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Congratulations, You’re a Leader – Now What?

Melissa Zehner
Melissa Zehner

Being a leader can be a challenge. Here's everything you need to know to be an effective leader.

After years of hard work, you’ve finally been promoted to lead a team of your own. Congratulations. Now the heavy lifting really begins. 

While we often talk about moving into leadership like it’s the finish line, that coveted promotion brings with it a whole new set of challenges. You’ll quickly learn that the approach you used to master your previous role won’t yield the same success now that you’re a leader. Transitioning from an individual contributor to a people leader requires a total shift in mindset and behavior. 

Leadership expert Michael D. Watkins said it best: new leaders “must learn to move from specialist to generalist, analyst to integrator, tactician to strategist, bricklayer to architect, problem solver to agenda setter, warrior to diplomat, and supporting cast member to lead role.” This is no easy task. 

Here are five pieces of advice that will help you excel in your new leadership role.

1. Think holistically

As a leader, others look to you for guidance. Gaining a more global understanding of your organization can help you better communicate your company's vision and offer clearer direction to your employees. 

Outside of your department, how much expertise do you have about your company? Do you have a clear grasp of the organization's overarching strategic initiatives and preferred planning methodologies? Have you considered how the accepted company culture impacts performance in both positive and negative ways? Are there any unspoken political nuances that create ongoing challenges between teams? 

These valuable insights enable you to effectively collaborate with leaders in other departments, choose projects that will make more significant contributions, and help your employees understand how their work contributes to the company's overall success. 

2. Listen more, speak less

You likely got promoted because you communicate well. Chances are, you excel at collaborating, sharing ideas, and talking through feedback. But now that you're a leader, you should find yourself listening more than speaking. If you're still doing most of the talking, you probably don't have an accurate picture of how your team feels. 

Offer your employees ample opportunity to ask questions, share ideas, and solve problems, as well as take the lead in meetings or on projects when it's appropriate. This boosts confidence and empowers them to work more independently. 

If you're execution-oriented and prefer to do things yourself, giving your employees more freedom may take some getting used to. Just remember that a good leader mobilizes rather than manages. Jared Atchison, co-founder of WPForms, notes that "empowering your employees to develop leadership skills does not mean that you're abdicating your role as a leader. It's about creating a workplace that encourages proactive behavior and self-sufficiency."

Atchison also believes that empowerment is essential for fostering a culture of innovation. "By fostering innovation and encouraging coworkers to be creative, you develop a culture of innovation. A work culture that encourages innovation and creativity creates greater engagement and satisfaction. Your team will see that their work is meaningful and that they help shape your brand," says Atchison.

3. Stay humble

We've all had a jerk boss. He's arrogant, condescending, and rarely caught working hard. He's the guy who thinks his title absolves him of any wrongdoing. Now that you're a leader, don't become this guy.

One of our mantras at Lendio is "humble and hungry," and everyone from intern to CEO is expected to emulate it. We don't believe that a title makes you right or immune to criticism. Nor does a title exempt you from rolling up your sleeves and sweating it out with the rest of the team to get the work done. 

On the contrary, many of our leaders are some of the humblest people I know. In the fast-paced fintech industry, maintaining a culture of humility is fundamental to our survival: it helps us rebound quickly from failures and turn on a dime when priorities shift. There's always something new to learn, always another skill to master.

Jay Chang, our senior vice president of Sales Acceleration, looks for a sense of humility in anyone he promotes to a leadership role. "It's crucial for any effective people leader to have a drive to get it right or make it right rather than to just be right," says Chang. 

Once you're in a leadership role, continuous growth is more crucial to both your individual success and your team's success than ever before—so don't let your ego undermine any further advancement. 

4. Be the backbone

Shortly after being promoted early last year, I realized I was falling behind on my work because I spent so much time helping my team. They were eager to ask questions, share ideas, and learn new skills—all good things that resulted in me spending the bulk of my day with my team and almost no time checking items off my to-do list. When I shared my concern with my boss, he said, "helping the team succeed is your work." Oh. Right. 

This was a groundbreaking moment because it shifted my entire approach toward leadership. I eliminated as many extraneous tasks as I could and committed to only the highest-priority items. This freed up more of my time to work in the service of my employees and focus on the projects that were pivotal for enhancing their performance. 

As a leader, your primary responsibility is enabling your team to perform the best they possibly can. Yes, you still need heads-down time to strategize—but don't neglect your employees in the process of doing so. 

Even the savviest strategy is useless if it can't be executed well, so make sure your employees have the tools and support they need to succeed. Are your departmental processes a mess? Are your team members overworked, frustrated, or disengaged? Do you see more furrowed brows than smiling faces? Is your software painfully out of date? Solve the problems that are holding your team back, and you'll boost both performance and morale.

5. Manage up and out

Relationship building doesn't stop with your team. Now that you're a leader, you'll need to continue cultivating strong relationships with other leaders and key stakeholders throughout the company. 

Lendio is highly collaborative; there's a lot of overlap from department to department. So strong relationships are a cornerstone of learning, collaborating, and ultimately moving projects forward. Those who don't have the ability to form bonds outside their teams tend to struggle once they get promoted to leadership roles because they don't collaborate as effectively. 

Nick Hudson, our director of Business Intelligence, says he looks for the "ability to create and manage positive and productive relationships with individuals or teams outside of their direct management chain" in anyone he considers promoting. 

Don't overlook the benefits of mentorship, either. Find a mentor (or two or three) who will challenge you to keep growing your skills and advancing your career. Talking through ideas or roadblocks with a seasoned executive will give you more insight than going it alone will. And often, he or she will be able to spot a wrong move before you make it. 

Next steps for new leaders

You've already figured out that leadership isn't easy. Give yourself room to take chances and make mistakes. Even the best leaders are just figuring it out as they go along. What sets an excellent leader apart from the rest is the desire to motivate and inspire, the humility to admit wrongdoing, and the determination to do a little better each day.

Image Credit: fizkes/Getty
Melissa Zehner
Melissa Zehner Member
Melissa Zehner is a Small Business Finance Editor at Lendio, the nation’s largest business lending marketplace. In addition to reporting on business finance trends, she studies the intersection of culture and business to find compelling stories about everything from grassroots movements to game-changing tech to government policy.