When individual contributors are tapped to manage large-scale projects, oversee direct reports, or participate in strategic planning, they need to develop new skill sets on the fly — skills such as interpersonal dexterity, emotional agility, and communication savvy.
As important as these leadership skills are, just as important to the leadership transition is learning to let go of old ways of thinking, and relaxing into the role.
This transition can be stressful, but a structured and evidence-based process can help new managers both acquire new skills and let go of old habits. Here’s the process I use in my executive coaching practice:
Mindset shifts. A successful leadership transition depends on substantial cognitive restructuring. Many newly appointed managers, as they assume unfamiliar roles, cling to a belief system that emphasizes “hard skills” and a “nose to the grindstone” mentality. But this mindset can constitute a set of limiting beliefs for a manager whose “soft skills” will actually determine whether he or she thrives. Some managers struggle to adapt their belief system, in part because they fear they will lose their edge in their area of technical expertise. They may benefit from proactively choosing instead to believe that it’s possible to balance their roles or that each role will enhance the other. Psychology research shows the efficacy of this type of cognitive reappraisal for emotion regulation. Effective managers rigorously cultivate positive thoughts about leadership, and eventually relax into their roles without self-doubt. This positive mindset is an essential starting point.
Mindfulness skills. Mindset and mindfulness go hand in hand. When managers choose to believe that they must develop leadership capacity and avoid overuse of their technical skills, they can embark on the hard work of staying calm and poised in unfamiliar situations. Evidence-based mindfulness strategies, such as meditation and controlled breathing, can empower new managers to navigate challenges including delivering a critical presentation, running a contentious meeting, or making a high-stakes strategic decision. Mindfulness work can empower the new manager to relax into the role for which he or she has prepared. In his book Trying Not to Try, Edward Slingerland describes concepts from Taoism and contemporary neuroscience that relate to effectively balancing preparedness and spontaneity. The Taoist notion of wu wei, roughly translated as “non-doing,” nicely captures this paradoxical challenge that every new manager faces.
Medical wellness. Managers can build a leadership mindset and mindfulness skills only if their brains are functioning well. Sound sleep, regular exercise, good nutrition, and other healthy behaviors are essential. When navigating a stressful transition to a new management role, self-care is essential. If you’ve been thinking that it’s time for your annual check-up or considering contacting a therapist, don’t keep putting it off. Taking care of your physical and mental health can provide a foundation for optimal performance in managerial roles.
Meaning structures. A manager must also consider the meaning and purpose of their work. What motivates someone to transition from individual contributor to management? Those who choose to make this transition need a clear vision of why they are stretching to develop a new mindset and skill set in the middle of an already established and successful career. Research has revealed that successful leaders are skilled at “sustaining the vision” of their companies by modeling optimism about their goals and flexibility about how to reach them. Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why presents compelling evidence of how visionary management and leadership drive success. Careful self-reflection about your values, mission, and legacy can bring the mental clarity and behavior changes you need for success in management roles.
One of my executive coaching clients, a well-established physician-scientist who was promoted to a high-level managerial role in her company (a midsize pharmaceutical company) used the “four M” process to reach her goals. The path was rocky at times, as she struggled to shift her mindset from focusing purely on science to valuing relationships with colleagues, marketers, investors, and other stakeholders. As she gradually adopted a leadership mindset, she overcame her skepticism about the efficacy of meditation. She incorporated mindfulness strategies and took an anti-anxiety medication on stressful occasions, such as making a presentation or leading a major meeting. She soon settled her mind down enough to articulate and share a compelling vision for her work: curing a disease that had taken the life of a childhood friend. Her successful ascension to a management role was a boon for her company as well as for her own quality of life and sense of purpose.
Taking on a leadership position for the first time can be one of the most stressful moments in someone’s career. It’s often the moment when many stars in the organization fail for the first time. By taking the time to reflect on the four critical areas above, you will be better equipped to make a successful transition.
David Brendel, MD, PhD is an executive coach, leadership development specialist, and psychiatrist based in Boston. He is founder and director of Leading Minds Executive Coaching, LLC. He is also co-founder of Strategy of Mind, LLC.
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