Moving from being a doer to a leader can be a challenging transition. The focus of your previous “doing” role is often much different than your new leadership position, and it can be hard to make the adjustment.
The trouble is, if you don’t overcome these challenges during your transition from doer to leader, sometimes you maintain bad habits long into your leadership career.
In this post, I’ll look at some of the top challenges faced when moving from a “doer” to a leader.
You can use these to prepare yourself for your transition, or perhaps to help your own team members step up into leadership positions in the future.
A Change of Focus: From Doer to Leader
The focus of your role can change dramatically when moving from a doer to leader.
Many “doers” were technical specialists, responsible for completing the actual work of the team. This might include serving customers, creating products or supporting other teams.
The focus of the leader is much different. It’s handy to understand the technical work of the team, but now you need to lead people who do that work – instead of doing it yourself.
And previously, you could focus on your own technical tasks, without worrying too much about the team. Now, the success of the team is your responsibility which can require a shift in mindset.
Learn More: How Much Technical Expertise Should You Have to Lead Your Team?
Top Challenges Moving From Doer to Leader
Now we’ll take a look at some of the main challenges faced by people moving from technical into leadership roles.
These are based on my own experience, as well as from working with new leaders who are making the move!
1. Strategic Thinking
In your previous role, your main focus was on your own work and deliverables. Making sure you delivered on time, to the right level of quality.
As a doer, your focus is more on the work at hand, instead of looking toward the future. But as a leader, you need to take a more strategic focus towards the work and the team as a whole.
Thinking strategically sounds complex, but for me, it comes down to:
- Setting a direction or strategy: Where is the team going? Where does the team need to be in one year or more? Do you need to add new services or products? Is there a big change coming that you’ll need to adapt to?
- Improvement: Where does the team need to improve? Do we have skill gaps? Could we use better processes or systems?
- People development: One of the benefits of improving your team is that it provides development opportunities for your people to step up and improve too. It also keeps your high-performers interested and growing … so they don’t leave!
It can be a mindset shift to move toward thinking strategically.
Many leaders don’t – they simply try to keep the ship afloat.
However, a team that stagnates is at risk of creating a culture where change is unfamiliar, disliked and feared. If change is then forced upon you (which it often is), it will be hard for you and your team to adjust.
It’s now your responsibility to think to the future and keep your team growing and improving. The good news is, from working on the front line previously, you’ve probably got a bunch of ideas about what could be improved, or what “good” looks like.
So now, you can try to put them into action. There are some links below with more resources to help you do that!
Learn More: 5 Strategic Skills to Improve Your Leadership.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #81: The Power of Setting a Direction for Your Team (and how to do it).
Learn More: Team Improvement: 5 Reasons Smart Leaders Love It.
Learn More: Don’t Have a Team Operating Model? Here’s Why You Need One.
2. Focusing on the People More Than the Work
When you were a doer, it was nice when the team was getting along and you’d do your part to build team spirit. But you didn’t really *have* to do anything about it if there was conflict.
Now, it’s on you to help people work better together, and to resolve conflicts if they occur. That means potentially having a difficult conversation or two along the way.
You’ll find that much of your time is now spent on the people rather than the actual work. This includes:
- Having 1 to 1 meetings with team members
- Being available to support your team
- Overseeing the status and quality of the work
- Providing feedback to team members about their performance, behaviour or attitude; and
- Tackling poor performance or dysfunctional behaviour.
You may also be in the tricky position of having to lead former colleagues, which can be tough! Read more about that specific challenge in this post: Leading Former Colleagues Can Be Tricky. Try These Tips.
Finding Your Motivation Moving From Doer to Leader
This people-focus can be a shock for new leaders, especially if they were highly motivated by the technical work they were performing previously.
It’s important to be able to find your source of motivation in your leadership role, too.
Instead of doing the work, it might be about the feeling of satisfaction you gain from supporting your people so they can do their best work.
Or, it could be motivation from helping your team step up, take on more accountability and improve.
Perhaps you’ll draw your motivation from being able to have a greater impact on the success of your organisation with your new-found authority.
Whatever the case, be sure to take some time to consider what will motivate you about your new role. Keeping this front-of-mind can be useful to help you feel more resilient and showing up the way you want to.
Learn More: Avoiding a Difficult Conversation? Ask Yourself These 3 Questions.
Learn More: 5 Questions to Ask An Unmotivated Team Member.
Learn More: 4 Types of Motivation to Look For In Your Team.
Even though the days of “command and control” leadership are dwindling, you’ll still need to allocate work and delegate responsibility to others in your new role.
Previously, you were probably more of an order-taker, and now, you’re an order maker!
Even though delegation doesn’t need to be to someone who reports to you (it could be to a colleague for example), it is one of the most common scenarios.
Delegation can feel uncomfortable at first, because it can feel like you’re pushing a burden from yourself onto your team.
However, this is only the case if all you delegate are the crappy, boring, mundane jobs!
Reframing Delegation – It’s Not Just Time Management
We need to reframe delegation in a way that makes us feel more comfortable doing it.
- It’s not just pushing stuff off your plate, onto somebody else’s
- Delegation is about helping people to grow their skills by delegating challenging work, or work that is a step up from their normal role
- Delegation is not just allocating work. That’s task allocation. Delegation also provides authority to make decisions about the work or the functional area. This provides more autonomy which can be motivating.
Many people think that delegation is just about time management. It’s actually about empowerment and growth, too.
Learn More: The Downsides of the Delegating Leadership Style.
Learn More: How to Delegate Work to Improve Your Team.
Learn More: Why Leaders Don’t Delegate Tasks (and How to Fix It).
4. When Moving From Doer to Leader, You’ll Need to Exercise Restraint
When you’re moving from doer to leader, it can be tempting to get “sucked in” to going deep into the detail with your team.
That’s natural, because it’s what you know, and what you’re used to.
Unfortunately, this won’t help your team. If you get stuck in the details of the team’s work, it will impact your ability to think strategically and focus on supporting your people.
Many leaders fail to exercise restraint in this way, because they feel more motivated and comfortable doing the technical work than the people or strategy-focused work.
In your previous role, you became skilled at making sure the work was done to the right level of quality. You were probably pretty good at it, because you were rewarded with a leadership position.
This can tempt newer leaders to take an attitude of “If I want it done right, I need to do it myself”. Some leaders never kick this habit, and they continue to do this long into their leadership career.
Learn More: Are you a Micromanaging Boss? Here’s How to Break the Habit.
Maintain Oversight and Set the Guard Rails
One of the keys to getting comfortable rising above the detail is to set up processes and systems that help you to maintain oversight, without resorting to micromanagement.
This might mean ensuring that you manage tasks in a specific system, or use automated workflows to put the right checks and balances in place. It’s also important to be able to hold regular forums where you can communicate with your team, and have a mechanism to record feedback about their work.
If you need to be looking at someone to be sure they are doing their job, you’ll come across as overbearing and probably be cramping their style. You’ll also struggle if your team are working remotely.
Don’t forget that delegating doesn’t mean you can’t set up a process to maintain effective oversight.
Delegation sits on a spectrum, from “Go and do this and come back to me when it’s done”, to “Take this and do some analysis, come back to me and we’ll work out the next step”.
In other words, you don’t need to leave someone alone with the task. You can delegate, while also setting up an oversight or review process at the same time, or what I call “guard rails”. For example, “Let’s check in each morning and I can answer any questions about the work”.
This will hopefully help you feel more comfortable as you start to step back from the detail and embrace higher-level thinking about your team.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #21: Micromanagement and How to Stop It.
How Will You Go From Doer to Leader?
It’s not easy moving from being a doer to a leader, but it’s important to make the transition successfully so that you don’t build poor leadership habits that might stay with you.
Remember that we get better at what we practice. So if we practice poor leadership behaviour, that’s what we’ll get really good at.
Here are some questions to ask yourself, based on this post:
What are some of the challenges you think you’ll experience moving from doer to leader?
What steps can you take to help you make the transition?
Is there someone who can support you to make the move successfully?
Those leaders who take the time to think about the potential pitfalls before their transition will be in a better position to navigate the challenges to come.
Leave a comment down below with your biggest challenges making the transition from doing to leading!
Great article Ben!
Thanks René, glad you found it useful!
Thanks Ben for these insights. Do you know of a conference that I can take a team to to help us become better leaders. We are all a bunch of doers! Lol
Hello Chad, glad you found it useful.
There are plenty of leadership conferences around, but I find they often provide only a short hit of benefit!
I’d suggest taking time to frequently reflect on this as a team and discuss the challenges and how you might be able to address them. This is more likely to become a habit and lead to longer lasting improvements!
This may not feel like the most helpful answer, but it’s cheaper than a conference and will keep people talking about leadership in your team.