Handling a New Leadership Role: Shifting Focus from Processes to Outcomes
Our society often rewards great individual contributors with leadership positions. But shifting from individual contributor to leader isn’t the same as a promotion from entry-level contributor to senior-level contributor. It’s a totally different skillset.
It requires an important mental shift, and that shift from being a talented and effective salesperson, engineer, writer, designer, accountant, strategist, creator (the list goes on) to a leader of a team can be strange and difficult. You aren’t in charge of your individual assignments anymore. You’re in charge of managing other people’s work. Your work becomes understanding your team and delegating responsibilities in order to foster the most efficient, productive process possible.
So how do you transition into your new role? How do you take on these new responsibilities?
Roadblocks to better delegation
First, you’ll need to address the common mental roadblocks that managers—especially new ones—face when delegating responsibility and the fears that cause them, because the chances are, you probably suffer from at least one of them.
The most common mental roadblocks tend to fall in three main categories:
- Quality: “They won’t do it right.” “Clients/users won’t be happy.”
- Efficiency: “I’ll have to redo it.” “It won’t be done on time.”
- Skill: “They don’t know how to do it.” “They need a lot of oversight.”
At the root of each of these is fear.
How does fear factor into these mental roadblocks?
Fear is natural. It’s a survival tactic ingrained in our DNA that inhibits actions we might take that our brain thinks will lead us into danger.
When it comes to individual-contributor-turned-managers delegating responsibilities, it does the following:
Fear can block your ability to give up control.
As a high performer in your previous role, you might feel like you have the special sauce. This can make it difficult to cede control to your direct reports who are doing your old job, and you might find yourself compensating for what you deem as their inability to execute as well as you did.
Excuse #1: “They don’t have as much experience as me, and it’ll take them 10x the time it takes me to get it done. I’ll just do it myself.”
Excuse #2: “I can’t trust them to perform at my level, so they need oversight. Everything they do needs to be approved by me first, and if it’s not up to standard, I might just have to take it into my own hands.”
Fear can muddy your vision of expected outcomes
You’re unable to articulate a vision for a project/initiative and struggle to express goals for your teams, so you mask your lack of clarity in the future by deflecting accountability.
Excuse #1: “I’ll know it when I see it.” This allows you to place blame on your direct reports (individual contributors) for a project’s/initiative’s lack of success because, well, you didn’t see it. And it conveniently provides you another excuse!
Excuse #2: “I’m surrounded by stupid and incapable people that just don’t get it.”
Fear can make you feel dispensable.
This is a bit existential. In your delegation, you struggle to see your connection to the work that’s being done. You don’t know what to work on if you’re not “getting your hands dirty.” And you start wondering if you’re replaceable. Although you’ve been chosen to take this new responsibility, you still might find it difficult to rewire your understanding of how you value your new work.
Excuse: “Keeping my fingers in the pie keeps me connected and busy.”
In reality, meddling with the affairs of your direct reports distracts you from fostering a cooperative culture of accountability, trust, and efficiency. Instead of focusing on building future-oriented processes, you’re letting your team down by personally getting bogged down with short-term thinking.
Former CEO of Intel Andy Grove shares in his popular book, High Output Management, “Managerial meddling is […] an example of negative leverage. This occurs when a supervisor uses his superior knowledge and experience of a subordinate’s responsibilities to assume command of a situation rather than letting the subordinate work things through himself.”
Although it may feel comfortable leading instinctually through fear, it’s unsustainable and will lead to burnout (among other negative consequences). Great leaders break this mindset and focus on creating better outcomes.
So, what makes a great leader?
Qualities of great leaders
The best leaders do the following:
- Engage every employee with a compelling vision and unify goals with clear accountability measures, painting a picture of what good work and success looks like in the short term and the long term. By making the execution process measurable for each employee, you can quickly make adjustments when things go off-course.
- Nurture environments based on trust, transparency, and psychological safety. The best leaders create environments where (1) all ideas are considered, (2) processes are transparent, and (3) people feel safe to share their ideas.
- Leverage their time to drive outcomes across the team—not as an individual contributor. Transitioning to a leadership role can confuse your view of how you bring value to the table, but as you improve your team’s collective performance, you’ll begin to understand and feel good about your role.
Shifting from process-oriented leadership to outcome-oriented leadership
Delegation is great and all, but delegation just for the sake of checking a box isn’t enough. It takes the right kind. Instead of focusing on delegating tasks and solutions, and creating clarity on processes, try this: Delegate responsibilities and problems, and create clarity around outcomes.
Let me explain.
When you focus on delegating tasks and solutions, you’re making decisions through authoritative, command-and-control marching orders by saying, “I have the solution. Here’s what you need to do to make it happen.” Simply offering checklists, protocols, and standard operating procedures creates a rigid system in which your direct reports must operate—limiting any opportunities for them to creatively problem solve and innovate. The natural result is for teams to focus on “following procedure” as a defense when things go wrong. “Hey, I followed the checklist. That’s what you wanted me to do, right?”
Good delegation, and in turn good leadership, requires empowering team members to drive decisions. How do you do this? By focusing on fostering outcomes, people development, ownership of responsibilities, and organizational buy-in.
Instead of prescribing a rushed or arbitrary solution, facilitate an open forum and invite your team to find their own solutions: “We want to book $400,000 of new business next quarter. I want to hear your thoughts on what we should do. How can we make this happen?”
You, as the leader, focus on the outcome and how to quantify its results, but you don’t force your teams to follow specific methods because the method to your madness is not the method to their madness. What’s important is that you set clear, measurable outcomes. Now, instead of giving your direct reports an easy excuse of, “Well, I followed your process,” they’re held accountable by the questions: “Did it work? Did we reach our goal?”
If you’re shifting from process-oriented leadership to outcome-oriented leadership, there might be some growing pains, but eventually, your teams will feel empowered stepping up, and they’ll take ownership over their work.
Put your teams at the center. Coach their growth through increased responsibility and opportunity to think critically. Give them credit. And, importantly, let them run!
Step down. Help your team step up.
New leaders often feel the need to save their team members.
“They need me, and I want to make their life easier. Therefore, I’ll STEP UP and help out.”
“They aren’t doing things right, and I don’t trust them to do it. Therefore, I’ll STEP UP and remove the problem from their plate.”
Unfortunately, stepping up into individual contribution—a short-term solution—doesn’t address the real issues affecting your teams.
Instead, as a new leader transitioning from a position of individual contribution, you need to step down from individual contribution. When you fail to do so, you create a downward spiral. You rationalize your “hard work” with short-sighted justifications instead of focusing on creating scalable, long-term growth opportunities, and these rationalizations multiply tenfold—leaving you drowning in the work of your direct reports and, in no time, burnt out.
There’s a common misconception that when you get promoted, you have more work to do. But when you’re promoted from individual contributor to manager, it’s not more work. It’s different work.
If you can overcome fear, you have the opportunity to work smarter and find value in your new delegation-centered role. It may seem counterintuitive to focus on giving away your power since you literally are gaining authority and the power to push your personal agenda. But your teams will thank you for facilitating their growth, and your organization will become happier and more effective.
And remember, this is a common transition for new leaders. You might be strong in certain aspects of leadership. You might struggle with some. It’s a spectrum, and your job is to gradually improve.
Where do you fall on the leadership spectrum? Do any of these mental roadblocks resonate with you? Which qualities of good leadership do you have already? What steps are you taking to shift from process-centered to outcome-centered leadership?