How Organizations Can Set up New Project Leaders for Success

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This is a guest post from Varada Patwardhan from Xebrio.

This is the story of my friend Angela, see if you relate.

Angela always excelled at playing leader or manager at group projects growing up. She believed that she was destined to lead.

College, a few odd jobs, and an internship later, she landed a job as a design engineer and got to work on some exciting and challenging projects. She had been there for a while and was great at her job.

Then she was made project manager.

College didn’t train her for this, neither did her company and she wasn’t a good manager for quite a while after. 

This story isn’t unique to Angela. Almost all new leaders are thrown into the deep end. Psychological burdens and anxiety aside, new leaders have some real problems because they don’t know the true scope of their job just yet since all challenges aren’t visible at the surface level. 

Most organizations don’t really provide the necessary ammo apart from a few onboarding formalities and cursory ‘knowledge transfers’.

More often than not, hardworking and talented people with stellar individual contributions are given leadership roles. But we need to understand that the skill sets required for an impressive individual contributor and an effective leader are very different.

While organizations encourage and reward talent and hard work with leadership positions, they fall short on creating a strong leadership pipeline and good leaders at every level, especially in a climate of increasingly flattening hierarchies.

Why should organizations support leaders better now, more than ever? 

The inherent nature of leadership or a managerial role is rooted in ambiguity.

Management expert Henry Mintzberg, in his book, ‘Managing‘ suggests that the open-ended nature of the job is one of the most significant adjustments for new managers. He writes:

“There are no ‘tangible mileposts’ where managers and leaders can pause and reflect.”

Henry Mintzberg

Even though there are metrics that evaluate project performance, it is not an accurate indicator of progress as a leader.

But leaders today face another set of challenges. Today’s world is globalized, digital, fiercely competitive and quick to change. A leader’s job encompasses much more than the traditional role.

Modern leaders are expected to, of course, lead projects and devise the corporate strategy, align with high-level organizational goals, and also align their behavior with modern-day employee behavior.

The latter requires that leaders be globally fluent and defend against biases, strive to build more cohesive teams, be proactive, scout opportunities for the individuals they lead and help them grow. 

Organizations also have to cater to a new, more recent set of concerns since they’re keen on expanding to newer markets, want to deliver at lightning speeds, and be flexible.

Excelling at modern markets comes with new challenges such as but not limited to developing multiple generations and levels of leaders, millennials or older, seasoned veterans, and building effective and flexible leadership while not dismissing ethnically and geographically diverse backgrounds.

To do so, organizations need to invest special efforts and resources that will allow leaders to thrive, who in turn, operate based on how the teams that they lead thrive. 

Having this conversation now of all times is extremely important because of the ‘Silver Tsunami’ (the ageing corporate population on the brink of retirement).

If organizations don’t start developing and implementing succession plans, baby boomers and their expertise and experience will disappear from the workforce without a trace.

Supporting and ensuring the growth of corporate leaders and potential leaders is absolutely essential so that organizations don’t end up with weak and unequipped leaders while being riddled with leadership gaps. 

Modern organizations and the leadership gap

The number of organizations facing a leadership gap — a difference between what a company’s leadership can be, and what it actually is, is significant. Lolly Daskal, author, business coach and keynote speaker maintains that leaders from all fields and levels experience a gap between their performance and their potential.

Several factors at work inhibit them from reaching their full potential, the primary one being the inability of their organizations to provide the resources and training leaders need. 

Recommended Reading: The Leadership Gap: What Gets Between You and Your Greatness (Lolly Daskal)

According to the HRPA (Human Resources Professionals Association), 63% of millennials believe that their organizations are not developing their leadership skills.

71% of those employees, who are projected to make up most of the workforce in the coming years, are willing to quit their jobs because of this.

Today, project leaders have to cope in uncertain environments.

How can organizations set up new leaders for success?

To understand this, we first need to understand what new leaders and managers need precisely. 

A corporate leadership role feels like jumping out of a plane, sans parachute if leaders are only ‘onboarded’ without training and a support an guidance network.

This feels like quite a fitting metaphor because the ones taking the leadership plunge are often highly skilled and experienced individuals who’ve been successful thanks to their knowledge, intelligence and enterprise. 

However, the disparity between the performance of such individuals in their individual roles and leadership roles is quite glaring. Author and leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith’s sums this up perfectly with his book, What got you here won’t get you there: How Successful People Become Even More Successful!

What do new leaders need? 

Most of what new leaders need from their organizations is support on all levels, which can be categorized as the following.

Formal training

Popular management author and leadership expert Ken Blanchard suggests that training provided to leaders should focus on communication and management basics.

Those are the parts that most struggle with.

Every interaction you have with an employee moves that relationship in a positive or negative direction. We believe the quality of a relationship over time is a result of the net impact of all the different conversations that have occurred.

Ken Blanchard

Training should go beyond just the technical ins and outs of the job, but be personalized to address specific concerns and shortcomings, and cultivate strengths of the new leader or manager.

The evaluation of the new leaders should dictate the subject matter and process of the training. The training should also touch on primary areas requiring managerial expertise — leadership, communication, planning and strategizing, negotiation, delegation, team-building and conflict resolution, risk management, time management, and the like. 

Read next: 3 ways to practice your leadership skills.

Support and guidance networks

New leaders need to have a support network or a ‘mentoring circle‘ as professors Wendy Murphy and Kathy Kram (of Babson College) call a developmental network of mentors, in their book Strategic Relationships at Work.

A network of fellow leaders or veteran leaders and mentors provides new leaders with what they need in the initial stages of the job — a support system for their key initiatives, guidance for their plans the ability to learn from experiences.

‘Leader to Leader’ development programs or ‘buddy systems’ allow new leaders to be paired up with senior and more experienced leaders. This arrangement allows a more organic knowledge transfer, opens doors for new opportunities for the new leaders, builds confidence and also allows the mentors to learn from the mentee. 

Elizabeth and a colleague having coffee in a cafe

Tools and Technological Resources

McKinsey’s survey of 500 executives found that most of them think that their organization’s leadership development initiatives are plagued by inefficient spending. Which means they believe that funds and resources should be directed to concerns that will actually help leaders.

Apart from personalized, customized and expert-led leadership coaching programs, companies need to leverage technology and provide tools and technological resources that will simplify and improve the way leaders operate.

Tools can not only help expedite overall operation, but also offer a way to establish and track metrics of personal and team goals, or keep an eye on project progress accurately. 

To be specific, various tools such as project management software, remote communication software, email management systems, planning tools, and resource management software help leaders gain better control of a role that is a tad bit difficult to grasp in entirety. 

Project management tools, for example, help leaders do the following:

  • Track multiple projects in real-time
  • Stay in the loop with their teams
  • Be more productive
  • Keep an eye on the developments with a granular view or a panoramic view
  • Foster stable connections with clients and teammates
  • Share data & resources, and communicate goals often without squandering time in update meetings
  • Manage inventory, costs, and invoicing operations
  • Schedule resources and setting budgets as per requirement
  • Track performance with real-time, in-depth insights accurately
  • Obtain 360° feedback and iterating. 

Emotional intelligence and communication coaching

A paradigm shift occurs when an individual contributor steps into a leadership role, one that affects on a social and psychological level considerably. New leaders are often given a sink or swim deal. This unchartered territory is especially confusing when there is no guidance available. 

Leaders need to adapt to their surroundings and display the right kind of attitude early on. Leadership affects projects, too. People form impressions of their leaders very quickly, and the attitude the leader displays sets the nature of their relationships with their teams.

Organizations need to provide leaders with proper training to develop and increase their emotional quotient, which will indubitably let them navigate through the choppy waters of new leadership by fostering open communication, collaboration, and conflict management. 

It will also help leaders lead ethically, be patient, tame their impulses and motivate and help teammates grow. A leader’s attitude and energy are what can make or break projects.

Most organizations don’t go beyond onboarding and ice breakers. But emotional intelligence development and communication coaching are critical, as suggested by Travis Bradberry, co-author of the book Emotional Intelligence 2.0.

He writes:

90% of top performers have high emotional intelligence.

Travis Bradberry

Without such training, companies end up with bosses like ‘Michael Scott’ (from NBC’s ‘Office’) and much more than just hilarity ensues, this being ‘real ‘life, not ‘reel’ life. 

Those mentioned above are the four key areas where leaders typically need training to be able to lead correctly. The new leader assimilation process helps overcome problems occurring in all of these areas, as detailed in the next section.

However, organizations should further customize this integration process and allow the leader to assimilate in an organic, more beneficial manner.

Setting up new leaders up for success

While researching for this blog, I stumbled upon an alarming statistic supported by multiple data sources — almost half of all leadership transitions fail.

Organizations should put down a process to ease leadership transitions and get new leaders started on the path of success.

The following steps or customized variations of these steps will help in doing so.

Step 1: Build a leadership pipeline

Along with the human resources and the senior leaders/management of the company, establish a succession plan to ensure that you build a robust chain of leaders at every level so that individuals can graduate and takeover with ease, without disrupting the flow of operations or encountering a loss of knowledge. 

Step 2: Establish a leadership development plan

Chalk out a plan for enhancing leadership and achieving the projected organizational goals efficiently and rapidly. This should be a baseline, boilerplate version of a program, that aims to improve all the most common and essential areas where leaders fall short and can be customized and developed further. 

It is necessary to understand the value and the return on investment on a leadership development plan since the support and buy-in of senior leaders is essential for it to achieve its intended purpose.

McKinsey & Company reports that if new leaders transition successfully, the likelihood of the teams to meet their three-year performance goals increases by a dramatic 90%.

Step 3: Align organizational goals to leadership

Once a new leader is appointed, map the organizational goals and business strategy to the skills and talents of the leader for the optimal growth of the individual and the organization. 

Step 4: Customize the growth and development plan

Tweak the pre-established, boilerplate plan to improve and develop the new leader, based on his leadership personality. Build a selection of specialized training programs with the help of experts. 

This step can start with questioning whether specialized training is required and if it is, to what extent.

Tom Roth, CEO of Wilson Learning, says, “If leadership development is the answer, what’s the problem?”

See if the changes you set out to make with a leadership plan will address and solve problems the organization faces, or should you put your resources to use in some other way.

If it will solve such issues and make the organization more efficient, fill the leadership gap with specialized executive coaching. Customized assimilation plans evidently better assist the leader to succeed.

Step 5: Facilitate leader assimilation

Bring the new leader up to speed with the social dynamic and the organizational culture. Encourage the teammates and the leader to interact and bond. 

Some organizations encourage new leaders to approach this assimilation with a more relaxed, informal approach so that teammates can connect with the leader and perceive their core philosophies and ways of working on a deeper level, understand each other better and remain a close-knit team, functioning like a well-oiled machine. 

Start with team building activities, welcome parties, and informal chat sessions. 

working on a laptop outside

Step 6: Allow leaders to shape leaders

Form a network of support, guidance, and free communication to achieve multi-rate (360°) feedback.

Assign senior leaders and experts to the new leaders to facilitate mentorship, implicit and explicit knowledge transfer, and guide them to find firm footing as a leader. 

Step 7: Invite multi-level feedback

Seek feedback from the new leader as well as from those reporting, to keep track of the assimilation and acculturation efforts and foster a culture where honest feedback with the intention of all-round improvement and efficient communication is encouraged. 

Feedback will help both the parties, the team as well the new leader understand what works for the team, what leadership strategy to deploy, and what the people working with them are like.

Similarly, it helps the teams and the organization understand how they can co-operate with the new leader, harness their expertise, work with each other better and establish a collaboration and feedback strategy. Based on this feedback, organizations can analyze how they can continue supporting leaders and setting them up for success.

Maintain frequent communication and establish a chain of input across various levels of the organizational hierarchy. 

Step 8Alleviate issues

If there are issues that have been exposed by the feedback, they can to be analyzed and alleviated immediately. New precedents can be set so that leaders can regroup themselves, work more efficiently, and avoid possible roadblocks from the initial stages of the leadership itself.

If organizations pay more attention to getting the leader into their groove early on and carry out this eight-step plan partially, they will start a chain reaction of success — an efficient leader, an efficient team, successful projects, and successful organizations. 

Harvard professor Linda Hill indicates that the errors that new leaders make (and that organizations allow them to make without course correction) in the early period of leadership can cripple the leader, and allow them to carry these poor leadership habits throughout their managerial career, seriously limiting their potential. 

Even though I’ve stressed this enough earlier, I think it bears repeating: now is the time to develop leadership and succession plans, since the state of work is changing faster than a speeding bullet. 

If these newly minted talented individuals fail at being leaders it’s likely that they’ll end up never go for leadership roles again. 

Won’t we be better off without losing leaders like this?

Varada Patwardhan is a managing director at Xebrio, a project management platform. She is an expert in product development and project management.

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