Over the past few months I have had the opportunity to coach a number of individuals at various points in their transition from individual contributor to leader. Being promoted into a role that requires supervising a group of former peers is a common challenge. At the core of this challenge is the shift from a focus on the work to a focus on the team. I often encourage folks to think about the value they add to the supervisor/employee relationship. Most commonly, folks tend to think about the value they add to getting the work done, as in: “My job is to delegate effectively so that all the work stays on schedule;” or “I’m responsible for making sure the team is producing quality outputs.” These ideas aren’t necessarily wrong, in fact, their ability to produce high quality work typically is what got them promoted. However, while technical capabilities may have gotten someone to where they are, it’s likely that they are not enough to continue to propel someone’s career as a leader.
New leaders must shift their mindset from a focus on their ability to do the work to a focus on helping their team members flourish. If you think about what your team members need from a boss, the list probably includes things like someone who can help solve problems when they get stuck, or someone who will get them the support they need to do their jobs or help them develop new skills. The technical skills that got you the promotion can certainly help with these things: you can be the resource to help solve the problems that come up, but what about the broader issues like the need to help someone develop or get the resources they need to be successful?
Finding ways to help your team flourish will require you to look beyond the technical skills that got you the promotion and reset your focus on becoming the leader your team needs. You will have develop the skills and ability to help your team members achieve their goals. This will require you to first understand what they really need from you to help them thrive. Figuring out where you add value to your team can be a great step toward clarifying what your new job is really about. Pushing yourself to go beyond your technical job knowledge can open up a new range of possibilities for you and your team. This mindset shift can also resolve the awkwardness of supervising your former peers: Rather than questioning them about what they can do for you, the emphasis shifts to what you can do for them.
When your team members start to see you as a resource that can help them rather than a task master who is just concerned with work deadlines and quality, you will be on the path to building a strong, positive supervisor/employee relationship that is different from the relationship you had as peers. As a new leader, it may be difficult to ask your former peers what they need from you, because it might feel like you’re admitting you don’t know what to do, but it’s exactly what we typically recommend. Talk with your team members openly and ask them what they need from you. If you try it, you may find that the process helps you build new, strong relationships with your team members and put together your own development plan for becoming a better leader.