Next Level Leaders

Major General John A. Lejeune, USMC pinning the War Cross on Private E.C. McCarmich, on January 4, 1919

What does it take to lead successfully after you move up to the next level?

You receive a promotion and now need to lead a larger group of people than you ever have before. Or, your small business (or your department in a larger business) is growing fast and the leadership skills you relied on to create that growth aren’t quite enough anymore. How do you ready yourself to meet challenges like these?

Looking back on the first time I took a step like that, I wasn’t quite ready (certainly not as prepared as I would have liked). I was a First Lieutenant and a platoon commander in the summer of 1995 when our battalion returned from deployment. In the time-honored tradition of the Marine Corps, I stepped up to assume command of our company for about 30 days, as the outgoing Captain who commanded the company executed transfer orders and we waited for the new Captain to arrive. I went from being in charge of about 60 Marines to being in charge of 150 in an instant (there were other platoons like mine in the company, with their own platoon commanders). That was my first taste of indirect leadership, too, as I needed to lead through the other platoon commanders to get things done. Thankfully, not much happened during that 30 days – I learned a lot and the company survived.

I previously wrote about another of my experiences of moving up the leadership ladder when I assumed command of 2d Battalion, 4th Marines, at Camp Pendleton in 2010 (read it here). I’ve also written about why I think the foundation of good leadership is self-awareness (read that one here). There’s more to the story though, and this article will pull in the other ingredients that I learned from experience over the years you will need if you want to succeed when moving from one level up to the next.

Many choices exist for ways to prepare yourself for more responsibility. The outline below served me well over the years and I used it to help others get ready, especially during the second half of my career. This outline assumes two things are already present, the recognition additional tools are needed as one’s scope increases and a commitment to self-improvement.

Self Awareness. The leadership foundation truly does rest on self awareness. This subject runs deep. For taking one’s skill to the next level, I focus on four aspects of self awareness:

1. Self Check – Your goal as a leader is to become the best version of yourself possible. To move in that direction, you need to understand things like your self-image and your internal dialogue and whether they are moving you forward or holding you back. It also helps to understand your beliefs and values in a conscious way, particularly the rules that either assist you in – or hinder you from – fully living in alignment with them. What spins you up as a leader and shifts your brain from critical thinking to an emotional state? Learning how to recognize where you land on that spectrum in a given situation is part of the Self Check, too.

2. Discovering How You Learn Best – Knowing your learning preference is critical for a leader. If you want to assimilate new knowledge, what’s the most efficient way for you to receive it? When you teach something new to the people you lead, how do they receive it best? And, is there any conflict between how you learn best and how they learn best? Understanding these preferences can improve communication and often reduces internal group stress. There are several models available to discover your learning preference. I prefer VARK (Visual, Aural [speaking & listening], Read/Write, and Kinesthetic [learn by doing]).

3. Assessing Your Strengths – Focusing on the things we do best greatly increases our chances for success, both personally and for our organization. I like to think of this focus as the source for one of our major competitive advantages. Playing to your strengths is a truism for a leader… but you need to really know what they are if you want to put it into action. I recommend that you uncover your weaknesses, but that you don’t put a lot of effort into “improving” them – you’re likely to only move from bad to mediocre. Instead, figure out a way to mitigate weaknesses and build on your strengths instead.

4. Active Listening – This deepens our understanding of the people we lead. Listening exercises enable us to tap into the existing narrative about what your team thinks it is like to work in your organization. These exercises also strengthen empathy, which helps you see things from another’s perspective. A 360-degree review survey is a great active listening tool as well.

Vision, Mission, Values, and Culture. After deepening self awareness, we next re-engage with our organization’s Vision, Mission, and Values. These answer the questions, What ideal are we reaching for? What motivates us to serve our clients? What is the framework and guidelines we work within as we pursue our Vision and Mission? The organization’s cultural orientation helps us understand the preferred way to make decisions and how to implement them most effectively. Sun Tzu wrote, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” The concept is the same here: if you know yourself and you know your organization, chances are you’ll be an effective leader.

Understanding the Motivations. As a Marine I would often share my belief that self-discipline is far superior to imposed discipline. Although I didn’t realize it at first, this correlates well with intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic is something that comes from outside a person and can be positive or negative, such as a bonus for meeting a sales quota or a fine for poor regulatory compliance. Intrinsic comes from within a person and is driven by internal rewards. As author Dan Pink wrote, people exhibit intrinsic motivation when they feel autonomy (one’s behavior is the result of voluntary choice), mastery (getting better and better at a skill that matters to one personally), and purpose (the feeling that one’s work is in service to a cause or objective larger than oneself). Leaders need to leverage both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation effectively. In my experience, understanding and then making full use of intrinsic motivation puts you on a path toward accelerated performance.

Employee Engagement. Gallup did an enormous study on employee engagement over the course of 20 years. They found that organizations that fulfill 12 specific components operate with the most engaged workforces. They also determined that companies with engaged employees are 48% more profitable that those companies without them. Those things are easy to say, but as a practical matter how does a leader produce more engaged employees? Looking at your workforce through the 12 components’ lens gives a leader a guide on how to apply the other aspects above: Self Awareness, Vision/Mission/Values/Culture, and Motivations. As an example, the top priority component Gallup identified is for employees to know what is expected of them. If you have knowledge of learning preferences, then you are much better equipped to ensure those expectations are communicated in a way that achieves understanding on both sides of the equation.

Looking back, I realize now that I truly enjoyed helping others move up and achieve success at the next leadership level. It was a challenge for me to figure out how to tailor the elements above for each individual, and to then help them implement their new skills successfully. I am deriving similar professional satisfaction today as I guide clients through their own transitions. The call to action is simple. For the people in your life who are moving up a level, help them realize they need to add to their leadership tool kit. A coach can accelerate the process, so send them to where they can sign up for a free 30 minute assessment. It’s never too early to get yourself ready for the next level.

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