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The Non-Leader in Each of Us


You Need to Train Your Leaders to Lead

By Kevin Herring

LeaderVery few workplace leaders end up in charge because they showed great leadership skills when they had no leadership responsibilities. No, in most cases, they got the nod because the boss could depend on them to get the job done; they were good worker bees.

Unfortunately, when crowned supervisor, they were not suddenly granted the knowledge of how to create vision, develop strategy, lead employees in group processes, teach and coach others, develop goals and metrics, facilitate meetings, or build strong, self-reliant teams. In fact, it is unlikely they were given much guidance beyond completing paperwork and reporting tasks.
Considering how employees get thrown into supervisory and management roles for doing good work, it should not surprise us that they lean on what they know when they become leaders. After all, technical know-how and experience is what got them the promotion in the first place. It is only natural that many end up functioning more as lead worker bees than true leaders, and therefore get bogged down in the details of the work instead of promoting teamwork and team performance. But as we all know, having a leadership title is one thing; having the leadership ability to create a team of passionate, committed contributors is another.

A general manager I once coached (who we will call Liz), was a great example of this. Liz ran a site of about 250 production people. An engineer by trade, Liz knew every aspect of the operation. No doubt her ability to jump in and tackle tough problems helped her get chosen as the new general manager. When we first tried to meet, she was hard to track down – she was never in her office and her senior staff hardly saw her. You can probably guess why: she jumped into every production problem she caught wind of. It was natural for her, since that was her experience and the reason for her promotion, but she was not acting like a general manager. She was playing lead problem solver.

Spending all her time on the production floor meant that Liz was neglecting her senior staff and had her hands in everything. I know what you are thinking: her constant interference drove production leaders crazy, and you would be right. In fact, her meddling caused more mistakes and confusion than it solved. Of course, additional production problems reinforced her belief that she needed to be more involved in operations. It was a self-perpetuating cycle.

Unbeknownst to her, when Liz became the general manager, her role changed from engineer and chief problem solver to leader. Once she understood that, she still was not clear on how to make the shift. To help her become more of a leader, we encouraged her to focus on the social side of the operation – how people worked and interacted with each other – instead of trying to solve technical problems. The plan was for Liz to put energy into creating a vision for the organization by enrolling employees in a common purpose and building a culture of learning, continuous improvement, and collaboration. To do that, she needed to interact with senior staff and others in a way that showed she trusted and respected them, and had to let go of production responsibilities.

To help Liz develop these skills, we concentrated on four principles that she could learn and apply to her leadership:

  1. Trust: Letting go of control and trusting others to use their commitment and ingenuity to contribute.
  2. Transparency: Communicating all aspects of the business to build in everyone a deep and broad understanding of the marketplace, critical unit deliverables, goals, and key processes needed to succeed.
  3. Capacity Building: Sharing her technical expertise with others and helping leaders develop employees both technically and as informal leaders aimed at total unit success.
  4. Accountability: Promoting individual and team commitments and stewardship to achieve team and unit goals.

Liz was up-front with her staff about changing herself. It was great to hear her verbalize what she was trying to accomplish and how she planned to do it using the four principles. Liz was not perfect at it. She slipped up quite a bit at first, but she was also great about encouraging others to check her when she fell into old habits. Her team respected her for that.

Fortunately for Liz, she was not left alone to muddle through what could have been a difficult stint as general manager. If she had continued to do what came naturally – spending her time in production areas solving problems – she may never have developed herself as a leader.

Considering that so many leaders' appointments are based on how well they perform the work rather than on how well they can lead, it is no wonder employees report their number one reason for leaving a company as their supervisor or manager. It raises the question of why we do not do more to help current leaders, and prepare those who might become leaders, to transition from hands-on work to leading.

Trying It On for Fit
Evaluate how prepared you are as a leader or potential leader according to the four principles used by Liz. Are you able to build a team with high personal commitment to team and business unit goals? Try out the four principles and see how they help you to become a better leader.
If you are in a position to influence leader selection, ask yourself if your processes identify true leadership. Do you have work systems that allow employees to show their leadership potential? Regarding current leaders, consider whether they have what they need to transition into true leadership so can they build strong, contributing teams.

Send an email and let me know what you learn from your experiences. I would love to hear from you!

Kevin Herring is co-author of Practical Guide for Internal Consultants and president of Ascent Management Consulting. Kevin can be contacted at Ascent Management Consulting is found at and specializes in performance turnarounds, leadership coaching, and appraisal-less performance management. ©2013 Ascent Management Consulting, Ltd. All Rights Reserved

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