Stepping into your first senior leadership role can feel less like walking and more like tumbling headfirst into the unknown. Being promoted to a ‘top table’ position will induce some anxiety for just about everyone. You’re certainly not alone if you’re feeling the pressure.
The bar is set high for those with ultimate responsibility, and you probably have your own expectations to meet too. To help you find your feet, we’ve pulled together four lessons you can apply today to make your transition into senior leadership a little smoother.
You’ve secured this role not because of your extensive knowledge alone, your inquisitive nature that got you to where you are will have been a major factor. Regardless of your position or level, curiosity remains a fundamental leadership trait.
Though you may feel pressured to make an immediate impact, it’s vital not to underestimate the importance of properly taking stock of your new environment. Invest time in understanding the nuances of your role, your peer team and your own team’s dynamics; essentially learning the role from its foundations. By demonstrating a genuine enthusiasm for learning, you’re also cultivating a culture that values curiosity and reflection.
As indicated in the SAS Curiosity@Work Report, 69% of UK leaders find an inquisitive spirit in their employees extremely valuable. It supports the idea that your willingness to learn can serve as a powerful business tool. Don’t mistake curiosity for a lack of confidence or trust in your skills; instead, view it as your compass guiding continuous professional growth. Therefore, give yourself the permission to keep learning.
Those who have climbed the heights of senior leadership have often done so not by glossing over their weaknesses but by acknowledging and leaning into them. Recognising that you have knowledge or skills gaps is key to your success as a leader. In our experience, it’s the leaders who can look at themselves and their performance critically that are able to fine-tune their approach most effectively.
Acknowledging your vulnerabilities is key to thriving in your senior leadership role. Accepting that you needn’t master every task is vital, too; after all, effective leadership lies in harnessing your team’s collective expertise. Embrace delegation as a tool to empower your team, rather than viewing it as a sign of weakness.
It’s essential to identify and work on both your hard (technical) and soft (interpersonal) skills gaps. Strive to create a culture of continuous learning, drawing valuable insights from your team, colleagues, and boss. This approach not only bolsters your own skills but also fosters a healthy, learning environment.
In essence, successful leadership goes beyond recognising your weaknesses – it involves using the resources around you, including your team, your mentor or coach, and other forms of support so you are playing to your strengths.
Stay in your (new) lane
Transitioning into senior leadership often presents a challenging dichotomy – the familiar comfort of old strengths versus the uncertainty of new responsibilities. While it’s tempting to tread on known grounds, it’s crucial to understand that growth lies in embracing the uncharted territories of your new role – staying in your previous lane can harm performance in more ways than one.
1) From a personal development perspective, relying on your historic areas of strength can keep you stagnant. Developing your soft and hard skills will wash away any lurking imposter syndrome and ultimately boost your confidence leading through complexity and ambiguity.
2) From a professional point of view, struggling to leave the parameters of your previous role which will have been more narrow in focus and scope will stifle your impact. This is your opportunity to foray into new territories, forge new connections, and ensure you’re meeting the expectations of the role you’ve taken on.
Remember that while your confidence will grow naturally, you can also help the journey along by filling your previous role with someone you can trust. This is probably only relevant if you’ve been promoted internally, but it’s one way of bridging the gap between your previous and current responsibilities, capabilities, and areas of expertise.
While it might sound somewhat hackneyed, the importance of trusting your instincts in leadership cannot be overstated. It plays a dual role in not only driving your professional performance but also preserving your authenticity. By attuning to your instincts, you can avoid being swayed by external influences and maintain your distinct leadership style.
In a senior leadership role, you often find yourself at the center of a dynamic whirlwind. Your responsibilities multiply — supporting team members, producing results, appeasing stakeholders — each one vying for your attention. The sense of responsibility is amplified, and with it, the pressure to make the right decisions. In such a high-stakes environment, it can become easy to lose sight of your core values and motivations.
However, it’s important not to let external pressures cloud your judgment. Strive to maintain an objective view, focusing on what’s best for the organisation even if it means making unpopular decisions. It’s in such moments that your instincts — honed by experience, sharpened by knowledge, and guided by your core values — become your most reliable ally. Trusting your gut does not mean disregarding logic and evidence, but rather it is a synthesis of your conscious reasoning and intuitive understanding of the situation at hand.
Like jumping into the deep end of a pool, stepping into a big leadership role can be a bit scary, but worry not! Stay curious and keep learning, because that’s how you grow. Knowing what you’re not good at helps you get better. Try not to do everything yourself; it’s okay to ask for help. Step out of your old shoes, into your new ones, and trust your gut. Remember, being a great leader is all about growing, learning, and trusting yourself.