive them vs. how they perceive themselves.