The Struggle is Real:

Why high potentials struggle transitioning to leadership and what you can do to empower their success

The transition from high potential to leader seems like it would be a natural one. High potentials (HiPos, for short) are high performers who are recognized for their superior performance and exemplary behavior, often leading to promotion and leadership. And while high potentials often do make strong leaders, many struggle making the transition.

Performing Well is not the same as Leading Well

Transitioning from a high potential to a leader is not simply a matter of promotion, it is a fundamental shift in job duties and mentality. High potentials typically are individual contributors. As an individual contributor, their job is to perform, and to perform well. They are adept at execution, comfortable being deep into the weeds, and used to being the one who knows all of the answers. Proficiency executing projects is one thing; proficiency leading people is another.

A leader’s primary job is to empower their direct reports to perform well. To do this, they need to delegate, take a big-picture view, listen more than they talk, ask more questions than they answer, and have humility and empathy.

Common Challenges for New Leaders

Many new leaders struggle with seeing themselves as leaders and their behavior reflects this dissonance. Resulting behaviors I’ve observed in my own work include: micro-management, poor listening, lack of empathy, dismissiveness, emotional reactivity, taking all of the credit for good work, blaming others for issues/problems, trying to keep up the appearance of knowing everything, etc.

To put it simply, high potentials that transition into leadership get stuck in ‘doer’ mode. As a result, team members can feel dis-engaged due to lack of guidance, lack of ownership over projects and lack of empathy. The work suffers and tension builds.

Many new leaders suffer in silence. While they once felt at the top of their game, they now suddenly feel like they don’t know what they are doing. Most often, they continue doing what they know – the same things that garnered them praise for so long. What they don’t realize is that the list of skills that got them here isn’t going to help them succeed as a leader.

It’s Not their Fault

We teach people technical skills, but we don’t teach human skills. Think about it: from elementary through graduate school, the focus is on developing intelligence and skill in order to perform. Nowhere in our formal education are we encouraged to build the emotional intelligence and awareness required to lead (Note: management is not the same as leadership. Historically, business schools have taught management, but not leadership. The tide is starting to change now that it is widely recognized that leadership is a determining factor in business success). Given this backdrop, it should not come as a huge surprise that when tasked with leading people, many new leaders flail.


What You can Do to Empower New Leaders to Succeed

First and foremost, model good leadership. Be a student of leadership: read, listen, learn and continue learning. Lead with humility and curiosity. Put your people first.

Second, have an open and honest conversation with any new leader who is struggling (and ideally, before they start to struggle). Ask what they think is going well and what is not going as well. Listen. Ask questions. Share your feedback candidly. Ask what support they need from you. And then follow through.

Third, invest in your new leader’s ability to grow their leadership. There are several ways to do this.

The most effective and expedient way to build leadership prowess is to work one-on-one with a Leadership Coach. Through the use of development tools, a leadership coach is able to measure the leadership gap and also provide assessment feedback that can catapult self-awareness.

Knowledge is power. In my own practice, I use assessment data to generate a rich picture of a leader’s unique strengths and opportunities for growth. From there, we co-create a personal leadership development plan with measurable goals and success metrics. Through ongoing partnership in a safe, confidential environment, the leader works on overcoming blind spots and expanding into opportunities for growth and development. Leaders can make transformative change in as little as six months.

Another meaningful way to provide general leadership education and empowerment is to sponsor regular leadership workshops and trainings within your organization. Creating a baseline understanding of what it means to lead will enhance your culture and generate buy-in.

In taking these actions, you will strengthen your own leadership while empowering new leaders to develop themselves, and in doing both, you will lead your business forward.

if you’re ready to Lead yourself to lead your people to lead your business, let’s connect!

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