I still remember when I got my first job as a manager. I'd been an assistant manager for a while. I was responsible for a lot of things, but I wasn't a boss in any real sense of the word. I really wanted to be a boss and learn how to be a business leader. I called one of my mentors and told him my news.
He was excited for me and congratulated me on the promotion. But when I talked about wanting to become a leader there was a long pause at the other end of the line.
"You don't have to do that, Wally," my mentor, Leonard, told me. "You already are a leader. The only question is what kind of leader are you going to be? What you want to do is learn to be a good leader"
Like lots of people, not just young ones, I thought that you became a leader when you did something special, or mastered some specialized set of skills. Over the last twenty years or so, we've published so many books, talking about how we need "more leaders and less managers" or about "leadership traits" or other things that we've gotten the idea that you learn to be a leader. Maybe you do. But maybe not.
Leonard pointed out to me that as soon as you get a job as a boss, people expect you to lead. Leaders deal with purpose and direction and culture. They do that mostly through example. As soon as you get a boss's job Ð like I did Ð people start looking at you more, watching what you do, and listening to what you say.
Have you ever been to an office party? You'll notice that the party is different when the leader is there and when the leader is not. When the leader shows up, the party changes; and when the leader goes, the party changes again. That's because people really want to see what the leader is doing, hear what the leader is saying, and figure out what it means for them.
When I got the job, I became a leader, whether I wanted to be one or not. I could be a bad leader with no training at all. But if I wanted to be a good leader, or a great one, I was going to have to master some new skills. I was kind of scared about that, but what Leonard told me next scared me even more.
He told me that when you become a boss, your power goes down, not up. That's because when you are an individual contributor, how and how much you work pretty much determines the quality of the output you were responsible for. When you become a leader, though, you're responsible for the work of a group and that means that you don't have direct power over what happens.
Let's say you've got somebody who works for you that just doesn't want to work hard for one reason or another. Maybe the reason is good, maybe the reason is bad, but it doesn't matter. They just don't want to work. Nothing you can do to them will make them work more.
Guess What? That means the output of the group you're responsible for goes down, and your evaluation suffers. Sounds like bad news, but there's a balance.
The fact also is that when you become responsible for a group, your influence shoots right up. That's because of simple human nature. People pay attention to what you do and what you say, because you have some say in how their life is. You might be able to assign people to different work, or set different hours, or determine who gets overtime, or any number of things.
The consequence of all that is that what you do and how you act determines how your people act and what they do. That's powerful stuff. What it meant for me, and what it means for you if you're responsible for the performance of a group, is that you've got to start paying attention to setting the example and communicating in both direct and indirect ways.
Those direct ways are the ones we know about. What you say to people now has more impact, because you're the boss. So pay attention to what you say. Be a bit more careful in choosing your words.
Indirect communication is important, too. For most leaders, that indirect communication is how you spend your time.
Spend your time concentrating on helping people become more productive, and your whole group will get the hint and start paying attention to that as well. Pay attention to catching people violating the tiniest obscure paragraph deep in the policy manual, and people will notice that, too. Then they'll spend their time making sure they adhere to the rule, even if they're not doing anything productive.
The other big tool you have for indirect communication is what you praise. Here's a quick review of what praise does for you. Praise is the tool that you use to get people to do something new or to continue doing something they're already doing. So, if you want people to do more of something or to work harder at it, praise their efforts.
There's one more thing you need to know about this handy praise tool, though. Praise is best delivered inconsistently. Yep, that's right. If you praise every little thing along the way, praise loses its meaning. But, if you catch people doing something right and praise them for it Ð but not all the time Ð your praise retains its power.
So, here's a review of your situation if you've just become responsible for the performance of a group. You've got less power than you had before. It's sad, but true. On the other hand, you've got a ton more influence, so you'd best use it wisely.
Your best tools to influence what people do are your own personal behavior and example, the words you choose when you talk to people, what you spend your time on, and what you praise. Package those up in your leadership tool kit, and you'll be on the way to a great leader.