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Transition to Leadership

Leading a team is a whole new challenge. From being a strong IC working on very high impact projects at Google to coming into the high-growth Unacademy has been a pretty big shift.

You cannot really fully prepare for something like this though. The most important thing for me was to be in the right frame of mind going into this role. I needed the rubric that would help me stay focused on the important behavioural traits typically demanded from this role.

So I got to talking to people – mostly people in my network who had undergone such a change, who had assumed such a responsibility before. Here are the themes I distilled from those discussions.

The essence

⏱ Respect timeliness of transparency

Leaders communicate with clarity and transparency, using unambiguous words. This becomes second nature to them. At the same time, another important vector of communication is timing. Do it later than warranted and transparency suffers, even if it’s the same message. Do it after the team has heard it from someone else first and transparency suffers. Do it right and do it on time.

🤜 Prioritise tough conversations

Leaders face difficult discussions head on and have them with openness and professionalism. They don’t defer or delegate conversations. They keep them objective. In giving tough feedback, they list specific points.

👀 Improve your team awareness

Leaders spend a lot of time on getting to know their team well. This awareness helps them utilise their skills really well while still keeping the work exciting and meaningful for the team members. This awareness also helps them hire with purpose.

🔍 Identify operational accelerants & decelerants

While ramping up, leaders observe things from a distance. This distance allows them to spot the acceleration and friction points in the team – behaviours that work and scale well and the ones that don’t. This then informs the operational action plan going forward. The action plan can only follow a proper analysis and read of the current situation.

🔬 Zoom out

Leaders often find themselves a lot more zoomed in than they need to be. To lead effectively, the long view and the higher order clarity is a lot more beneficial to you and the team.

⚖️ Balance leading & managing

Many leaders are required to manage actively. Managing is about supporting, unblocking and mobilising your team constantly. Leading is about making people believe in the mission and setting a great example. Managing leaders balance both.

⚡️ Understand the implicit networks

Every organisation has a formal org structure in place – the one that’s defined top-down. But as a leader, it is very important to start discovering the implicit structure at work: The bottom-up relationship dynamics that make the company tick. Implicit structures get created because of varying personalities of people, their differences in the level of hustle and their unique skill-sets. The sooner you learn what the implicit structure is, the more integrated and effective you can get in the company.

🛠 Establish just enough process

Throwing process at complex situations is usually an obvious but often the wrong answer. Establishing a process is an expensive behaviour change. Good leaders find things that are LER (low effort & repeatable), and start implementing them for a non-zero positive impact. Then, they build on that momentum to gradually affect a larger change.

Communication is the bedrock of all process and collaboration. Facilitate communication between people and you fix most issues.

Almost all the problems can be solved by facilitating communication.

🦠 Observe symptoms but attack the disease

Leaders don’t react to the symptoms. They observe them and then find the root cause disease.

  • Solving for symptoms is solving the problem in a localised way. Such solutions don’t scale.
  • There are always inefficiencies in organisations. They manifest in different sizes and scales. But if they don’t solve the root cause, they’re only really fixing that instance of the problem. Tomorrow there’d be another instance.

A good reference point is the aviation industry: When something leads to an accident, the analysis follows the trails to the root cause and fixes that so the incident can never repeat.

🗣 Follow through on your words before they get stale

Every message has a shelf life. If the leader commits to something, they act on it quickly. It starts from simple and small things like remembering to schedule the meeting they promised to.

🌊 Bring the vibe, ride the vibe

When a new leader joins the team, there’s a lot of optimism in the team; almost like a reset button for the entire team in many ways. When they join, they make sure they harness and build on the fresh vibe. They make small but necessary steps to start taking charge of the team on this new journey. They don’t sit flat on the vibe to let it fizz out in vain.

☝️ Beware of high-stake erosions

Trust, value of words, excitement in new initiatives, intent to commit, positivity & optimism — these are all tools in the leader’s arsenal that make the team tick. If they fail to follow through on these often, it leads to a state of high-stake erosion from which it is very difficult to recover.

📣 Create cognitive repeaters / enhancers

The leader won’t be present in all the meetings and conversations. They probably won’t always be there to guide the team either. The sustainable way to scale as a leader is by building a team that has robust high-quality mental models. For that, the leader has to show them how they think, by explaining their mental models.

Leaders cannot do this as a masterclass though. Mental models make the most sense when explained in the right context. This is why creating cognitive repeaters is not an overnight process. It takes time to take the team through a myriad of circumstances for you to then explain how to think and act.

  • The most important mental model is establishing and upholding a high common quality bar. Can the leader then explain what that bar is and how they would uphold it? When explained well, the leader can get the team invested in the importance of the quality bar, and at the same time equip them with the right tools to be able to uphold it.

✅ Keep a relentless solution mindset

This is a pivotal change you go through when you become a leader. All your life you could afford to spend time whining about challenges at work… no longer. Now it’s the leader’s job to identify problems and fix them. They can take support they need from the team to gather information that will help them fix the problems but they have to seek out solutions. This mindset shift of focusing on improving and fixing instead of whining and crying is contagious and will lead the team to change their outlook too.

✨ The org they build is the leader’s portfolio

The product the team builds is no longer the leader’s work… at least not directly. The leader can surely take pride in the team’s work but their real success is in creating the organisation that is capable of producing world-class products. The leader’s portfolio is:

  1. A team that is excited, talented and constantly challenged (who)
  2. The processes that are respected, observed and enhanced (how)
  3. The output quality bar the team collectively upholds (what)

If you noticed, the list is missing the Why. The Why is the mission the leader aligns the team with, the mission that gets people excited and the mission that pushes people to bring out their best.


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