the other side of the desk

January 28, 2019

Take a moment to revisit your first day at your first job. As nostalgia takes over, try to recall your memories of that day—the excitement, fervor, and the sense of achievement that you must have felt as the day concluded. There are many such moments in our career, which stay with us for life—moments that motivate, offer new perspectives while taking tough decisions, and provide hope during
hard times.

beyond the walls of the meeting room

The moment that changes one’s professional lives forever is when one ceases to be an employee and becomes a manager. This seemingly logical, natural progression has many repercussions. As those in senior leadership roles will tell one—assuming that the managerial role goes beyond allocating work and managing performance—many managers take on their new role without completely comprehending what it entails. Any kind of leadership demands personal growth, strong decision-making skills, and continuous learning.

The challenges that a leader faces are different from those faced by her team. The new roles and responsibilities involve more people management and interpersonal skills. Leadership involves making difficult decisions and delivering on them. The most significant difference between these responsibilities and those in the ones in earlier roles, is that the job is no longer about delivering on one’s core competencies. Instead, now they are more about training, teaching, and mentoring others to reach collective goals. From concentrating on ‘doing the work’ the focal point now is to ‘getting it done’—unless there is an awareness of this shift, it can throw one off balance.

Such awareness can only be cultivated with periodic on-the-job training for potential leaders—not just one-day leadership workshops, but more long-term, holistic programs. Additionally, seeking counseling to more readily embrace one’s new role is of great help. Last but not the least is introspection—you are the best judge of whether you are ready for the job. Becoming a manager does not only mean climbing the hierarchical ladder, it is a role where one is accountable to multiple stakeholders —colleagues, superiors, mentees, juniors, and of course clients. Knowing one’s individual level of readiness and consequently acting on the shortcomings can take one far as a leader. After all, if one is to lead others, one must learn to lead oneself in the right direction.

one man, many masks

As a leader, one ends up playing different roles in the lives of the employees. A leader is also a coach, mentor, counselor, friend, and confidante. Dealing with these aspects requires one to connect to her emotional self— invoke empathy, be a good listener, and provide solutions without becoming overtly involved. This is tough for both the leader and the led. For many leaders it is the foremost challenge as it requires striking a delicate balance.

To tackle such situations, recall being on the other side of the table. Understand and accept the problems and emotions being presented, speak with compassion and kindness, and reassure the team that their side of the story is relevant. There was a time when one would have been on the other side, whether it was to express a grievance or to explain a mistake. One expected to be heard and understood and required that someone in an authoritative position empathized and helped come to a conclusion or correct the course. When one relives the past, she will be better able to handle situations fairly.

There will, however, be tough instances where one will be unable to help the team and will probably need to take difficult calls even after understanding their point of view. It could be providing feedback, resolving conflict, discussing performance reviews, or even letting someone go. Focus on the constructive and logical part of the discussion in these conversations while maintaining an understanding and calm demeanor. Taking tough calls does not necessarily mean being tough on people.

painting the bigger picture

In one’s role as a leader, the stakes are higher as the decisions have larger impact and responsibilities too increase exponentially. The sponge that cushioned one from being responsible and accountable for the outcome of a particular task is no longer there. However, the authority that one now wields, enables one to do things better before. If one was treated unfairly as an employee, now there is an opportunity to ensure that the same treatment is not meted to her team. Instead, she can ensure success by filtering information and making sure that only the positive and productive ones reach the team. This does not mean keeping all information from them. Transparency is of utmost importance, and invariably leads to increased ownership among employees. Know what deserves to be shared and what does not.

This change requires one to take care of things that empower the teams to work to the best of their potential. It could mean managing expectations of stakeholders or ensuring beneficial office policies. The team’s success is directly related to one’s success now. It not only changes the way one works but also requires a shift in thinking—from a task-oriented approach to a goal-oriented one. As this change takes place, the bigger picture starts to matter a lot more as one contributes to it more actively and consciously.

To manage this part of the job effectively, it is important to maintain foresight while keeping an eye on the present. Manage the team and their tasks in a way that they contribute to the goal actively and systematically through all efforts. Filter information that can cause disruption and unnecessary delays. Focus on motivating the team and keeping them on track by providing feedback at the right moments, in an appropriate setting. Whether it is one-on-one coffee sessions with a team member or feedback letters, provide inputs in a healthy manner. In all this, do remember that the team’s input matters as well. Feedback forms and surveys are a great way of letting the team know that their opinions are highly valued.

leadership is a solitary role

The designation and responsibilities that come with being a leader inevitably separate you from those who surround you. Moving up the ladder, however, does not have to translate into leaving your colleagues behind. The decisions that we take may not always be in sync with the popular opinion. There will be days when one has to change—from being a leader to a taskmaster. Upholding commitments and accomplishing goals will always be a priority over most things. In the solitude of leadership, do not forget that empathy still matters—not because one needs to be a popular people-pleaser, but because while a leader is in a sense separate from the team, she stills need to be approachable.

Often the difference in designations, acts as a hindrance as one approaches colleagues for honest feedback or inputs. A direct result of this is that the close circle at work becomes smaller. At the same time, the need for genuine feedback and constructive debate is higher as the decisions one makes has a larger impact. It is important to build a network of peers and mentors as one enters the sphere of leadership. Make these inputs more genuine by setting up a mechanism to receive anonymous feedback from those who report to you. This will break the barriers created by designation and formality.

At this stage of career it is important to build a network that will support when the times are tough. No one can work in isolation. Peers and mentors go beyond providing insight and help one to continue to grow as a leader and as a person. They also provide a strong support system in people management and, sometimes, even in decision-making.

in conclusion

Being a manager means heightened responsibility towards the team, stakeholders, and customers. Leadership is a journey where undue credit and criticism follow constantly. The need to do right for the team becomes an unceasing goal. The pressures of this role can take a toll on the best of us. But, as individuals, we do not change. As managers, there is an acute awareness of the weight of one’s responsibilities and actions. It is only human to be overwhelmed by it.

These are the moments when focusing on strengths, reaching out to close associates and mentors, and maintaining perspective becomes important. Focus on personal values and the values of the organization in difficult times. These are the pillars that will help and guide in moments of uncertainty. It is crucial to be more aware of the factors that can be influenced than those that cannot. With this as the focus, one can affect tangible change and work productively towards organizational goals.

Becoming a manager and taking on the mantle of leadership, is an opportunity like none other. This is not just because of the growth and progress that it spells for one’s careers but because of the rare chance that it offers to be an important part of a successful journey of not just the organization but also of the employees. Make this phase of the career more rewarding professionally, as well as personally, by learning to lead with compassion, focus,
and responsibility.