How To Turn Individual Contributors into Leaders

Interview with AF’s Executive Consultants Ellen Foley and Kim Arellano

Training Industry sat down with our executive consultants Ellen Foley & Kim Arellano to discuss the challenge of turning individuals into leaders. Here’s what they had to say:

How can learning and development (L&D) professionals help new managers with the transition from their role as an individual contributor to manager?   

The shift from individual contributor to manager is undeniably tough, and on an almost daily basis we’re asked to support new leaders as they make that transition. One minute they are the star performer, bursting with confidence in their role, the next they are expected to coach, engage, have difficult conversations, and motivate. Often against a backdrop of constant change and pressure.  

In our nearly five decades of research, we’ve found that, early on, highly effective leaders develop mastery in several key areas. They start to think like a leader and recognize that they now need to delegate and empower others in order to get results. They develop and drive their team to success, grasping the importance of engaging people and coaching their teams. Rarely does this happen without the valuable support of L&D and structured development programs. Bad habits are hard to break – we see this over and over – so the earlier these new and would-be leaders can access the right tools and approaches, the more likely they are to succeed. 

What is the organizational benefit of manager training, and how can it be measured? 

Over the years, exit interviews have led the talent industry to conclude ‘people leave managers, not organizations’. This bit of common wisdom is one important reason for developing effective managers.  The vast majority of organizations that we work with have KPIs for ‘attracting and retaining top talent’ and ‘building a strong leadership pipeline’. Developing and retaining high-performing managers is critical to meeting those KPIs. 

With our customers we take a strategic, systemic approach to linking leadership development to business outcomes. We look first at the business direction and strategy, then help our clients to define the capabilities each level of leaders needs to support that strategy. An integral part of the resulting plan are the metrics that will define success. 

Measuring and linking L&D, and especially leadership development, to bottom line business results is notoriously tricky. Because there are a vast number of factors that contribute to business results, isolating the impact of L&D is near impossible, or at least impossible to do without an outlandish investment of resources – both people, time and money.  However, there are things we can do. Here are a couple of examples. 

Focus on measuring the upstream factors that we know drive downstream results. Most organizations do some form of an Engagement or Pulse survey because they know that how employees feel about the organization and their managers has an impact on retention and productivity. Those surveys provide a snapshot of employee satisfaction with a number of aspects of leadership, such as career development planning, and coaching.  A focused effort on leaders’ capabilities to hold development and coaching conversations, and the resulting improvement in leadership behaviors, can measured through periodic 360 assessments. And, the impact of improvement will show up, over time, in Engagement survey results.   

Include action learning projects as part of a development program. Structuring practical, real work projects that are of value to the business and that require participants to demonstrate their ability to apply new leadership skills and behaviors, creates a direct link from skill development to business results. 

How do you see the skills managers need evolving in the future of work? What emerging or growing skills should manager training focus on? 

Through our Leading in the Digital Age research we’ve identified a marked shift in the skills that are needed as we prepare for the decade ahead. Building resilience and trust to navigating ambiguity and change, engaging networks of stakeholders across increasingly complex organizations, and leading through influence are just some of the capabilities we recommend L&D practitioners are prioritize in their strategies for 2020 and beyond. 

Successful businesses are embracing the value that diverse workforces bring (McKinsey research shows that profitability in organizations in the top quartile for diversity is 21% higher than those in the lowest quartile), and are driving inclusive leadership behaviors such as demonstrating openness to other perspectives and cultivating a culture where ‘psychological safety’ encourages vulnerability and courage.  

In Kim’s research conducted on the manufacturing industry, the need for leadership skills and behaviors extends beyond those with positional authority. Manufacturing is seeing the shift from hierarchal systems where command and control limits the ability to be nimble and adaptable, to matrixed systems where all hands on deck need to demonstrate the ability to step into new leadership attributes. Influence, feedback, expectation-setting and building trust are all traditional leadership skills that need to expand to all members of an organization in order to identify and react to the shifting VUCA* forces that will be increasingly commonplace in our organizations. The earlier in a person’s career that we establish the need to develop these skills AND to recognize where the opportunity to demonstrate them, will be critical for organizations to enable. Th future of work begins with the ability to see the greater system, and one’s role in it and how their actions will motivate and inspire others to move in the right direction.  

*VUCA: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.  

What are some common challenges employees face when transitioning from an individual contributor role to a management role? 

Lack of time is one of the main reasons that leaders give for not carrying out people management responsibilities such as coaching or delegating. It’s common to continue approaching the role of a line manager as if you were still an individual contributor – focusing on the task and ensuring the work is done. 

How do they know where to invest their time? With all the best intentions, it can still be difficult for leaders to prioritize their time when diaries are full and an inbox of urgent emails demands attention.  

How do they choose the right person to delegate to? As a new leader, it can be difficult to feel confident delegating. Some people tell us they’re uncomfortable giving other people what they see as ‘their’ work, whilst others find it hard to let go of controlling the outcome. A key part of delegation is making sure that you choose the right person for the right task. 

How do they support their team’s engagement? High engagement results from a deep sense of ownership for the organization and strong feelings of involvement, commitment, and absorption in one’s work. It’s critical to take the time to understand what drives the engagement of every individual in a team. Accomplishment? Recognition? Enjoyment? Belonging? Advancement? All are important, but how much they matter will vary hugely between different individuals.

What advice do you have for first-time managers struggling to adapt to their new role? 

We would recommend that first-line leaders should examine the barriers to purposeful action – what is truly getting in their way? Are they still holding onto the most interesting projects? Are they not finding time to spend with team members? Only by listing these out as honestly as they can, will they begin to overcome the obstacles. 

In response to the ever-rife challenge of managing priorities, we encourage new leaders to focus on value, asking how much does an activity contribute value to their own goals and objectives? To the organizational strategy? To the team’s ability to succeed? By taking a moment to think, before launching into the solution, they are continuing to focus on getting results through others and thinking more strategically, rather than piling more and more work on themselves. 

Once the initial excitement of promotion has passed, it can feel lonely and overwhelming to step into a management role. It’s a win-win, however, if the manager succeeds in delegating effectively. This takes a measured approach, but can reap huge rewards if approached in the right way.  

  • What technical and interpersonal skills are required? 
  • Has anyone got similar experience? 
  • Do they have sufficient knowledge of the organization? 
  • Do they have the required degree of self-confidence to carry out the tasks? 
  • Who has enough time to take this on? 

Tell me about AchieveForum’s training program for first-level leaders. What core competencies and skills does this program seek to teach new leaders?   

First-level leaders are the largest and arguably most important group of leaders in any organization. The linchpin in strategy execution, customer satisfaction, and employee engagement, they are the main driver of business results. Today, the role of first-line leader is more challenging than ever due to advances in technology, constant and increasing levels of change, and the pressure to deliver business results often under unprecedented cost and resource constraints.  

Based on decades of research and experience working with first-line leaders, we’ve built a program that focuses on four critical people leadership practices essential to new leaders: think like a leader, coach your team, get results through others, and engage people.  

  • Think Like a Leader. Prioritize their time to focus on high-value people management activities 
  • Coach Your Team. Develop individual and team capability by providing effective feedback and coaching to higher levels of performance 
  • Get Work Done Through Others. Shift from doer to leader through effective goal-setting and delegation  
  • Engage People. Maximize team members’ willingness to provide discretionary effort by understanding their engagement needs  

Describe AchieveForum’s competency-based leadership training programs. How were these leadership competencies determined, and how can competency-based training help create better leaders?  

Our ‘Work of Leaders’ competency model was developed through industry research and informed by our many years of experience working with leaders at all levels in organizations around the globe. The model describes a set of capabilities and competencies all leaders need to perform their leadership role effectively.   

The model’s four capability areas are Direction & Alignment, Commitment & Capability, Executive & Performance, and Personal Mastery, and each is accompanied by several core competencies. We evolve and shape the model as business conditions shift what organizations and leaders need to be effective.  Our recent research on Leading in the Digital Age has led us to add competencies to the model – Resilience and Building Trust, for instance. 

Our experience shows that focusing a comprehensive curriculum of development programs around the Work of Leaders model ensures leaders have the core skills needed for high-performance.   

That said, because no two organizations are exactly alike, and because the skills leaders need at different stages in their careers change, the most effective curricula are built to the specific needs of the organization and the level of leader being developed. For example, for senior leaders we often put more emphasis on Direction & Alignment, whereas at the other end of the spectrum, the focus for emerging leaders is often weighted towards Personal Mastery – topics such as Developing a Leadership Mindset and Managing Your Priorities. 

By using this approach, we are able to help talent professionals offer the right leadership development experiences to the right people. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about?  

There is an elephant in the room when it comes to L&D. Despite billions of pounds spent each year against increasingly innovative and technologically enhanced techniques, studies estimate that only 1 in 3 people actually adopt the behaviors they learn. Even world-class leadership development efforts are struggling to have a sustainable impact. After nearly two years of experimentation and research, encompassing the latest in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science, we are developing some game-changing recommendations for achieving long-term behavior change. We’re predicting a radical shift in the L&D space and are excited to be part of the evolution. We’re currently sharing our compelling research findings with L&D leaders, so please get in touch with us if you’d like to find out more! 

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