Making The Leap To Management: 8 Critical Keys to Ensure Success

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I often get questions from listener's of my podcast, The Learning Leader Show.  This is where many of my blog post ideas come from.  If you have a question, comment below or email me: Ryan at LearningLeader dot com.  This is a topic I often discuss and am excited to share my thoughts below.   Here we go...

Question: Ryan, I applied for a management job at my company. I am one of the final four candidates for the position. This would be my first management job. What advice do you have for someone looking to get promoted to management for the first time?

Answer: I love this topic. Making the initial leap from individual contributor to manager for the first time is one of the biggest stages of one’s career. I’ll share below what I wish I knew when I interviewed for my first management role…

Understand your arc, your story – Typically the hiring manager will start an interview broadly seeking to get a feel for you before they dive into details. With that in mind, how do you answer the question, “So what’s your story?” Or “Tell me about yourself…” These are vague, open ended questions. The key is to put thought into your story. What makes you unique? Why are you different from the other candidates? While I don’t advocate spending much time thinking about other candidates, I do think it’s worthwhile to understand yourself. And your story. What are some moments that have defined your life? Can you tell that story in a concise manner? What have you learned along the way? This is all part of your story. As a manager, you will be speaking in front of a group on a regular basis (meetings with your team, with senior level execs, and everyone in between). This is a skill that needs to be developed. As a hiring manager, I liked candidates who understood themselves. What motivated them, why they did what they did, why they made the distinctive choice to lead, and the ability to communicate that to others. Possessing a high level of self-awareness is an important skill to develop. Spending time reflecting on your life events helps show that you’re self-aware. As someone who has hired managers, I want people who are consciously competent. Put more simply, you’re great at what you do, and most importantly, you know why you’re great at it.

Document your belief system – Typically, most candidates do a google search and read that they need to create a 30-60-90 day plan for the interview (I know this because I’ve seen it a lot and this is what I did for my first management interview). While having a plan is not a bad idea, there is a better way. I distinctly remember one candidate for a memorable reason: He showed up to the interview with a one page document. It was titled, “This Is What I Think.” And throughout the course of the interview, he expanded upon that one page. It was quite obvious that he spent years of his life creating his “What I Think” document. The most effective leaders spend time thinking about their beliefs and why they believe what they do. They are intentional and thoughtful. Anybody can Google a 30-60-90 day plan and then cut and paste a few parts and bind it together (and that’s what most people do). It takes more thought to be concise. There is power in restraint. This is a document everyone should be creating and updating on a regular basis. 

Your WHO - Who are your mentors? Who do you mentor? A commonality among leaders who have sustained excellence over an extended period of time is that they spend great portions of their life as a teacher AND as a student. The natural rhythm of a leader should always bounce back and forth from student to teacher, etc…

Who plays the role of Plus, Equals, & Minus in your life? I’ll explain:

  • Plus = Mentors for you. These people have more experience than you, they have had the time to acquire more hard-earned wisdom than you… they’ve accomplished something that you want to accomplish. 
  • Equals = Your peer group. People on a similar level to you. They are typically at a similar career point, have a growth-oriented mindset, and are people you can talk to openly about success/failure without judgement.
  • Minus = People you mentor/teach. These are people who want to accomplish what you’ve accomplished. People who look up to you. People who have asked you for advice. You share what you've learned with them in order to help them. Preparing for meetings with your mentee should be a great time of reflection and documentation of your belief system. This forces you to understand what you believe and why you believe it.

Success in multiple life categories -- To prove that you take your “system” to whatever you do and sustain excellence, there is value in showing success in multiple life categories… Meaning you successfully worked 2 jobs to pay for college AND earned a 3.8 GPA. You have a distinguished military career AND graduated college. You were a division 1 scholarship athlete AND an over performing sales professional after your athletic career was over. “You cannot connect the dots looking forward, only looking backward.” Having a track record of success in a variety of disciplines shows the hiring manager that it doesn’t matter what you do, you always find a way to succeed. The track record proves it and makes you a more desirable candidate. This helps specifically when you’re being compared to someone with more experience than you. 

Your framework to improve - What is your process for continual learning? How do you ensure you will improve on a daily basis? What are your habits to get better? I’ve never met a quality leader who didn’t read a lot. Never. I’ve met a lot of marginal leaders who “didn’t have time to read.” The leaders who sustain excellence have a deliberate process in place to work on themselves first. Be prepared to share your framework for daily improvement. Who do you follow? What do you read? What podcasts do you listen to? Why do you follow those people, read those books/articles, and listen to those podcasts? What is something you’ve learned recently that has made you better? What is something you used to believe, but no longer do based on your framework to learn?

Take care of the "controllables" -- Leave no doubt when it comes to what you can control in your life. Those are: your attitude and your effort. Nobody wants to promote someone who’s going to create more problems because they don’t give maximum effort and/or do it without bringing a positive attitude to work every day. As the leader, your attitude is contagious. My dad always told me, “as the leader, it is your job to be in a good mood every day.” This sounds simplistic, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Scott Belsky’s advice, “As the leader, you are the emotional thermostat for your team.” Understand that. Embrace that. It’s critical to your current and future success. And by all means, give examples that validate how your consistently positive attitude has helped you in prior working situations.

Measurement and definition of success in the role - How will you measure yourself as a leader in this role? What are your guideposts for success? The person making the hiring decision wants to know that you will have a system in place to measure success in the role. They want someone who is self-sufficient and doesn’t need someone else to always tell them what to do. They want someone proactive in their approach. Someone with high expectations of their output. Document this and share it with them.

Hiring heuristics - What do you value in people? What will you look for in candidates for your team? How will you conduct interviews? What will you ask in order to find the characteristics in those people? It’s important that you’ve spent time thinking about this. Write it down. When interviewing for a leadership role, the hiring manager wants to know why you believe what you do. What’s led you to that belief system? Why are those characteristics the correct ones to possess to be excellent in the role? Have you thought about culture and how to build a thriving one? How will you do that? Do you value cognitive diversity (Shane Snow discussed on episode #259)? If so, how will you work with the company (and/or external) recruiter to help identify and find what you value?

Remember, the most important decision a leader makes is who they hire. This maxim is doubly important when hiring a leader of people. Be conscious of what you are about, of why you believe what you believe, and have specific “How we will operate” points of view well-established prior to your interviews. You will be well on your way to becoming an enlightened leader who will bring overwhelming value and excitement to this new leadership role.

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