There is a lot of pressure on a new manager to perform. Although it’s a different kind of pressure, an equal amount is applied to an old manager in a new position. It can feel like all eyes are on you – watching, critiquing, judging, and evaluating every single thing you do. It’s not all in your head. You won’t have to look hard to find those that want you to fail or those who are indifferent to your presence at the company. In this circumstance, it’s tempting, but you must stop acting like the smartest person in the room.
Like you, I’ve had a lot of managers over the years. Some of them were exceptional, and I’ve had some that were awful. Some came up through the ranks and some were transplants from other organizations. By itself, this is never an indicator of whether a manager will be exceptional or awful. Coming up through the ranks is no guarantee that you find yourself in the exceptional column. Coming in from outside the company doesn’t mean you are bound to fail.
They came with different skills and qualities and were all just as unique as you are. There were a few who were particularly good at drawing the best out of their team. As I was preparing for this episode, I thought about one example in my past where I had a manager who I greatly respect. He was one of the most civil human beings I have ever known and it was an absolute privilege to work for him.
Avoid Being The Smartest Person In The Room
Today, I want to share with you several actions you can take that position you as the guide and not the hero. I’m going to frame these into a few key principles that will help you to avoid being cast as the smartest person in the room. I remember a few specific instances from all those years ago that stand out to me and significantly influence my feelings as I recall those moments.
So I’m going to call this leader Josh. Josh came to our organization from another company where he had been a senior manager. It was their loss and Josh was a great fit for the work we were doing. I was in a team manager role and reported to Josh. There were a lot of people reporting to me and I had a large deliverable. With ~18 years of experience in my field, I was more than capable in my role.
Acknowledge What Others Bring To The Table
Here’s the first thing Josh did that stood out to me. He acknowledged my past, my experience, my capability and the contributions I had been making and what he wanted from me going forward. He didn’t try to outshine me, he tried to make sure that I knew I was a star in his book. It was sincere and wasn’t flattery. It doesn’t take long for that behavior to build some serious loyalty. Acknowledging the strengths of others doesn’t mean you have no strengths or that you have nothing to offer.
Hold An Opinion While Being Open To Having It Changed
In some ways though, Josh took it too far. His heart was in the right place, but too often he downplayed the quality of his own ideas, especially if they conflicted with those of an experienced team member. Don’t let that happen! Self-deprecation can come across as weak leadership. Josh might not have always brought a strong enough opinion to the table (or at least he didn’t forcefully communicate it) but what he did get right was ALWAYS being open to having his mind changed by facts.
Your team wants to see you model boldness, courage, and even some fight! Do you know why? Because you wouldn’t risk the danger of going to fight for something or someone that you didn’t believe in. Behind closed doors, when you are meeting with your manager and she is questioning the value your team is bringing to the organization, your team wants to be confident that you will fight for them, defend their good work, demonstrate the error when others downplay or attempt to disregard their results.
Fight For Your Team
I’ve mentioned this before, but I have reported directly to two different senior executives who were women. There seems to be this false impression that female leaders are hesitant or reticent to go to battle. That is is 100% the most ridiculous notion I could imagine. Not just because it’s been demonstrated to me through personal experience with these women, but it’s contradictory to demonstrated behavior through history – and I don’t just mean human history. Have you ever seen what happens when another person (male or female) attempts to harass or harm a child? Heaven help you.
It’s ingrained in a woman’s DNA to go to battle for a cause she believes in. I have NO DOUBT that behind closed doors, these women BATTLED for me, for my team, for our group. There was nothing self-serving in their approach. It was the right thing to do and they fought for it until they won, were convinced they were wrong, or simply got shut out of the decision-making process. In some cases, their commitment to the cause damaged their ability to progress – they wouldn’t just be quiet and slink away, right?! They were in your face about why this tact, this decision, this approach was wrong.
My warning for you here is don’t get married to a position. It’s very difficult to remain open to the facts when you have poured all of your emotion into defending or taking a position. You have to be willing to give it up when the facts demonstrate you are in error. Be confident in your opinions but open to having them changed by facts.
Focus On The Here And Now
You know the saying “what have you done for me lately?” With few exceptions, no one is getting paid today for results 10 years ago or even yesterday. Have you ever thought about the let down that must occur after a team wins a championship? After all the hoopla and celebration and manic behavior that directly follows the “pinnacle” the realization sets in that shortly, no one will remember what you have just achieved, no matter how great or momentous in the moment. Inevitably, the attention shifts to the new grind that starts this very moment in preparing for the next championship run!
Are those historical achievements important? Of course! Are they foundational in terms of building you into the man or woman that you are today? Absolutely. Your customer (whether that’s your boss, your team, or your literal clients) doesn’t care about how many or what awards you have won, what accolades you have collected, or even how much revenue you generated in your past. That may have gotten you hired, but that isn’t going to bring you this Friday’s paycheck.
Can you guess what your customer cares about now? Their current needs. That’s it. What are you going to do for me today? This is my problem and I need to know how to fix it. Can you do that or am I going to have to listen to 14 stories about how you solved unrelated problems for people I don’t care about? How are you going to bring your resources to bear and take care of me?
Know Your Limitations
We are all really proud of what you did at XYZ. It brought you here. But now, it’s time to think about this customer. About the present challenge. Unless you are superman, it’s impossible to do success alone, so what dream team type results are you going to deliver with the resources at your disposal?
If you truly are the smartest person in the room, and everyone else is inferior, then first, correct your perspective… then find another room. You can’t grow where no one knows more than you do. Successful leaders recognize and acknowledge their limitations – no matter how smart they are, no matter their previous experience, no matter how successful in previous roles, they recognize what they didn’t know and when they don’t have an answer. Josh was exceptional at this.
don’t be afraid to ask questions and get guidance. You can’t avoid the high expectations and those pressure fueled feelings that come along with a role that stretches you. Top performers find themselves in roles where their previous success was a prerequisite for the role they are filling now.
DON’T FORGET THIS: your success was likely not the result of your efforts alone. More probable is that your success – especially as you progress through increasingly more demanding and more challenging roles – is far less about you and far more about results that you are able to derive with your team.
Give Credit Where It’s Due
I can remember multiple times where I was literally feeling like I was bursting with pride. Josh did not hesitate to inform others about how the results were achieved. He would stand in front of senior leaders and call out the performance of team members who succeeded in delivering outstanding outcomes. Josh never took credit for someone else’s effort and ALWAYS took responsibility when things didn’t turn out as planned. I would say that he mastered the art of public praise.
There is no perfect leader. Josh had some weaknesses but so do each of us. The things he did right positioned him to extract a great deal of value and commitment from his team. Through his actions, he made sure that everyone knew he wasn’t the hero. I wish he would have more forcefully identified himself as the reliable guide.
As a leader, you MUST be the sherpa everyone wants to guide them on their climb. You are the one who everyone is certain will help them to reach the summit, no matter how challenging and no matter the limitations they bring. It’s your job to make sure that everyone knows you are an exceptional guide!
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Now, go lead like someone you would want to follow!