“Individual Contributors” to “Leaders” Follows Three Stages

Last week we discussed several important leadership skills.  This week we dig deeper by asking, “Are you really a leader?”  Even if you are good at active listening and executing, this is still a relevant question as   being a leader involves additional skills beyond those two.

As a coach I have observed three distinct stages of transitioning into a being a leader.  The first stage is “Individual Contributor.”

In this position you gain technical skills and learn how to execute as a member of a team or department.  You are focused on working well with others and fulfilling your job description and defined role to the best of your ability. You may also want to identify where you can better help the team achieve common goals and take the initiative to do so, proving both to yourself and to your department that you are a determined and competent self-starter.  If you are extremely successful as an Individual Contributor, you will likely be offered a role to lead others.

If you accept a leadership role, you reach the second stage that I call “Individual Contributor as Leader.”

What exactly is this?  It’s essentially a transitional state wherein a leader is relying primarily on familiar individual contributor skills, at least in the beginning, to deliver leadership results.  If you tend to be a perfectionist, you may find that you continue to rely on this trait when you are leading others.  Being a perfectionist can potentially derail your leadership efforts because you will gravitate toward micromanagement which shortchanges both your and your employees’ efforts.

It is in the Individual Contributor as Leader phase that you must begin to adopt real leadership and managerial skills and rely significantly less on the skills that allowed you to be recognized and promoted. This will include developing the skills we have previously discussed– active listening and execution. You begin to learn that being a successful member of a team bears little resemblance to being a successful leader of a team. The stress of relying on others to get the work done can be overwhelming causing a leader to overthink, micromanage and not delegate effectively. These are frequently observed symptoms of the Individual Contributor as Leader who has not yet fully grown into the position

It can be lonely for the first-time leader as they are no longer part of the “team.” they once identified with. His or her every move is being observed, analyzed, and critiqued both by the people they are leading and those to whom they report, and likely for the first time.  Often leaders in this phase continue to be promoted as they gain experience and incorporate leadership skills and have incremental success. Because Individual Contributors as Leaders are normally not focused on developing successors to replace them, promoting the leader can be particularly dangerous becaus of the talent gap they leave behind.

Thus, in addition to active listening and execution, it is a good idea to identify and begin grooming potential successors to maintain top company performance in the event you continue to be promoted. This of course, continues to be your goal!

The final phase is “Leader.”  You have reached this phase when you are no longer relying on your individual contributor skills and now are working from the vantage point of overseeing the work that is being done by your staff.  You have reached this phase when your main focus is developing your team to deliver the same type of outstanding results that you delivered yourself as an individual contributor.

You will bring your team to a place where they can communicate openly and confidently, allowing you to discern a clearer picture of what is being done well and what still needs additional work. Goals are better identified, adjusted as needed, and ultimately met. You and your team will build up a trust in each other that increases work satisfaction as well as creates greater efficiency throughout your department or organization. You won’t second guess yourself nearly as often once you have transitioned to your new role as leader.

While reaching goals is paramount, it is true that approaches to leadership can vary. Next time we will begin looking at leadership styles that help you transition to the role of leader.  See you then.