How To Become A Senior Leader

Transitioning from a mid to senior level role could be particularly challenging. I share several lessons I learned on how to become a senior leader.

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My clients are professionals that are transitioning from mid to senior level leadership positions. Some of them are experienced managers of individuals and are now managing teams. Others are new managers or now have larger groups.

Many of us struggle when transitioning from a subject matter expert and soloist to a leader and conductor.
Being a leader is both science and art. There are specific skills, knowledge, and attitudes that we need to demonstrate and display as we grow in our role and in the company’s hierarchy.

The higher leadership position we have, the more relevant attitudes are. And those take time to acquire and refine because most of them are the result of changing our perspective and behavior.

The knowledge side of the triangle will depend on your specific area of expertise. And most likely you have acquired a great deal of knowledge at this point.

The skills side is a combination of abilities directly associated with leaders and managers and those specific to your industry or area of expertise.

These are key competences related to leading and managing people at a senior level:

  1. Building relationships and influencing at all levels of the organization and industry
  2. Leading/moderating meetings with stakeholders beyond your immediate team
  3. Crafting and delivering a compelling message customized to the audience in various channels
  4. Writing effective performance reviews, succession plans, and talent designations for yourself and your direct reports
  5. Depending on the size of the organization, you may need to know how to calibrate your team members’ performance compared with their peer group
  6. Balancing coaching and mentoring your direct reports including providing timely, useful, and actionable feedback

“The right of commanding is no longer an advantage transmitted by nature; it is the fruit of labors, the price of courage.” – Voltaire

When it comes to attitudes, this is where the bulk of the work is. The very first change in mindset is that there are certain tasks that you are no longer required to perform personally. The sooner you identify those, the better. You will have the time and space to work on the skills mentioned above and on acquiring and displaying the attitudes expected at your new level.

The most difficult part for me during my transition from mid to senior level leadership was the fact that I now did not have many tangible things to show. For example, in the past I may have been personally responsible for preparing material for specific forums and committees. This was something tangible I could show as evidence of my skills and expertise and on how I spent my time at work.

Now, I was no longer the one responsible for preparing those documents. The time I employed in putting together the presentation was now used for crafting the message, preparing the delivery of the presentation, and providing direction to the people on my team who actually had pen on paper on how to refine the content.

It took me longer than I expected to adjust to the world of the intangible. And looking back with what I know now there are a few things I would have done differently.

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” – John Fitzgerald Kennedy

First, I would have talked to many more people to learn how they handled the transition when it was their turn. This would have had the added benefit of deepening existing relationships and creating new ones.

Second, I would have experienced the discomfort. I do not like being bored, feeling that I was doing nothing during work hours. I could have used that discomfort to create awareness, fully define what I was now responsible for, and set clear expectations with my team. I would have also sat with the displeasure of feeling guilty because I was under the (inaccurate) impression that my team was working hard, and I was not.

Third, I would have taken the time to transfer my expertise to my direct reports. Like many others before me, multiple times I did tasks that someone on my team should have been doing since a) it was faster if I did it because I knew exactly what was needed; and b) we did not have enough turnaround time. This works in the short-term and it is detrimental in the long-term.

Fourth, I would have utilized the time I previously used on specific tasks to shadow and learn from the people who were above me either in scope, actual level, or both. This way I could start to have a glimpse on the things they now had to have on their radar. I would have been better prepared for the following transition.

“No person will make a great leader who wants to do it all themselves, or to get all the credit for doing it.” – Andrew Carnegie

The passage from mid to senior level leader was the most difficult I have experienced in my 26-year career. Even harder than managing people for the first time. And, at least in my company, there were not many resources or support for this transition. I had to figure out many things on my own and follow the advice of the few people I talked to.

I am glad it was challenging and that I now have several lessons learned I can share with others going through a similar path.

What do you know now you wished you knew then? Which lessons resonated the most with you? Please, let us know in the comments. You can write in English, Spanish, Portuguese or French.

My mission is to help women transform their inner voice from critic to champion, so they can confidently realize and fulfill their potential achieving what they want most for themselves, their families, communities, organizations, and teams.

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