Real Leaders

3 Lessons All New Leaders Should Learn

Becoming a new leader in a small or new business is not like becoming a new officer in the military.

Have you ever attended a military promotion ceremony? If you haven’t, the ceremonies go something like this. Like all formal occasions, you get a formal invite. Then on the special day you walk into a ceremonial room, chairs are set out and a decorated senior officer gives a short speech about the qualities of the newly promoted officer. Afterward, the young officer has a new symbol of rank pinned to an impressive dress uniform, followed by saluting. The ceremony is quite moving. There’s also cake.

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In small business, the new leadership ceremony is not so elaborate. Yes, at the all-hands meeting there is an announcement, including the reason for the promotion and what the aspirations are for this change in leadership. Then afterwards, maybe you send an email announcement to all employees. However, no one salutes. No formal attire is required and certainly no symbols of rank are awarded other than the title change. However, we do have cake.

While the military has tradition and training for new leaders, small business does not. New leaders are often thrust into the role with little support, usually after the old leader departs. The result is that many things about leadership come as a surprise.

Here are three things I was most surprised to learn:

1. What makes you successful in a non-leadership role still applies to being an effective leader.

I remember my first week of leadership very clearly. I gave no stirring speeches, barked no commands, nor expressed any superhuman talents. While I did arrive early and leave later than usual, one thing remained the same — my skills.

When doing my own tasks or working with my team, all I needed were the same skills I already had: character and competence. The difference was only in scale. Now I was applying these skills to leading the whole business rather than just myself.

One of the most surprising (and comforting) things I learned as a new leader is you don’t need to learn an entirely new set of skills. In fact, you will find many of the qualities and abilities that got you promoted still apply when you are leading others. However, it does not mean you have all the answers.

2. Being a leader does not mean you are free from struggle or doubt.

You know those movies where the character wakes up in a cold sweat, or where the character turns over and over in bed, twisting the bedsheets into knots, unable to sleep? That’s me sometimes.

The most distressing thing I learned as a new leader is that being promoted does not mean you have the secrets to handling business — or life. In fact, I found there are some aspects of life and business I constantly struggle with. Your list may be different, but here are my top four:

  • Stomaching risk
  • Delegating and managing towards deadlines
  • Staying healthy
  • Letting go of the business and not thinking about it 24/7

My solution to this dilemma has been to set yearly personal and business goals, so my struggles stay manageable. Now everyone in our company does this. At the start of each new year, each employee sets goals for what they plan to accomplish personally and professionally in the next 12 months. I’m happy to say that I met at least three of my personal and professional goals this year: starting a family, learning to sail and getting out of the office more.

I’m not perfect but, as I learned, you don’t have to be.

3. Good and fast is better than slow and perfect.

Recently, we had to revise our bonus evaluation system. Our business had grown from nine to 30 employees in the past five years and our old system of metrics was no longer workable for evaluating employee bonuses. A new scorecard system was needed for the next evaluation cycle, which was only three months away. While that may seem like plenty of time to complete a project, we had to develop the whole new system while running the day-to-day affairs of our growing business.

We did get it done, but the resulting scorecard evaluation system was far from perfect. And it wasn’t meant to be perfect. I knew that we would eventually get the system right, but in the short term it was better to have a working system in place than a perfectly working system. This is something I would not have felt comfortable with in the past.

One of the surprising things I discovered as a new leader is that you cannot expect to do things perfectly. You can no longer hide in your office and come up with the ideal plan or the perfect quote. Leadership decisions and projects have to be completed yesterday, sometimes before all the facts are known.

While I always try to keep perfection as a goal, I understand now — more than ever — it is more important to execute, move fast, and constantly be improving than to be perfect the first time.

4. There’s always a surprise. (surprise!)

While not the first or the last thing I will learn as a new leader, this is certainly the one that took some getting used to.

By Barrett Cordero – President of BigSpeak Inc

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