On the 7th June 2019 Theresa May officially resigned as the leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister, firing the starting gun on the race to succeed her. So far 10 MPs have put their names forward, but what does it take to step up into the top job of an organisation? We spoke to Paul Jewitt-Harris, Consultant Director, about how to make a success of a leadership transition
Putting yourself forward for consideration of a leadership role
What should someone think about if they’re looking at applying for a leadership role?
Applying for a leadership role requires something really fundamental, and that is a sense of direction. Applying to be a leader because you want to be a leader is probably the worst reason you can have. You should be looking at things as they are and thinking, this should change.
If you were to contrast that with managing – managing is making sure that things are working well. Leadership is taking us from where we are now to a better place, and galvanising support to do that.
When someone chooses to step up to be a leader, it should be because they have found something that needs to change and believe that they are the best person to make that happen. That requires conscience, that requires a strong will, and, most of all, that requires belief.
If you don’t believe you can do it, if you don’t have that conviction, forget it.
How should candidates differentiate themselves?
Once you’ve decided to go for a leadership role, you need to be able to articulate what drives you. At first, that might just be articulating why things need to change to yourself, getting it straight in your head, but eventually it will mean bringing other people along with your vision.
A part of this is really noticing things around you; being able to predict what might be the consequences if nothing changed, and what it could be like if it was to change. That’s how you create your story, and that’s how you communicate it to others. Vision isn’t only about having a vision; it’s about being able to see things as they are.
You also need to show that you can build that coalition around you, that you can galvanise support without arrogantly assuming that yours is the only way. Paint a picture of where you want to get to, and then help others to help you get there.
The psychology of filling another’s shoes
What are some of the challenges of replacing a high-profile individual?
Ok so you’ve got the job! Sometimes people are surprised at this stage, and there’s a temptation to start saying “I’m not worthy”. It’s imposter syndrome, right? It’s more common than you might think.
In general, thinking about it in terms of “filling someone’s shoes” is a mistake. Whatever someone did previously, that was their period, their tenure. Now it’s your period, and whatever was the case for the previous leader is probably not going to be the same as for you.
One challenge, therefore, is managing the expectations of the incumbents. You will have dynamics within the senior team that will completely change with the arrival of a new leader, so don’t try to be someone you’re not just because the previous leader was really friendly, or really stand-offish.
You should sweep away the past and say, “That was then, this is now, and this is where we’re going”. Make it clear that you will not be mimicking what came before.
Rather than filling another’s shoes, bring your own shoes with you.
What is more dangerous, overconfidence or underconfidence?
Confidence is contextual. I might be confident to stand up in front of 200 people and talk about company culture, but if I was talking in front of 200 people about marine biology I might be less confident! Confidence will vary depending on the situation.
It’s therefore important to draw a distinction between confidence and self-esteem. Self-esteem or self-belief sits below confidence, and it’s absolutely critical for a leader to have that because there will be knockbacks. If you’re really comfortable with who you are then when the tough days happen you’ll bounce back.
Overconfidence is when you go beyond your competence levels, and sometimes you have to do that: you might have to fake it to make it. But overconfidence can also mean not listening, and making decisions that you are not capable of following through on.
The trouble with underconfidence is that people can smell it. If you don’t have conviction, if you’re not confident the plan’s going to work, people won’t buy it. Being really binary, therefore, I’d say underconfidence is more of a danger to a leader, but try to avoid both!
How to hit the ground running in a new leadership role
What is the biggest shift from senior role to leadership role?
I usually think of the leadership pipeline, because it challenges you from some different perspectives:
- “Who should I be talking to? Which are the relationships I need to cultivate?”
- “What skills do I need to develop? What are some of the things I need to be better at in this role?”
- “Where should I be spending my time?”
This last one is particularly important. The danger of hitting the ground running is that you’re just going to just end up doing your old job again. The phrase suggests that there needs to be an immediate impact, and I’m not convinced that there does.
It takes quite a courageous leader to start a new role and say, “I’m going to listen. I’m going to find out what people think and what needs to change”. Now that might seem like it contradicts my point at the beginning about vision, but here’s an example.
A few years ago, a new chief of the Hong Kong police force took over, and he knew it needed to change – specifically it needed a better reputation. But the first thing he did was go out on patrol with police officers, because he knew that things needed to shift, but he didn’t know how to do it. He had some ideas of course. But he recognised that if he was going to gain their trust and make a change, he had to listen to them and consider their input.
When you see what’s happening on the ground in an organisation you are able to talk and influence with some authority because you appreciate the context and the history within which the change needs to happen.
The danger of hitting the ground running is that everyone expects you to go and change something immediately, and sometimes that might be the wrong thing to do. Sometimes the right thing might be to just listen.
You can read more on this topic in our whitepaper, Navigating leadership transitions.
Do you have any tips for stepping up into a senior leadership role? Leave your advice in the comments below.