This is a reprint from a Feb 14, 2022 post on the Team Trailhead blog site from our Senior Advisor, T. Brad Harris, PhD.
I have had the opportunity to work with a lot of really talented HR professionals in the high growth/startup space as part of my work with People Leader Accelerator (PLA). These are wildly smart, relentlessly hard working, and just flat-out inspiring people—not the kind you’d expect would need help, honestly. While they join PLA in part to build out their technical HR skills (e.g., designing a performance management system, establishing a recruiting engine, creating a workforce plan, etc.), many are also there to tackle a grander challenge: They want to transition from being valuable players at their organization to strategic leaders in their organization. And I don’t mean “leader” in the sense of a formal title or reporting lines, as many already hold roles like “Director of HR”, “Head of Talent,” and the like. I mean confident and influential badasses with a real seat at the table.
Although this challenge is not unique to the high growth space, rapidly growing organizations do have some quirks that exacerbate pain points (for more on this issue, see here). As someone that has studied leadership for over a decade and has now had an up-close view of several HR leaders career trajectories, here are five key lessons I believe aspiring leaders absolutely must learn:
1. Competence is great, but you need confidence, too. Many HR professionals assume a competency gap is the primary deficiency holding them back from their leadership goals. If we can just help them get through the next comp cycle, create a reasonable onboarding plan, or learn the language of finance, they’ll magically accrue the titles, resources, and influence they seek. Wishful thinking. An equally if not more important deficiency is a confidence gap. Like I noted before, these are sharp people and, if I had to guess, very few have ever failed at anything in school or work. In other words, they’re not accustomed to dealing with and working through a lack of confidence. Even worse, they assume—wrongly—everyone else has it figured out, leading to a crippling impostor syndrome-type phenomenon. While competence and experience are surely part of the leadership game, you’ve got to realize there will always be another crisis and there will always be a reason, or excuse, for self-doubt to creep in. When this happens, you’ve got to will yourself to trust that no one—and I mean no one—has your job entirely figured out (no matter how confident they seem) and let that empower you. To borrow from Mindy Kaling, you’ve got to make “why the hell not me?” your mantra. And look, this isn’t just about amping yourself up so that you can take on bigger and bolder tasks. There’s also some evidence that when you’re confident, others will project a host of positive attributes onto you (Jack Nasher summarizes this well here, and Laura Guillen offers a concise explanation of how this issue cuts differently across gender lines here).
I realize all of this is easier said than done, but it’s not impossible. The best medicine I’ve found is joining a community of people (preferably in similar roles but outside of your organization) that support you, allow you to be vulnerable, and remind you that you are not alone in your journey. Our venture, People Leader Accelerator, provides one such community.
2. Leadership is about influence (and you need to make peace with power and politics). It probably takes a newly promoted manager less than 30 seconds to realize that being the boss doesn’t mean people will do what you want them to (side: read Linda Hill and Kent Lineback’s work if you’re in this spot). For better or worse, leadership doesn’t come with titles. The more I research leadership and watch various fads cycle in and out of the popular press, the more I’m convinced we could all benefit from taking a step back and actually defining leadership before jumping into the latest “how to” books (Jeff Pfeffer offers an excoriating take on the leadership industry here). This is problematic, of course, because it seems like everyone has their own definition. Alas, at its core I think leadership is really just a social process of influence (for a rather weighty rundown of leadership definitions and lack thereof, I recommend Chapter 1 from John Antonakis and David Day’s book). If you start with the end goal of influencing others, you can more easily see the futility in relying on just a single approach and instead start building an adaptive yet still coherent leadership plan for yourself.
I want to acknowledge that “a social process of influence” can be a maddeningly ambiguous definition of leadership. The phrase “social process” is kinda like sausage...we don’t always know all of the ingredients (gross, I know). To me, though, you can get pretty darn close to understanding leadership if you just swap “social process of” with “power and ability to” (making our revised formula “leadership = power + ability to influence”). Now, here’s the rub: The thought of power makes a lot of us uncomfortable and, as a result, we look for workaround approaches that are more positive, inspirational, and, sadly, ineffective. Don’t do that. Power doesn’t have to be bad and acknowledging its importance doesn’t have to compromise your soul (this goes for politics, too; for more on this, see here and here). Try thinking about it this way instead: power has a lot to do with dependence. When people depend on you, you’ve got power. When you depend on others, they’ve got power. So, if you understand why people depend on you (or why they could/should depend on you), you’re in a much better spot for figuring out how to influence them (a classic taxonomy of potential power bases is summarized here). Of course, this works in reverse, too, and understanding where you’re dependent on others is also helpful.
If you’re lacking confidence in these areas, start small and practice in other non-work related areas of your life. I think you’ll find that you actually have a lot more influence than you think (Vanessa Bohns writes about this here and here, and explains why this is both a good and bad thing!). This isn’t just about getting your way, mind you, this is about making sure the groups you care about make the best decisions possible.
3. The answer is [almost] always “it depends.” When dealing with people-related challenges, the answer is almost always “it depends” (side: my coauthors and I have actually studied the ubiquity of “it depends” effects in management research, so this isn’t just a colloquialism!). Unfortunately, “it depends” is also a wildly insufficient answer. The point is you have to rely on your own critical thinking, not oversimplified frameworks or trendy “best practice,” to make decisions. The most highly respected leaders I know do their homework, question assumptions, and are keenly attuned the match/mismatch between content and context (I’ve written about this here and here). Then, importantly, they’ve got the guts to actually make a decision and own it. The good news is that in most business cases, but especially in rapidly growing organizations, you don’t have to land on the absolute perfect response to a vexing problem. You just have to get close enough. From there, you can adapt and make relatively minor adjustments rather than the wholesale changes that disrupt, and sometimes destruct, your business.
4. Real leaders say “no.” A lot. We preach ruthless prioritization to our clients, using phrases like “it’s easier to move three things a mile than thirty things an inch,” “distinguish between the urgent and the important,” and so on. These are intuitive, non-controversial points. Yet, the flip side to saying “yes” to important things is saying “no” to the non-important things, which turns out to be a much harder behavior to put into practice. After all, many aspiring have gained a reputation as a fearless “go to” employee, and thus a potential leader, because they have said “yes” to so many things (our clients are also incredibly kind and helpful people). At some point, however, prospective leaders have got to embrace the Goldsmith “what got you here won’t get you there” mindset and draw some boundaries. This is scary and, honestly, you can expect some initial blowback if you’ve always been a “yes” person. Be ready. Somewhat ironically, you might even get a stronger negative (or at least surprised) reaction from others when you first start saying “no” than they give the known jerk in the group. Be kind, acknowledge the request, articulate your rationale, and hold your ground (for more on saying “no,” see here and here). It takes time and effort to recraft a reputation, but it’s worth it. Saying “no” is one of the most important steps in your journey toward focused, strategic leadership.
5. You need to change, but you can still be YOU. Your leadership journey is about change. It’s about figuring out how to change others’ behaviors/decisions and your organization’s trajectory (i.e., influence), but it’s also very much about changing yourself: adding skills; being mindful about sources of power that you previously ignored; thinking about politics in ways you haven’t before; saying no to things you previously would have agreed to; and so on. In the midst of all that change, you will undoubtedly question who you’re becoming and whether it’s still YOU. I’ve heard it said that we’re our most authentic when we’re being simultaneously true to our collection of selves (e.g., past, present, and future selves). While this is a terrific prompt for classroom discussion and wilderness journaling, I’m not sure how helpful it is for a blog post and the last thing I want to do is make this space an “authentic leadership” pep rally (I have many questions about the authentic leadership paradigm, as do others). Alas, I do think we’re better off when we don’t feel like “fakes.” So, in that spirit, I’ll tepidly share a shortcut conclusion I’ve arrived at: Authenticity in the leadership context is probably best thought about in terms of values. Once you define your underlying values and why you hold those, you can free yourself from the confusion that comes from stripping away and adding so many different behaviors and habits in your quest to be a better leader (despite my critiques of authentic leadership, I’ll confess that I, along with many of my students, have benefitted greatly from reflecting on the “life story” advice outlined by Bill George and colleagues). As long as you’re behaving in ways that are consistent with your values—even if those behaviors feel foreign to you—, you’re setting yourself up for positive leadership growth that you can be proud of (for more on this issue, I recommend Laura Huang’s recent book Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage).
I’ve got an old Nike running poster in my office that reads “There is no finish line.” While I originally bought it because I love running, it’s permeated my views on leadership development. We’re never finished…and, still, we can’t let that scare us from running our race. We’ve got to embrace the challenges, take it easy on ourselves when we mess up, and enjoy the ride. There’s room for—and a need for—new voices in leadership. Are you up for it?