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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies

Moving into Leadership

One of the most common points at which the service of an executive coach is engaged, is when someone is moving into either their first leadership role or perhaps more commonly, their first senior leadership role, or perhaps when they're aiming to move into one of these. But for every new person who engages a coach at these stages, there are hundreds more who don't, but who would definitely benefit from doing so!

I met yesterday with two former colleagues to chew over some ideas, reflect on what we've been seeing and hearing in the businesses we support and, it turned out, to listen to them talk about home decor and discuss the 'red thread' concept while I ate chocolate and coconut snowballs and drank tea. One of the topics which we spoke about at some length was the challenges we see across organisations of all shapes and sizes; private, public and third sector, where neither the organisation nor the individuals in leadership roles have clarity about what exactly they want from their leaders and the leaders haven't stopped to think about how and why they lead, thus, these leaders find themselves woefully ill prepared for the role.

In the organisation that we all worked in together, combining decades of cumulative service, a very commonly used phrase which I never got used to hearing was 'I'm looking for my first Senior Manager role'. The employment grades across the business were broadly categorised into 5 bandings, which had since been changed, but most long-tenured staff still referred to. Clerical, Appointed, Manager, Senior Manager, Executive. Within each grade were several sub-bandings (Upper and Lower Manager, for example) but the real milestones came as employees made the move across the divide and into a role at Manager and then Senior Manager level. Executive roles were, naturally, quite a bit rarer and so these conversations were fewer, but making the leap to SM was seen as a significant career moment and one which many people aspired to.

Now, of course, there's nothing wrong with being ambitious and having goals in any part of your life, so aspiring to a more senior role in your career is perfectly understandable and quite common. The reason, however, that this used to make me feel so uneasy to hear, was that in almost every single case, the person saying it had no understanding of which Senior Manager role they wanted to attain, nor could they articulate any reason for making the leap, other than because they would then be a Senior Manager! It was seldom about the role, the topic, the business area, the opportunity to have an impact and make a difference; it was simply about being able to measure their progress by having climbed the greasy pole of corporate life, to that level. What they were effectively saying was I don't care what my next job is, I just care that it's at SM level.

Now, what's so wrong with that? Well maybe there's nothing wrong! Each to their own, and if job title or level is a motivator for you, then that's absolutely fine and you're welcome to have at it! But as I saw people cross that divide, and as I spoke to people who had held that mindset and achieved the goal, it became evident to me that it created a number of challenges. Firstly, it was clear that when the goal was simply attaining a job which was graded at a certain level, it was very often the case that people ascended into roles which didn't interest them and in many cases, made them miserable. But, of course, they got the role and the associated perks, they experienced the lifestyle creep when their spending grew to match their income and then they found themselves trapped, unable to move to a job that they really enjoyed and were engaged with, because they couldn't afford to take a cut in salary.

They weren't engaged and motivated, therefore weren't bringing the best of themselves to work, so they didn't get to enjoy the feeling of being fully actualised, and the organisation was effectively paying them more, to bring less of their skills, capabilities, energy and spark to their work. For their teams, too, this created issues. Leaders in roles that they're not fully engaged with and don't enjoy, often make poor managers, because they're scrabbling to stay afloat, focused on their own survival and can be more prone to negative traits like taking credit for their team's successes to try and justify their own existence.

Imposter syndrome can come into play here. too - the fear of being 'found out' which many of us have felt from time to time. That nagging belief that they're out of their depth and someone is going to notice it soon (despite the fact that many of their peers and superiors feel exactly the same way about their own roles and are therefore too focused on hiding their own imposter syndrome to notice the performance of others!)

Another challenge that a lot of new leaders and particularly senior managers deal with is the fact that they've made their reputation and built their career by being busy, getting their hands dirty. They worry that in their new role, they aren't directly responsible for delivering anything, and that can be disconcerting to them. I've spoken a number of times before on here about the move from the balcony to the dancefloor, from Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky in their book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. As a leader and especially a senior leader, you make the move from the dancefloor, where you've spent your career to date dancing and focussing on the music, to the balcony, where you can observe the whole dance and perhaps identify some people who aren't dancing, or aren't facing in the right direction. If you've made your name by being a great dancer and being able to dance longer and harder than anyone around you, being on the balcony can be a strange and, often lonely place.

These factors and more can create a situation where leaders burn out, sometimes by trying to do too much (being both on the balcony and the dancefloor at once) or by being overwhelmed with the situation they find themselves in. Lots of senior managers I met and worked with, saw their jobs as a burden, rather than something to enjoy. Of course, they would rarely openly express that, because it's hard to say that the thing you've strived for and finally achieved, wasn't what you'd hoped it would be, but they were most likely sitting around boardroom tables with peers who felt the same.

If you have aspirations to grow and climb the ladder, or if your organisation has shown a desire for you to do so, that's a time at which I would strongly recommend finding a coach (either a paid, external coach, or someone who you know who can play that role in your life) to talk things over. To stop, put your foot on the ball and take stock of where you are and what you're trying to achieve (and why). Do the deep work. Challenge and air your assumptions, dreams, hopes and fears. Hear yourself saying them out loud and reflect on how that feels. Sit with those feelings. Take the time to really understand yourself.

Once the ball is rolling, it can be much harder to make the time to do so.

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