My First Team Leader Role: How I Got it (Almost) All Wrong

My First Team Leader Role: How I Got it (Almost) All Wrong

Despite the number of years, and teams I have led, since my first team leader experience, there are a few memories that come back as though they happened yesterday. I recall the feeling of satisfaction that came with my promotion from Product Manager to Senior Product Manager. I remember my sense of excitement reading the company announcement that named my new team, and our mission to lead the development of the next generation of products to fuel the company’s growth. Equally vivid is the memory of my first team meeting. I was determined that we were going to be the best. And I was pretty clueless as to how to do that.

Sam, the Director of Product Management, promoted me because I was a good Product Manager – relentlessly customer focused, data driven, with a strong sense of how to translate customer needs into language that the R&D teams could understand. When I stepped into my first team leader role, those strengths quickly turned into weaknesses with initially disastrous results. Within a few months, I had one team member in tears because she felt I didn’t trust her, I was told that I was micromanaging and doing their jobs for them, and they felt unsupported. It was a very humbling experience for someone who had only known success up to that point.

Team Leader VirginityIn the years since that first experience, I have heard similar stories from many new team leaders. The transition from individual contributor to team leader / manager is a big step which requires new skills and, more significantly, looking at relationships differently. Ironically, despite the critical role that teams play in an organization’s success, few companies ensure that new team leaders develop the skills and habits they need to consistently deliver superior performance. The results of this failure to invest are all too predictable: deteriorating performance, disengaged people, disappointing results, and increased turnover.

Returning to my first team leader experience, I had the good fortune of working for someone who had the wisdom to let me struggle, then stepped in and coached me in a few key areas (versus trying to address every issue at the same time). Sam took two actions that made a significant difference in my performance as a new team leader, and turned a near disaster into a formative learning experience. First, he clarified the purpose of my role: Sam made it clear that my job was to build an effective team that delivered results – not for me to deliver results using the people on my team. This was a significant turning point for me, and defined how I needed to view those key relationships. As uncomfortable as it was to step back from my product manager strengths, I needed to see my purpose as developing those competencies in my team, not using my team to amplify my own skills. Developing this habit became the first agenda topic with Sam during our weekly check-in conversations. Second, Sam encouraged me to regularly solicit feedback on how the team felt about me and the support I was giving them in order for them to achieve their goals and ambitions. While it took time, those two actions – clarity in my own purpose and encouraging continuous feedback – gave me the tools to establish a foundation of trust and support that led to a more effective and engaged team.

Reflecting back on that first time as a team leader as I work today with a new generation of team leaders three lessons remain relevant:

Fast forwarding to the present, what I learned from those early mistakes was reinforced time and again over the years, and more recently in my doctoral research. Role clarity and key relationships are essential elements of the Architecture of Highly-Effective Teams. Most importantly, understanding what your team members expect of these key relationships, versus what they actually experience, lays the groundwork for you as their team leader to increase energy and engagement every day as you consistently close any experience-expectation gaps.

I lost track of Sam over the years, but his coaching, and those early lessons in team leadership, had a big impact on my career and my passion for helping team leaders to develop the skills and habits that lead to exceptional performance. Thanks, Sam!

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