Scaling The Ladder

Moving up the talent value chain – taking leadership by the horns

Extracted from 'Talking HR' by Pauline Ng

A client of mine, a human resource (HR) director of a global consumer goods company asked me how she could determine that her people were ready to lead a team.

This led to a discussion on how we might provide her with the necessary tools she could apply to assess her high potential talent and the possibility of utilising executive coaching to close any gaps between the current competency levels and the expectations set by the management of the company.

I realised that hers was not the only organisation to have this dilemma when I engaged other HR directors and chief executive officers (CEOs) and asked if this was one of the issues that kept them up at night. Unsurprisingly many of them had similar experiences.

We deal with changes every day and one of the most challenging transitions a leader can make is the move from being a single contributor to a people manager. If you are sitting in an office and reading this article, you may have paid your dues; gone to the right schools, scoured the job market carefully for a suitable entry point into the corporate world and demonstrated your worth and contribution to your organisation. If you have been working as a single contributor all this time, you may even be one of the talents on the cusp of the next critical move into the role of a people manager. However, it is a gigantic leap to take for any professional and many do not make it past the first 90 days.

There is a long list of things which we could do when making that transition but if I had to pick the top 3 things to focus on, these would be among them.

Letting go

One of the scariest things about being promoted and moving into a new role is having to let go of what you already know and are good at. It is a common mistake for most managers to continue to rely on the strengths that got them to where they are but they do not realise that those skills may no longer be relevant in their new role.

Take for instance a sales professional who has consistently been hitting his targets who gets promoted to lead a team. Instead of focusing on helping others succeed, he competes with his team to be the top performer. There is no harm in leading by example but it is important to transition from being an individual contributor into the role of a leader and let the team accept that change as well.

I learned some valuable insights from leaders we spoke with across the Asia Pacific region when asked what advice they might give specifically to a single contributor moving into a people manager role. One of the leaders we spoke with was the CEO of Air Asia X, Azran Osman-Rani. He said, “There is a significant transition from doing' to getting-things-done-through-others.' Basically getting used to delegating (letting go).”

Another leader we spoke with on this subject was Tan Sri Lim Wee Chai, chairman and founder of Top Glove Corporation Bhd. He echoed this view in his comments, “Many who have just transitioned into the new role still prefer to spend time behind the desk doing the work themselves rather than working with their team to get the job done.”

Listen, listen, listen

In addition to letting go, Azran also cautioned “to constantly obtain feedback even from subordinates as it is important to have a good pulse of people's attitudes and emotions.” Listen, listen, listen, he emphasised. Datuk Praba Thiagarajah, the group CEO of Basis Bay had very succinct advice to give first time people managers. He suggests, “Seek to understand, rather than to be understood.”

When we are too busy “doing” we often forget to listen to what people around us are saying, much less understand. While changing roles, most managers forget that they are not the only ones in transition as a role change means that the whole team has to adapt to a new leader. Hence, everyone associated with the new leader is in transition and listening as well as understanding the situation is critical for the success of the leader.

Adapting styles

It is also important to be adaptable to situations and be prepared to change leadership styles. For is example the six leadership styles Daniel Goleman describes in his book, Primal Leadership. If your preferred leadership style is “Affiliative,” which emphasises teamwork and harmony in the work place, as a leader you may also have to be prepared to do some “Pacesetting,” which pushes the team to get things done better and faster if the situation calls for it. By doing this, you would be able to cover a lot more ground and gain traction much more quickly in your new role.

The point is that if we want to succeed, we cannot use a one-size-fits-all approach for leadership. A HR director who was looking for her successor told me that she was looking for someone who can be both tough and flexible. That may sound quite contradictory but upon further discussion, she reaffirmed that she needed someone who could be tough when it comes to implementing processes in order to get people to follow the rules but flexible enough to know when exceptions have to be made.

Any kind of change is difficult. Most people don't change unless they have to and even when they need to change, some are reluctant to do so. But if you want to advance in your career and climb that corporate ladder, you need to start preparing for the change in order to make that transition into your new role.

The cheese has been moved. It is time to think differently and move up the talent value chain.

Pauline Ng, consulting director & country head of BTI Consultants, has seen many role changes in the corporate space and encourages all potential leaders to start preparing for their transition before being promoted to get a head-start in their new journey.