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3 things you must do to transition from manager to leader

The CEO of Electric says that the jump from “manager” to “leader” requires a conscious shift away from tactical items and a focus on strategic decisions.

3 things you must do to transition from manager to leader
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Someone should have sat me down after my current company’s Series A and told me to stop trying to run entire departments of the company myself. As a founder, I was no longer good at it, and it should not have been part of my job anymore.

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Over and over again I’ve seen managers hinder themselves and their teams by refusing to get out of the way and let go of day-to-day responsibilities. Making the jump from manager to leader requires a conscious shift away from handling tactical items and toward a focus on making strategic decisions.

Stop multitasking

This is an issue I see newly promoted managers and team leads struggle with consistently. They’re so used to being in on the ground floor that they struggle to let go of the tasks that once consumed their day-to-day role.

This refusal to let go can introduce a dynamic of context switching or multitasking that can be a major productivity killer. Repeated context switching has been shown to make people less capable of fully focusing on their tasks and less effective overall.

Imagine flipping back and forth constantly between the mindset needed for what once were individual contributor tasks and the mindset needed to handle the questions of direct reports. Over time it gets to be too much of a cognitive drain.

This can be exhausting in the course of a day, and if it continues for a sustained amount of time, it can create confusion over task ownership among the team. It’s important to relinquish control, as it allows leaders to really focus on making the important decisions that empower the team to propel the organization forward while letting direct reports focus on what it takes to bring supporting key projects to life.

Learn to delegate

Even if it were cognitively possible to stay completely engaged in all aspects of the job, it seriously limits how your team can grow and the opportunities you’re giving those below you to thrive and build new skills.

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It is crucial to develop a deep roster of talented people around you that you can rely on to scale your operations more effectively. While trust can be a factor that holds leaders back from handing over the reins initially, giving others the opportunity to make mistakes is essential for development.

Allowing your team to take on new tasks will free up time on your own calendar to tend to more critical high-level tasks. It also helps foster new opportunities for your direct reports that will bolster their own capabilities down the road. A Gallup study found that companies with more talented individuals who can delegate have greater growth rates and higher revenue, and they create a greater number of jobs. Your team’s potential to push its limits will grow with each member that you encourage to take on new responsibilities.

Build on transparency

In an organization, senior leaders play one of the most vital roles in creating and sustaining culture. As a team or organization scales, the CEO’s values should shape the senior leadership team, which then influences their own respective teams, and so on.

As a leader, it’s important to set a foundation for transparent communication. This is what will enable you to make all these switches and grow from player to coach and get out of the game.

In a survey from Harvard Business School, 70% of employees said they are most engaged when senior leadership communicates openly. Being honest and having the courage to own up to things is essential. We’ve all seen some of the strongest leaders be quite vulnerable and transparent about how they’re feeling, especially in trying times such as those we find ourselves in now.

Humans categorically are not stupid. Conversely, if all you’re ever doing is talking about things in a super-positive light, most people will realize you’re not giving them the full story. This could create an environment of distrust that can quickly become toxic and difficult to navigate.

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Build things from the ground up with a foundation of transparent communication as you foster relationships with the direct reports on your team. This will, in turn, make them more open and communicative about dealing with the responsibilities you allowed them to take on as part of your delegation.

There’s power in knowing when to get out of the way

The best advice I can give—whether it is to founders after achieving product-market fit and repeatability or to managers when moving from being a team member to team leader–is don’t drag your feet on the transition.

This will allow you to really focus on thinking strategically for your entire team and help your direct reports solve their most important problems.

You can’t build a big company or a successful team doing it yourself.


Ryan Denehy is the CEO of Electric.

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