Maintaining Your A-Game as a Leader

Here are tips on how you can keep your leadership skills sharp as you manage through uncertainty


Garrett Mintz , Mon 17 January 2022
Leadership is an aspect of work that is about to have a major overhaul. It is a skill hardly covered in higher education, yet people are expected to step up when their name is called to fill in management positions. 

Many universities have downgraded Management from being a standalone major to a co-major or a minor. When I was a student, I didn’t think much of this at the time, except for the fact that this decision dissuaded fellow business students from pursuing the field of study because it meant doing just as much work as a normal major but having the label as “co” attached to it, making the degree seem less significant. 

From my understanding, their reasoning was that most college students aren’t hired for management roles right out of college, so other degree fields are more immediately relevant to employers making hiring decisions. The notion was that these young professionals will learn and develop management skills as they enter the workforce and be ready to step up.

The issue with this mode of thinking is that most companies promote based on individual contributions within their role, and they provide little guidance to middle-management on how to be an effective leader. On top of that, the skills that make somebody a great individual contributor are not the same as the ones that make somebody a great manager. The result is burnout, and not just for the managers. Both employees reporting to untrained managers and the managers themselves suffer from the stress. A new manager that’s in over their head can go wrong in a variety of ways. They might expect their new direct reports to all perform at the same high level that the manager (thinks) they did at the time. On the other hand, they might fall prey to ruinous empathy. They want to be the cool, approachable manager, but they lack the skills to maintain discipline and have direct, potentially uncomfortable conversations with team members. This stress feedback loop between managers and direct reports rapidly degrades engagement and company culture. 

A recent Gallup report found that burnout for people managers increased from 27% in 2020 to 35% in 2021. The effects of manager burnout are distributed across a whole company. Frequent turnover and changes in leadership completely erodes psychological safety in employees, which in turn contributes to more turnover. These feedback loops are insidious problems and only grow more difficult to fix as they gain steam. 

The point is that companies need to begin thinking about increasing their training and development resources for their mid-level managers if they want to be a viable business in the years to come. The cost of hiring, training, and then re-hiring digs too much into the narrow margins most companies have allocated for maintaining long-term profitability. And for companies that are breaking even, getting started now is imperative!

When reviewing whether the company found the right manager (hired or promoted), sometimes you find it didn’t work out. It is too easy to simply chalk it up to “poor fit” or that the person did a bad job. This lets the company off the hook for their hiring choice when there’s another side to this story. The manager that didn’t work out in that position may think that “the company didn’t give me the resources to be a good manager and put me in a position to fail”. 

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. 

I believe that being a really good manager isn’t some inherent skill that people pick up naturally. It is a learned skill that can be developed and honed over time. And this skill can’t be learned in sprints; it’s learned through a marathon of consistent, focused practice on improvement. Consistency is the key. 

When people talk about their boss being a “bad manager” and vent about all the bad things that their boss is doing, I would care to argue that in almost every case, the manager is not intentionally being a bad manager. Nobody comes to the office thinking “how can I ruin your day?” and then just go ahead and do it. Pure intentions can’t hide the effects of poor execution. 

People have off-days. 

Whether they are burned out from work, stressed out from something personal, or just on edge and unsure why, people have off-days. When you are an individual contributor, having an off-day is easier to keep to yourself. It’s easier to mostly contain that negativity, or at least keep it from being an issue for your coworkers. 

But, when a manager has an off-day, there is a magnifying, exponential effect because they have an opportunity to negatively impact everyone that reports to them.

If you string enough of those off-days in a row together, you create a toxic culture. And, unsurprisingly, toxic cultures don’t make off-days less frequent. If you are a new manager, and things aren’t going how you planned, this can be deeply frustrating. You didn’t intend to create a toxic culture, and your work style and preparation didn’t change from being a great individual contributor, but your performance as a leader of people continues to dwindle. The most important thing you can do is to start working on improving it now.

So, here are a few things you can do to maintain your A-Game as a leader.

Read Leadership Books (least expensive)

To know what a good leader does on a regular basis, it is important to learn from those that have studied the best leaders. There are about a million of these books, but to get you started I’ll share a few that have influenced my thinking. I am a big fan of Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, Jocko Willink’s Extreme Ownership, Brene Brown’s Dare To Lead, and Kim Scott’s Radical Candor. Eventually, you’ll have your own list of the books that most influenced you on your path to becoming a great manager. 

Join an Executive Mastermind Group (moderately expensive)

Executive Mastermind Groups can vary based on industry and title, but in general, they are a group of leaders coming together to learn from each other, share their challenges, and identify solutions to the challenges they are facing. They are a great outlet when you want to have a sounding board outside of your spouse, friends, or coworkers. My company, Ambition In Motion, actually runs executive mastermind groups, both for executives and middle managers – if you are interested in learning about them, feel free to reach out. The way I look at it is that we, as leaders, are all scientists testing hypotheses and trying to find the best ways to lead our teams. 90% of what we try probably won’t work, but these mistakes teach us how to get better at finding that last 10% that’s your key to success. If we can all bring our failed and successful leadership experiments together, we can exponentially improve our leadership and speed up our learning curve.

Review your team’s data (moderately expensive)

In my last article, How to Have An Effective 1:1 with a Direct Report, I wrote about how to have an effective 1:1 and what metrics can help you understand whether your message is getting through to your team. You need to be sure that your message is being received the way you intended. If you can understand how your team is receiving you as a leader through data, you are much more likely to make tangible improvements as a leader over time than if you aren’t measuring anything at all.

Get an executive coach (more expensive)

Getting an executive coach can give you a ton of personalized attention and focus to pinpoint the exact area you are challenged with. Executive coaches can question your way of thinking and acting and reframe your leadership style to serve your team in more impactful ways. 

You can also combine all of these suggestions together to give yourself the best opportunity to improve.

Overall, leadership is undergoing a major overhaul and as current or future leaders, we must take steps to prepare ourselves for what is to come so we can lead our team the best we can.

 


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