From Leading a Team to Leading Leaders

Has the scope of your role increased?  Are you now leading leaders with teams of their own, rather than leading a team of individual contributors? Then you have a challenge. You can’t be the expert in every area you lead. You can’t be the problem-solver every time there is a crisis. Somehow, you need to find a way to have your finger on the pulse of your organization without monitoring everything directly. You need to “scale” yourself or you will be overwhelmed. And hardest of all, you may need to step further back from activities that you have found personally satisfying.



To scale yourself in a sustainable way, your mindset needs to change – you need to think about your role differently.


There are a couple of points here. One, you need to have a clear focus on the most essential components of your role.  Deciding what you get involved in, and how you get involved, becomes simpler if you have this clear focus, because it will be a prioritization filter. You will be intentional, rather than defaulting to what you’ve been doing, what you’re most comfortable doing, or what’s making the most noise. (For more on this issue, see my blog post How Do You Decide What To Spend Your Time On?)


Two, you need to have a broader focus. Imagine that you are looking at your role, the key relationships and goals surrounding you, through a camera lens. Now, take a few steps backwards so that your camera lens can encompass a broader and more complex scene. This is how your focus will shift.  And, the leaders you are leading need to pull their camera back from being doers, and maintain their intentional focus on leading their team members. One of your priorities should be to help them on this journey.



As you shift from team leader to leader-of-leaders, the key leadership skills won’t change. What will change is your purpose, and the complexity in each area.


Clarifying Purpose

As a team leader, you needed to clarify a direction around which your team could align. Ideally, you set direction jointly with team members.

As a leader of leaders, you need to not only align your leaders around a clear, shared direction, but you also need coach them to align their own teams around this direction. Each team’s direction will be flavored by its specific requirements and member input, but also consistent with your broad direction.


Managing Expectations

As a team leader, you needed to clarify performance expectations of your team members, including behaviors and results. And you needed to manage their performance relative to those expectations, including diagnosing and helping them remedy any performance gaps.

As a leader of leaders, your expectations of your leaders will include how they lead and the effects of their leadership. And you will need to coach them to clarify roles and manage performance in their own teams.


Managing Conflicts

As a team leader, you had to surface and manage conflicts with stakeholders, and you had to help your team members learn to manage their own conflicts.

As a leader of leaders, you need to help your leaders surface and manage conflicts with their stakeholders, and to help them develop the skill to coach their team members to manage their own conflicts.


Solving Problems

As a team leader, you had to help your team members solve problems they encountered, at the same time coaching them to become more self-managing in solving those problems for themselves the next time.  You probably also had to resist the seductive tendency to jump into every problem that came your way, rather using these problems as coaching opportunities.

As a leader of leaders, you need to help your leaders with this very challenge – how to use problems as a coaching opportunity with their team members.  And, in coaching your leaders, you need to resist the tendency to jump in and solve the problems they face in developing others.



As a team leader, you had to help your team members more effectively influence key stakeholders in support of your team’s goals. And you probably had responsibility for a few senior stakeholder relationships where you needed to influence them directly.

As a leader of leaders, you need to coach your leaders in developing their team members’ stakeholder influence skills. And you probably still need to coach them on their direct senior stakeholder relationships, and help them shift to a more strategic focus with these senior folks.



As a team leader, your coaching focused on developing self-directed performers – people who could accomplish team goals to a high standard in a self-managing way.

As a leader of leaders, you must coach leaders to become coaches themselves – so they can develop their own self-directed high performers.



These transitions may seem straightforward, but the biggest challenge in managing them is managing yourself. What might be especially challenging for you? For every leader-of-leaders, the self-management challenge is different.

It might be hard to let go of jumping into problem-solving, or of your picture of what’s the best approach in a crisis situation.

It might be hard to let go of stakeholder relationships ­– to let go of being the go-to person who can best navigate the complex issues.

It might be hard to remain patient in the face of your leaders’ developmental challenges, and of their learning curve as they learn how to lead.


One strategy that many leaders-of-leaders find helpful is to explicitly bring their leaders together as a leadership team. Participating collectively in the shared leadership of your group allows them to develop their capabilities in the context of helping you manage the strategic tasks of your organization, and to support one another as they fully develop into their leadership roles. And they can help you keep your camera lens focused in the right place.




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