Learning Curves: Four Tips for Success

Betty Bailey

“It doesn’t matter how brilliant your vision and strategy are if you can’t get the soldiers, the weapons, the vehicles, the gasoline, the chow…to the right people, at the right place, at the right time.”  Tom Peters, Fast Company

Blaine, a skillful project manager and influencer, walked into the office one Monday and his boss gave him an unusual grin. He usually got a warm, “Hi!” from his boss, but this greeting was out of the ordinary. As a, rising star with proven results on tough projects, Blaine had solid credibility which allowed him to rapidly progress up the engineering ranks. One of the things that enhanced his effectiveness was his ability to explain technology and to relate it to customer’s needs, which made him a valued subject matter expert.

Today, Blaine was in for the surprise of his life. His manager waved him into his office and, with that same solicitous grin, he got right to the point. Blaine’s boss explained that he was retiring in six months and asked Blaine to take over his job, managing the entire division. After the warm rush of flattery wore off, the stark reality of his boss’ position began to set in. The massive responsibility his boss carried would soon be his. Blaine knew he was in for a steep learning curve. Over the years, Blaine had heard war stories of leaders who had failed, so he set out to learn why his current boss was so successful. In his research, he found that to be successful he needed to change. His leadership style, focus, priorities, and perspective all had to broaden for him to be successful in the new position.

Blaine’s first step was to find out what the expectations would be and what, specifically, would be required of him.  He asked his boss two key questions, “What am I getting paid for in this position?” and, “What did you to succeed?” He also asked other leaders similar questions. He put himself in learning mode so he could fully understand both the big picture and the specific requirements for success. Even though he wouldn’t be individually responsible for all the details any longer, he knew he would be responsible for the outcome of those details.

Blaine did succeed. He succeeded by first getting clear about his priorities, and second, by building a team that performed and trusted him.


How You Will Personally Succeed as a New Leader

Ultimately, a leader is paid for strategy and execution. While you may not individually be responsible for all the details any longer, don’t fool yourself. You can’t drop the details. You need to be checking them since you’re still accountable for them in some form. Any new promotion brings challenges, including forging your credibility anew.

Credibility is not something you automatically have, nor is it something you can bestow upon yourself.  It’s something others bestow upon you. You can’t think your way into credibility. You must act your way into credibility. And, like beauty, credibility is in the eye of the beholder. For others to view you as credible, you must consistently and deliberately be strategic about what you say, how you say it, and what you do.

The crucial thing to remember is that you’re judged by what people see you doing, or not doing. We all have great intentions, but many of us don’t follow through on them. Therefore, ask yourself, “What do I need to be doing that I’m not doing now to be more credible?”

You are in new territory and need to learn how to deliver business results, connect with others, and build relationships at all levels. Building mentors a level above you who value your work is pivotal.  So, find out what good looks like and who will judge good. Unfortunately, many people don’t transition into leadership roles well. Often, a new leader is considered the best at what he or she already does. When a company puts an individual contributor into a leadership role, they usually lose their best individual performer and gain a below-average leader. Why? Over 50% of the time the new leader doesn’t know what’s expected of her or him. Communication is poor in many companies, and few people receive detailed instructions on how to lead and what competencies and skills are vital. In many cases, the new leader doesn’t know the boss’ expectations. When you get a new title, make sure you and your boss are on the same page and you know what to do in this new role. That will keep you from facing ambiguity every day. It’s up to you. You must ask.


How You and Your Team Will Succeed

You succeed through communication, through purposeful speaking and listening with your team. Each person wants to know the direction you want to take and how they are involved. They want to understand your priorities and strategies for succeeding. They also want to know about you, what you stand for, and what you value. Create your vision and talking points. Next, communicate your vision and direction with each person on your team. Success that lasts is grounded in the direction and values of the leader.


Tip One: Communicate and connect with each person on your team.

Every one of us has different interests and strengths. The great leaders listen and learn about their team’s interests and aspirations. Ask them what they love to do, what they aspire to, and what they want to be doing in 1-2 years. Then, be their mentor. Give them visible work and talk up their accomplishments. Listen more than talk, ask more than tell. Provide the necessary support and context so everyone knows what is most important. Whenever we were in a new position, we would meet with our respective team one-on-one as soon as possible. Understanding their strengths, how they approached work, and what they valued gave us personal information to leverage their skills. Together, we created a mutual understanding and unity toward our common purpose.


Tip Two: Create a cycle of performance, success, and feedback.

Creating a cycle of performance starts when you give your team clear goals about the work they will be doing and then provide consistent feedback. They need feedback about their work; both what they do and how they do it. Feedback shows you are involved and aware of how the team is succeeding. On-going feedback puts you in an active role as part of their success. Also, let them know about your work and what is challenging for you. They may see your challenges with fresh eyes that help you create a novel solution. A cycle of performance and success includes everyone. Shine a light on your team’s successes by letting your boss know how your team helped with customers, how they solved problems, and how they contributed to the team’s success. Highly performing teams and success don’t just happen unexpectedly. They begin with setting specific goals, achieving those goals, and learning from feedback.  That cycle is a force that builds momentum and creates even more energy for future accomplishments. Shared success and strong team members build an agile team, one that is interdependent, leverages information among the team members, and builds its own team signature with pride.


Tip Three: Consistency and predictability build trust.

When your team is winning, and performing, that’s great. But no person or team wins all the time. We all have difficulties. When a down day or problem happens, acknowledge it.  Be diplomatic and straightforward and be a leader who becomes a performance coach. Give your team tips and techniques about how to improve. Avoid being vague or sugar-coating your feedback. Your honesty makes you predictable. Predictability is the number one ingredient necessary for trust. Predictable leaders are good coaches who quickly recognize when someone needs help. Trust binds a leader and team together. This trust positions a leader and the team for dealing with risk and success. Involving your team in your plans and letting them know both good news and bad news keeps everyone involved and accountable. Be genuine about what’s going on in the company and with customers. That not only keeps your team in the loop but also lets people be creative about possibilities to manage complex situations.

Trust is critical with your team and you must be consistent and predictable. Are you the leader, the mentor, or just the boss? Ask for other’s opinions. Implement some of their solutions. When trust and bonds exist in a team, the urge to give and to produce has its own energy. Jokes are exchanged and there’s harmony to agree or disagree. When people disagree, you are the coach to break the tension, work through conflict, and reach a decision. Are you confident enough to share both your worries and the glory? What do you think your team says about you? If you are not crystal clear about the answers to those questions, ask.


Tip Four: Be willing to change some of your behaviors, to adapt, and to learn.

Leaders take risks, they transform both work and themselves. By taking risks they may transform both work outcomes and those with whom they work. They are willing to be vulnerable and step out of a comfort zone to be innovative and they try new ways to approach old problems with new ideas. They give their team the permission to say what they think, and in turn, they allow them to be creative.  Modeling risk-taking may even be a way of life. There is no wrong answer, instead there’s time and a safe environment to present an opinion. When you do, they will. Great leaders are life-long learners. They listen and seek out others’ opinions and ask, “why?” or why not?” when presented with a problem. Learners are flexible and can adapt their style when presented with difficulties at work or with a difficult person. Learners are good coaches and take the time to train others in the art of customer loyalty, how to change, and how to make connections with other people. They move the business forward even if they don’t have all the information. They look to others’ expertise and aren’t afraid to say, “I don’t know.” When in a new job, a best practice is to hire people you consider as equals and who could do your job. That way you have others to learn from and who offer perspectives and ideas that are complementary. Then results and achievements are forged together.

These four tips are the true north for open communication, shared expectations, trust, and success with a new leadership job and a new team. With each new job and new team, you grow as a leader and, hopefully, in your depth and breadth as a performance coach. Blaine became known as a credible leader. His credibility grew along with his expertise and he developed an increasing range of emotions and self-awareness from which to influence and coach others. From that base of experience, his career also continued to grow as he grew progressively more comfortable leading others and managing complexity. Blaine also grew more confident, trusting, and believing in himself, as well as others.

In summary, be certain about your strategy and direction and who you work with to achieve results. Let go of being the detail person and instead, think up toward what and who you need to know to get things done. Cultivate your team and your peers along with your boss, because they are the go to people to help you accomplish results.

True leaders have followers. Together you will create the future. It is entirely possible to get extraordinary results from ordinary people. Strategy, execution, and teamwork add up to a triumph for your team and for you as the leader. A 20% investment of your time being a purposeful communicator and coach yields a big payoff. By using this winning combination, you won’t be the new leader for long. You’ll be the new star!


Reprinted with the permission of Betty Bailey Ph.D of Houston Texas, and Jean Kelley of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Both Bailey and Kelley are in private practice, coaching c-suite executives on three continents. In their newest book, Discover the Leader in You: 12 Indispensable Competencies they illustrate and document how the best leaders achieve results and maintain their balance to make a difference. For more information contact Jean Kelley at [email protected] or Betty Bailey at [email protected]

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