Sina Haghighat - Leadership

You may be an individual contributor, that has been recognised for your high standards of performance; constantly surpassing expectations, driving efficiencies and delivering value. Over the years, you have been recognised as a valuable asset within the company and have amassed various awards for your contributions. As a result of your exceptional performance, you find yourself being promoted into your first leadership position at a very young age, and in most cases, within the same team. This is exactly what happened to myself. One day I was a Business Analyst and before I knew it, I was leading the team of Business Analysts across multiple countries, who were my co-workers.

The shift in mindset from an individual contributor to a team leader is immense, especially if you were promoted to a leadership position within the same team. This situation does present some initial awkwardness, in the sense that some team members may feel they are ‘more experienced’ and therefore more worthy of the leadership role; fuelling rivalry and dampening motivation in the team. Another factor is the shift in relationships. Co-workers tend to discuss organisational issues with each other that they may not necessarily reveal to their manager. As a previous co-worker, you may have been involved in those discussions and heard the true feelings of the team. Initially, the individual team members may not be comfortable with that, but you can use it to your advantage by addressing those pain points under your leadership.

As a rookie leader you are faced with some challenges that a veteran leader may not experience. The main challenge that newly emerged leaders face when shifting from co-worker to leader is overmanaging and not delegating. Overmanaging can be common for a strong individual contributor who has just moved into a leadership role and they are normally poor delegators. You may have the tendency to tell your team ‘how to do it’ as you were doing those tasks before and feel that you can do it better than everyone else. This restricts the autonomy of the team members and undermines their ability. Remember that what you were promoted for cannot be applied to this role. You have to learn to deliver through others and delegate work!

In order to build a high performing team, here are the 10 behaviours that I feel you need to incorporate into your leadership toolset:

1. Demonstrate that you care

You work for your team; they don’t work for you! Your key goal is to do everything within your power to serve your team. Empower them to be the best they can be and accommodate their development. Check in with them regularly to see how they are doing and get to know them on a personal level, not just a professional one. What makes them tick? What are their personality traits? How can they get into their flow state?

We spend around a third of our time at work and the reality of it is that we cannot just switch off our personal thoughts when we are at the workplace. Everyone will go through tough times and as a leader you should possess that emotional awareness to pick up signals when team members seem slightly off their usual game. There are also times where you may need to put your gloves on and step into the ring for your team members. You have to defend them! It’s usually on the topic of resourcing; where they have been assigned to a project that does not match up with their desires or skills.

2. Be Present

The most valuable gift you can give someone is your time. Be there as a soundboard to bounce ideas from. Being present is not just about attending 1-2-1 meetings, it is about being fully engaged in that specific moment; not thinking about the past or the future. You have to give that person your full attention. Being present goes a long way!

3. Listen more than talk

As the Dalai Lama said, ‘when you talk, you are only repeating what you know. But if you listen, you may learn something new’. We were given two ears for a reason, so engage with your team members and hear what they have to say. Seek to understand them better and explore their concerns rather than making assumptions about what is going on.

4. Set a clear direction

It is vital for everyone to know their goals, the measurements for tracking progress and how their role contributes to the bottom line and fits with the overall strategy. Clarity is required to keep your team grounded. You can’t keep changing direction as you go along, the precedence needs to be set instantly.  Setting shared goals is also a nice way of encouraging team members to deliver collaboratively which builds team unity.

5. Lead by example

Be honest, transparent and open to feedback. If we do not demonstrate these behaviours ourselves, how do we expect our team to. You’d be surprised at how closely the team pick up on your behaviour as their leader! 

6. Show vulnerability

As a leader, there is this self-inflicted expectation to have all the answers. I have witnessed on many occasions leaders who do not put their hands up and say ‘sorry, I don’t know’. Instead they beat around the bush and give you a half assed response in order to save face. We weren’t born yesterday and can easily smell the BS, which diminishes their credibility. I find that being vulnerable when you don’t have the answers should not be considered a weakness, but more as a strength. Vulnerability builds credibility! It humanises you and makes you look like you are not superior to your team. A lot of trust is fostered by being the ‘straight up’ person. Be curious to find the answers if you do not have them.

7. Provide autonomy

It is easy to fall into the trap directing team members to complete work in your ‘style’. Appreciate that each individual has differing ways of planning and completing activities in the way that is most comfortable for them. As long as they get the work done in a timely manner, give them the freedom to do it their own way.

8. Involvement in decision making

Search for team consensus on certain decisions, especially in relation to defining ways of working processes, as in most cases those are the processes that the team will be following. Establishing a collaborative environment for the team to shape the processes that directly impacts their work demonstrates that their inputs are truly valued. Team involvement on all decisions however can also become a weakness as you may be seen as not being assertive enough. Find the right balance between being assertive and collaborative.

9. Delegate

You have to get used to letting go! Letting go of the work you were doing as an individual contributor, and instead delegate the work to others. It will free up you’re your time to lead the team rather than having to manage the team. There are several scenarios for delegation: (1) There is an individual within the team that can complete a certain task to a high standard as it matches their skill set; (2) An individual can benefit from taking on such a task as it as aligned to their development area; and (3) You want to see how an individual takes on a task which you know is out of their comfort zone. In all 3 scenarios, provide autonomy, decision making discretion and ensure that it appeals to their core values to keep the team motivated.

10. Generate value

Implement a continuous improvement mindset within the team. The value that the team generates can then be showcased to the wider community. Continuous improvement should be part of the day job however it is sometimes seen as an additional initiative. When delving into processes, you may hear the phrase ‘we have always done it this way’. Question it and assess its efficiency and validity in today’s world, as an enormous amount of value is waiting to be unlocked.