Some workdays are more eventful than others, but nothing compares to the giant pit in your stomach when you receive an email from your manager asking you to attend an "urgent meeting" with HR.
With no context or agenda, you anxiously and nervously join the meeting, hoping you still have a job.
To your surprise, the goal of this meeting was nothing but to give you some of the best news you can ever get: You're being promoted to a leadership position!
That’s when a flush of excitement races through you, only to be quickly replaced by a nagging voice inside your head reminding you of an uncomfortable truth: You've never led anyone before.
If you’re leading a team for the first time, don’t think of your inexperience as unusual. Everyone has to start somewhere. Your apprehension makes perfect sense too. Leadership is naturally a tricky thing. It requires an entirely different point of view compared to an individual contributor. And that change in mindset is not obvious to many people, let alone easy to make.
Making matters worse, there’s a real lack of good guidance and content that speaks directly to young leaders about the skills and strengths they need to cultivate or how.
At Launch by NTT Data, we embrace an Aim/Engage/Grow methodology to nurture products from the germ of an idea into a smashing success. In my experience, following a similar methodology helps people rise to the occasion when thrust into positions of responsibility and evolve into effective long-term leaders.
Congratulations! Let’s get to work now
Before we begin, celebrations are called for! You’re seen as a leader now, and you’ve likely received a promotion that includes a new title and pay raise—so pause and enjoy this moment. It’s genuine proof that your hard work is paying off.
However, a word of caution: You haven’t arrived at your ultimate destination. You’ve merely taken a single step further on a long, challenging journey. Be proud but stay humble.
With time, you’ll see that one of (if not the most) important aspects of leadership is your mindset and how it influences the way your team sees you.
Aim - See the full picture from all angles
Leadership, like many other vital soft skills, is one that you hone and master over time. Things usually won’t click right away, but don’t be discouraged. You have to keep working until you find a good leadership style that works for you.
In practice, that means lots of trial and error. Even with the best mentors, advice, and guidance, you will make mistakes along the way and often repeat those mistakes multiple times. I certainly did. The key is not to avoid mistakes (because that’s impossible). What matters is seeing the situation from all angles.
What caused the unintended outcome? What were the consequences, good and bad? Most important of all, how should you aim differently next time to get your team through the obstacles blocking their destination?
With leadership, as with target practice, you need to understand exactly why you missed in order to aim accurately next time.
Learning how to aim your leadership style and strategy is a process of lifelong learning. You will get better over time, but mastery will always be elusive, and you must practice constantly to keep your edge.
If that sounds like an uphill climb, you’re right. But it’s the professional and personal experiences you pick up along the way, especially the hard ones, that make you into a great leader. Put all of your experiences in the right context, and each has something instructive to offer about adjusting your aim as a leader.
Engage - Communicate everything & support everyone
In software development, there’s a theory called Conway’s Law, which states that the structure of software will mirror the communication structure of the team. If you have teams that work in silos and aren’t aligned with other teams working in the same domain, you’ll find large swaths of disparate systems under the hood of your software.
Keeping any number of teams aligned and multiple moving parts moving in sync comes from engaging people around shared objectives. But before people can rally around that common cause, you need to communicate it carefully:
- Ensure that all your messages come from a place of reason and are supported by solid business logic that is clear, consistent, specific, and accurate.
- Pay attention to how you communicate but also pay extra attention to how your message serves the needs of the team, addresses their concerns, and adds value to their work.
Also key for keeping team members engaged is supporting their psychological safety. Psychological safety refers to the team members’ perception of risk. In other words, it’s the level of safety someone feels to not be seen as incompetent, ignorant, or disruptive when they express their open ideas and honest opinions.
I have learned to acknowledge and even highlight my own flaws as a way to make my team feel more comfortable about their own. I call out when I communicate something poorly, elicit candid feedback on how I approach problems, and openly admit I am a work in progress. This honesty creates trust within the team, and I regularly reinforce that there are no wrong or dumb questions, only those that go unasked.
To engage your team, you must be a pillar of support when times are challenging. And don’t forget to celebrate all the wins, no matter how small, when times are good. Over time, the team will come to know that you’ve got their back, solidifying the synergy in the group and creating an environment where everyone feels valued and supported. Which then leads to the best outcome of all: your team becomes a sum greater than its parts.
Grow - Lay the Groundwork for Continuous Improvement
If you are going from a specialist or subject matter expert to being team leader, be ready to change how you understand your job, team, company, and even industry.
When you’re an individual contributor, you likely follow the latest trends, have current and sharp professional skills, and are heavily involved in the day-to-day tactical work in your field. Another way to think about it: you’re on the inside looking out.
However, once you become the team leader, you’ll have the senior stakeholders vying for your time, which will give you less bandwidth to maintain those skills or even get involved in the day-to-day work. You’ll also be fully occupied with managing the projects and personalities on your own team. In other words, you’ll be on the inside looking in.
That makes it tempting to start micromanaging everything and endlessly tinkering with internal processes. But, as I learned the hard way, hoping to fine-tune your team is both a losing effort and a waste of your time.
A better priority is to “focus on the forest instead of the trees.” Spend your time evangelizing about why you’re all working together. Emphasize the outcomes you’re trying to collaboratively achieve. Celebrate success. Above all, spend the majority of your time listening to what your team has to say. Think of your job as equipping everyone with the “why” and let them figure out the “how.”
When you focus on facilitating rather than critiquing your team, you lay the groundwork for continuous improvement. Your team doesn’t just feel encouraged, they feel empowered and equipped to hit the current target and every one after. Think of yourself like a gardener—you put the right conditions in place for the plant to grow on its own.
A few things to keep in mind through all phases of the Aim/Engage/Grow methodology:
- Incorporate as much fun as possible into work. I’ve found success in holding virtual happy hours every week with only one rule: no talking about work.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment with new things as you find your unique leadership style. Inspect and adapt your style frequently, and always allow yourself to be wrong. The idea is that you learn from any missteps and move on.
- Constantly ask for opinions and feedback on how you’re doing but don’t take criticism personally. It’s far too easy to get defensive from critical feedback and dismiss important lessons and insights in the process.
I hope this advice helps you become a more confident and capable leader. But having the right character is only part of the equation. You also need a plan. Great leaders know how to lead their team, and they also know where. And that’s where we come in. See how Launch by NTT Data uses the talent on your team to create digital experiences that captivate customers.