Oct 30, 2019

5 Things We Learned at Our Recent Leadership Panel

Last night, we had the pleasure of hosting a panel discussion at our office in San Francisco. We organized the night around a question we looked at earlier this week–are leaders born or made?–but that was just the groundwork for a wide-ranging chat that touched on topics like what great leaders need to unlearn to head a team, how to identify who should (and shouldn’t be) elevated to management, what traits are vital, and how some of the best leaders are like ducks.

Before we dig into what we learned, we want to send a hearty thank you to all the panel participants–Ariel Hunsberger (Slack), Calum Belden (Figure Technologies), Dini Mehta (Lattice), Jeffery Huang (Salesforce), and Nicole Winstone (Lingo Live)–we really couldn’t have asked for a better group. Thanks again for stopping in and sharing your expertise!

Without further ado, here’s what we learned last night:

Leaders aren’t born. They’re made.

Let’s start with something obvious: not everyone should (or can) be a leader. Yes, some people just exhibit the personality traits–like empathy, consensus-building, strategic vision, patience, etc.–to become leaders. But nobody is simply born to do it. In other words, leaders aren’t born. They’re made.

We covered this–and echoed it–in a recent post but it was refreshing to hear our panelists agree. The question that follows, of course, is how you make leaders in your organization. That’s something we’ll be touching on in the rest of this post.

Many managers are just thrown into their roles. That’s not fair to them–or their reports.

Think back to your first management role: were you ready to do it? If you’re like most people, chances are you weren’t. And that’s a really tough situation. Suddenly, someone who’s a capable, successful individual contributor is being asked to gain an entirely different skillset, set budgets and priorities, think longer term, and more, all while being an advocate and mentor for their new team and colleagues. We don’t step back enough and realize how unfair that is to everyone involved. How can organizations expect to get the best from their emerging leaders if they’re just throwing them in the deep end?

Many of our panelists had this experience when they first stepped into leadership roles. They found their way, sure, but that doesn’t mean the transition from IC to management couldn’t be improved. Coaching, classes, and mentorship make a big difference here but if a company doesn’t provide those, they suggested new managers carve out time to talk to other leaders in their organization and–this is crucial–to ask for help. After all, the best leaders don’t claim to know everything. They lean on both their expertise and the expertise of others. When in doubt, ask for help. Anyone who tells you that’s a sign of weakness is wrong.

The manager path isn’t for everyone–and that’s okay

Ariel got us started on a really interesting topic when she brought up the idea that, at Slack, they try to give employees two parallel and equal tracks for growth: one track is for individual contributors, the other for people who want to go into people management.

It’s honestly a little startling this idea felt unique. There’s this assumed career trajectory that once you rise high enough as an IC, the next and only step you can take is to start managing folks. But we all know that isn’t for everyone. In fact, it can actually push really great ICs out of job they otherwise love. On the one hand, there are no real promotions or opportunities available to them, whereas on the other, there’s this job they don’t feel equipped for and don’t really want to do in the first place.

It seems smart to make sure your organization has something like this two-track mindset. Understand that while some of your best and brightest will want to become people managers, others won’t. But you want to give every great employee the opportunity to grow and flourish.

Embrace the fact that not every leader in your company is a manager

Piggybacking on our last point, it’s important to realize that not all leadership comes from people managers. Some of your most vital leaders might be individual contributors.

Think of a particularly extroverted customer success employee who’s infectious energy sets the tone for big meetings and company culture. Think about a quieter engineer who takes the time to sit with a colleague and explain a particularly tricky process so everyone’s on the same page. Think about a saleswoman who has a knack for messaging that informs your marketing team and the company at large.

These are the exact sorts of people we’re talking about here. No one’s reporting to them and they might not have “VP” or “manager” in their title, but they’re undeniably leaders. Smart companies aren’t afraid to embrace that exact kind of leadership and help it grow.

You can spot a bad manager when you notice you’re repeating yourself

During our Q&A session, an audience member asked a simple but important question: how do you know when you’ve promoted or hired the wrong manager?

Our panelists had already highlighted the fact that new managers aren’t going to be perfect. They’re going to need to learn and adapt and have patience while they do so. They’re going to have to find the right way to lead that particular team and they’re going to make a few mistakes along the way. Which is okay. You make mistakes when you’re trying and it’s honestly a worse sign if there’s no failures at all.

But don’t take those small mistakes too seriously when evaluating a manager. You want to pay attention to how many times they make the same mistake, how often you’re repeating advice or how often their reports are making the same complaints. Because managers that don’t learn and can’t adapt? They’re not cut out for the job.

We’d like to again send our kudos and thanks to all the tremendous panelists. We loved chatting with you all and hope you had a blast too. And if you’re reading this and need any help developing your emerging leaders, well, that’s a thing we’re great at. Feel free to reach out and we’d be happy to help. Thanks again for reading.

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