It’s Time to Become the Boss: Individual Contributor vs. Leader

In writing my new book, Becoming the Boss: New Rules for the Next Generation of Leaders, I found that one of the biggest mistakes new leaders make is assuming the skills that got them promoted will be the ones they use in their new management roles.

They aren’t.

Being great at something doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be great at leading other people to do what you’ve excelled at. Being a great teacher doesn’t guarantee you’ll be a great school principal. Being a great actor doesn’t guarantee you’ll be a great director. Being a great salesperson doesn’t guarantee you’ll be a great sales manager. Being a manager of others requires a totally different skill set from making an individual contribution.

The key difference between individual contribution and leadership lies in where you put your focus. As an individual, you can focus most of your attention on your own success, development and results. As a leader, you need to focus on how other people will achieve success, what development they need to improve and what methods they can best use to achieve results.

Here are three tips for making a successful transition into managing others:

1. Follow your role models.

If you’ve been in the workforce a while, you’ve probably had a lot of different kinds of managers: some wonderful, some terrible. It may sound overly simplistic, but a good basic strategy for new managers is to emulate the good bosses you’ve had and avoid the mistakes of the bad bosses. When you face a tough situation as a leader – such as reprimanding an employee or assigning an unpopular task – think back to a time when you observed one of your leaders handle a similar situation. What did a good boss do effectively? What did an awful boss do that backfired? Then apply the lessons you’ve learned.

2. Say “I” less often.

In my book research, I came across a study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin who found that leaders tend to use the word “I” less often than non-leaders. According to the researchers, “There is a misconception that people who are confident, have power, have high status tend to use ‘I’ more than people who are low status. That is completely wrong. The high-status person is looking out at the world and the low-status person is looking at himself.”

The word “we” is a powerful leadership tool. It indicates to the people you lead that you are invested in their success along with your own. As a new manager in particular, use “we” early and use it often.

3. Share your secrets.

One sales leader I interviewed told me that his biggest difficulty as a new leader was learning to share the “secret sauce” that had made him successful as an individual sales rep. At first, he continued to handle his top client relationships and lead pitches to potential new clients. “It was hard to let go of being the star employee,” he told me. But he quickly learned that he didn’t have time to be both a star sales rep and the team manager.

As this sales leader began to share his best tricks and tactics with the reps he managed, he learned two things: First, it was just as challenging to build a successful sales team as it was to build a successful client roster – and he enjoyed the challenge just as much. And second, the rewards of watching other people succeed outweighed the rush he got from closing his own deals.

Above all, remember that you received a promotion to management because your higher-ups believe in your potential as a leader. Combine the best skills and knowledge you’ve built over time with a willingness to learn your new role of manager and you’ll be sure to be a star in your new leadership role. Good luck!

Disclosure: This post was written as part of the University Of Phoenix Versus Program. I’m a compensated contributor, but the thoughts and ideas are my own.

Want to learn more about succeeding in your first management role? My new book Becoming the Boss: New Rules for the Next Generation of Leaders is full of additional advice on that and more.

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Lindsey is a globally recognized career and workplace expert and the leading voice on generational diversity. She has spoken for more than 300 audiences including Google, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, Stanford and Wharton. Lindsey is the author of four career and workplace advice books, and her insights have appeared in media outlets including The TODAY Show, CNBC, NPR, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.


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