Stepping Up to Leadership

By Martin Haworth
Martin Haworth

Moving forward in a career can be both an exciting as well as daunting experience.

For many, the opportunity to grow into a management role is a challenge too far, so they keep themselves out of the limelight and often do perfectly good jobs in their area of speciality.

They may be very effective in face-to-face interactions with customers, or perhaps they are particularly effective in a technical activity. For these people, the capacity to reinvent their role, giving them motivation through mastery, autonomy and purpose (as identified so well in Dan Pink’s book, ‘Drive’) will sustain them throughout their career, providing a fulfilled work experience.

The pipeline to move people from expert roles in the workplace to management and leadership is well known. For some, the step is a perfect opportunity to grow their career and utilize skills that they did not always appreciate they had. New doors are opening and they thrive in the possibilities that this new path offers them.

Yet this is not always an easy ride.

The step up from working on activities at the sharp end, as well as using the abilities of others to deliver the results required, is a long and gradual one.

As a junior manager, I prided myself as being ‘hands on’; ‘one of the team’; a ‘doer’. And at a small business level, that was achievable, albeit perhaps not the most effective I could be, yet with the energy and enthusiasm of youth, I was able to keep on top of it and do very well.

Moving to a larger business, it became much more difficult and after only a few months, I was back at my boss’s desk asking to go back to where I came from, unable to cope with the step up.

He refused and told me that it would come round and just to get back in there - in the nicest way possible! I felt like I was being pushed back into the frying pan – and it wasn’t much fun.

The turning point for me was when one of my team called me up in my office and asked me when I was going to do my job on the shop floor. There was stock needed filling up and I was the one expected to do it.

In that moment, I realized that I was still ‘doing’ and not managing. It was a revelation to me.

For management was about managing my people to do their jobs, not doing it for them. Yet I was so good at it. It gave me such a sense of achievement and after all, it was so much easier to do a job well myself, rather than develop someone else to do it (and in my eyes, probably not so well).

Yet at that point, I recognized that I could not do it all. I realized that the value placed in me was to get them doing their jobs really well and not me doing those lovely jobs myself.

Indeed, it was what I was there for.

Now, this did not mean that I didn’t chip in now and them, to show I was part of the team, but it did mean that I wasn’t depended on as a cog in the wheel. I was driving the machine. Not the machine itself.

This shift from being a ‘doer’ to a ‘manager’ is quite a change if you don’t appreciate it. There’s a guilt felt from not being seen to be busy ‘doing’ stuff. Yet the best managers and leaders have to do that. They have to let go of what they were good at, if someone else can do it just as well. They have to delegate and appreciate that they might not have all the best answers and even if they think they have, that others might just, occasionally, be even better than them. They have to appreciate that even if they set an outcome to be delivered, it doesn’t actually matter that it’s done ‘their’ way.

Stepping up is a real milestone in a career. It is a rite of passage. As a career progresses, there are bigger steps along the way, but this is one of the biggest. To let go of what you’re good at and to take on something you’re not sure about, is a big and rewarding challenge, both in remuneration terms and also how you see your people develop and grow too.

It just takes a step back and a shift in perspective to get you there.

Further reading ‘The Leadership Pipeline’ by Ram Charan