Congratulations! You’ve been promoted into your first leadership role.
You might now be the Tech Lead or Engineering Manager for your team, or perhaps you’ve been nominated to lead a cross-department/team Community of Practice or Guild.
By developing the following three habits, you can survive and thrive in your first leadership role.
1. Find your north star
One of the exciting opportunities for leaders is shaping the direction in which people work. To do so, consider the ‘north star’: the guiding light that you will use to lead your group of people effectively. In many situations, this ‘north star’ is implicit, so take your time to make it explicit.
To find your north star, consider asking questions like:
- How do you know your team is moving in the same direction?
- What does ‘success’ look like for your team?
- What’s the BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal)? A good BHAG will challenge, inspire, and bring people to work together.
- What does it look like when your team completes its mission?
Finding your north star is only the start. Your role as a leader will be much more challenging if you’re the only one who can see the end goal. Now you have to help others see the same north star. Think about the ways that you can share your north star with the team. If you’re leading a technical team, a target architecture diagram may be a useful tool to build a shared understanding. If you’re working on a significant milestone, sharing stories of what users can accomplish after that can work. If you’re leading a community of practitioners working across the organization, describing the culture and giving concrete examples of how that comes to life can be powerful.
Finding your north star is a good start. Sharing it with your team is even better.
2. Grow your support network
When you’re working as a team member, you work with engineers that share the same role and context. You share the same goals, have the same information, and can celebrate and complain about the same topics together. As you transition into your first leadership role, you’ll find your situation changing. Suddenly you have access to more information; some of it confidential or sensitive. You will see or worry about issues that you feel no one else sees or worries about. It is natural to feel a greater sense of responsibility as a leader.
Some of the issues you will deal with as a leader are often sensitive. You may not be able to share information with other team members because it involves them, or because it could destroy the trust you have with the team member who confided in you. Discussing topics with other people is often helpful, which is why I encourage you to build your support network.
A good support network will give you timely access to people who will listen, people who can sometimes coach, or people who can share advice about what they would do, or have done, in a similar situation. When you’re finding people to add to your support network, seek the following:
- People you can trust. It’s critical that when you disclose certain information, or feel vulnerable sharing topics you’re struggling with, you trust the person that you’re confiding in.
- People who have walked your path before. First-time leaders often don’t get the opportunity to ‘co-lead’ with a more experienced leader. Finding people who have ‘been there before’ can create a safety net around avoiding common traps or catching mistakes before they grow too big.
- People with a different background. To solve problems effectively, I’ve always found it’s useful to seek varying opinions. A great way of doing this is by consulting people with very different backgrounds. You may not necessarily agree or follow their advice, but these discussions give you richer perspectives.
When building your support network, look wide. Some of the people you approach may work for a different company, or they may just work in a different department or team. Maybe they live in a completely different country or timezone. I also find it’s useful to discuss different topics with different people, so reach out to a few appropriate folks in your network. Here’s an extract from an introduction email I have used in the past:
I hope you are well. We know each other from ...
I’m in a new role where I’m leading a team for the first time. I enjoyed the discussion we had on ... and felt your opinion was really insightful. I would therefore appreciate it if I could reach out for your help or advice regarding my new role over the next six months.
What do you think?
If you have difficulties finding people who can help you with a specific topic, ask! Ask your existing support network. Ask your manager. Ask your peers. Ask your team. However, be clear about what topic you’d like support for when asking.
A support network will help you navigate the unknown challenges that come your way.
3. Practice inquiry before answering
Leadership roles, whether formal or informal, create a power imbalance that increases miscommunication. This happens especially when a leader is unaware that this imbalance can occur. Different communication styles and cultures lead to miscommunication between team members. For example, a flippant statement by someone in a leadership role might be interpreted as a rule, request, or a desire – instead of as an intended joke.
A great way to mitigate this is to follow the rule of thumb, ‘inquiry before answer’. Using open-ended questions like, ‘What do you think we can improve on?’ generates deeper insights for you as a leader by inviting others to share their opinion without being affected by your own. After asking your questions, you can also offer your answers or opinions with less worry it will bias the information your team will share.
A lot of you will often be problem solvers. You’ll have built a habit-reward loop for seeing a problem, offering a solution and the satisfaction of knowing you were ‘right’. Using ‘inquiry before answer’ can help you as a leader because you’ll have less context over a specific problem in exchange for more context over many problems. By asking questions (a.k.a. inquiry), you’ll often end up with the ‘right solution’ to the wrong problem. You can avoid this, and help your team avoid this, by learning to ask clarifying questions that ensure everyone shares the same context.
When it comes to deeply technical and quickly evolving fields, leaders will rarely have the ‘right’ answer immediately. This is why great leaders know how to ask the right questions that lead them to the right problem, and eventually, a good enough solution.
Many skills and habits you developed as an individual contributor in a team won’t necessarily prepare you to lead very well. As the old saying goes, ‘What got you here, won’t get you there.’ Before you step into your first leadership role, start building new habits that you will use time and time again as you progress in your career.
Find your north star to light the way for your team. Grow your support network to deal with the ambiguity and unknown challenges that will come your way as a leader. Finally, practice inquiry over answering to uncover implicit assumptions, hone in on the real problems, and create inclusive environments before offering your own opinions.
These three practices are life-long habits that will serve you well in any leadership role and allow you to thrive within them.