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What it takes to transition from doer to leader
Image by Jimmy Foulds

5 min read

What it takes to transition from doer to leader

It takes way more than performance and competence to be a leader. In this article, discover ways to transition from individual contributor and start leading to become an effective first-time leader.

A promotion to a leadership position is a worthy occasion to celebrate, but do you know why you were the chosen one?

Early career professionals typically get their role changed as a result of their technical or functional expertise. These individual achievements usually lead to increased responsibility and broader scopes of control, where success isn’t measured by only productivity or contributions. 

Chances are, being a leader is going to be much more different than what you’re used to as an individual contributor. As exciting as this time may be, many first-time leaders don’t consider the fact that they’re now accountable for a team, not just themselves. This shift can negatively impact team dynamics and reveal surprises—but with the right strategies, you can help make the leadership transition smoother.

Work performance =/= Ability to lead 

From doer to leader is...not so much a natural progression. Having a leader mindset starts with dedicating time to strategically evaluate what you and your team do every day and examining how you can do it better tomorrow. 

When your world is all about execution, many people are thinking about the next step—taking on more responsibility by proving your worth. But once you’ve got to a leadership position, everything looks radically different; now, your focus is doubling down on enabling your team, recognizing strengths, and building trust with your collaborators. 

Let’s talk about this role change. When your performance is no longer about how you individually contribute, suddenly, everything seems out of reach. As a leader, you’re now judged by the business results you achieve through the collective team you’re leading. It might be tempting to do more because you know you’re good at something. But that’s not really what a leader does. 

Without noticing, your giant to-do list becomes a nebulous strategic problem; optimizing processes, building relationships, prioritizing tasks, and delegating people to solve all of the issues on your mind. 

From individual contributor to leader: 7 keys to success

As you transition from doer to people leader, you’ll most likely come across the awkward storming phase where you relearn your priorities and are forced to take a closer look at your people skills. Here are a few skills you can work on as you start your leadership journey. 

1. Learn how to trust others 

It’s no longer your responsibility to “do” everything in your area of expertise. But it’s now your job to help others do the tasks (and do them well). By trusting people to do their best in their unique ways, you boost constructive collaboration and connection. Whether it’s flexibility or a specific communication method, learn what makes each individual tick and let them do the work in their preferred ways. 

2. Be a master of feedback and mentorship 

As a leader, your goal now is to develop critical thinking and leadership within your team so they can do their best jobs. But how do you do that? Have frequent conversations with your direct reports and listen intently to see how you can most effectively support them in becoming experts and future leaders.

The best leaders not only offer fair and balanced feedback but offer resources or tactics to improve. Use mentorship to encourage and guide your team to be better, and dedicate your time to develop individuals—the more each one grows, the more significant impact you make, and the team succeeds.

3. Share your vision clearly and early

Shifting from tactical to strategic thinking isn’t the easiest thing to master. Switching from following directions to providing it, leaders must know where they want to go: Why are we working so hard on this project? How will we do this? When will we accomplish our goals? Describe the impact you set out for the team to create, and analyze the actions needed to make it come true. Work with your coworkers to complete the vision, which will serve as the blueprint for success. Ultimately, their engagement will lead to greater buy-in and commitment to team goals.

4. Put people in the right place and observe relationships 

Most new leaders recognize that they need to become better delegators—you just can’t be a micromanager and do everything with your own hands. The very best leaders know they must organize, motivate, and empower their teammates to make the right calls. They must also make efficient and sensible (often tough) decisions, ensuring their team maximizes results.

Becoming a leader also means improving team dynamics. After taking some time to know your teammates’ strengths and interests, design your team carefully and ask whether you have the right people in the right roles. And don’t forget to ask if they have the right resources. It’s essential to make sure each member is equipped with the right digital tools, a supportive network, and even a career development plan for the path forward. 

5. Notice the bigger picture to manage efficiency

Is there a way we can reduce the number of overwhelming meetings? Where is there a lack of process? The best leaders are always looking for ways to make things work better. Not only do they define problems and engage their team to help solve them, but they’re also constantly removing obstacles from the challenge. They look for opportunities across departments, pick their battles, and pursue intelligent solutions. Keeping your finger on the company’s pulse will help leaders understand how they can contribute to corporate goals and manage change better. That way, leaders can also look out for opportunities that leverage the skills of individual teammates. 

6. Master advocacy and getting buy-in for resources

Fewer concrete tasks on hand mean that you’re going to be reporting out what your teammates are doing and demonstrate the results you’ve achieved together. When you’re held accountable, the ability to articulate your thought process, strategy, and problem-solving skills is essential. It’s also your responsibility to escalate your team’s concerns and ask for resources—for this reason, it’s crucial to manage up and tap into an internal network that will support you. 

7. Be part of the team, and a role model

At its core, strong leadership is about the needs of the team, company, and clients, not about self-interest. A great leader goes beyond telling people what to do; they guide others holding them accountable and being there throughout the journey. After all, leaders are one of the most influential aspects of the employee experience. When you’re expecting your teammates to bring their A-game, you can’t afford to do anything less. The best way to showcase your team's core values is to serve as a shining example of them. For example, ask tons of questions if curiosity is a cherished quality. 

We need both leaders and doers 

Skilled individual contributors might not make great leaders. Which is fine because we need both! The talented, consistent designer who always gets it done might not be the most influential coach, observer, or people-wrangler. And maybe, you might be a hybrid of a doer and a leader. That’s not a problem—leaders aren’t always the ones in charge. Lots of doers have ownership over their projects and ideas. Similarly, a leader can do tasks and contribute, as long as you ask yourself whether you’re in the way rather than paving the path to success. 

Conclusion

At the end of the day, being a leader means you’re accountable for people and the results they achieve. What used to be individual tasks and project-oriented day-to-day might suddenly look like tons of alignment meetings that require big picture thinking. What makes a leader different from a doer is that it’s an entirely different skill set; understanding your organization’s social system, being sensitive about people’s needs, and prioritizing what might be a thousand “urgent” initiatives. 

And what makes this even more complicated? There’s no set job description for a leader—it’s more about application than theory. Knowing you’ll have to “just do it” anyway, don’t forget to stay curious, celebrate, and enjoy the ride. 

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