The Challenges New Leaders Face

In this episode, helpful advice for those who are new to leadership. (Episode 18)


The Challenges New Leaders Face

32 minutes | February 19, 2020

00:00:00 00:00

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For new leaders, the transition to their new role can be difficult. In this episode, DDI's Janice Burns discusses why the move to a leadership position is so hard, and provides useful advice to help new leaders be successful. (Episode 18)


Craig Irons: Hello again, and welcome to the Leadership 480 Podcast from DDI. My name is Craig Irons and I'll be your host today. We're talking on this episode of the podcast about the 480 minutes leaders have every day to make an impact. Specifically, we're going to be talking about how and why that is so hard for leaders to be effective. And we're going to talk about that today with a tremendous leadership expert. Janice Burns, which is a Vice President here at DDI. Who has a lot of experience as a leader and has probably trained or developed thousands, probably many thousands of leaders helping them become better at what they do. Janice, thank you for joining us today.

Janice Burns: It's my pleasure. I'm looking forward to it.

Craig Irons: Well, terrific. This should be a really fun conversation because we're going to really get down to the specifics and the nitty gritty and some of the situations that people run into regularly as they're trying to be effective leaders. So but let's start by talking a little bit about you and your background. And the perspective that you bring to all this. Can you tell us a bit about your experience as a leader? And I understand when you and I have spoken before many times that you had some leadership experiences that really fall outside of the workplace and that's really where you got your start as a leader, wasn't it?

Janice Burns: That's exactly right, Craig. I've actually been a leader inside and outside of DDI for well over 25 years. You're probably familiar with that book, All I Really Needed to Know, I learned in Kindergarten.

Craig Irons: Yes.

Janice Burns: For me, much of what I've learned about being a leader actually is born of the leadership roles I held in the community before I came to DDI. So think about being the President of a PTA or the library board or the band parents. I had no position power. So I had to find other ways to engage and motivate volunteers to meet the priorities of that organization. And that's really what leaders do in the workplace.

Craig Irons: Sure, so it's the same ... For a leader, whether they're not a leader at work or a leader outside and in the community. And you rattled off a couple of different, very challenging leadership roles that people can hold with no position power. And God bless you for doing any and all of those things. But let's talk about your first formal leadership role. So you came to that role a little later than maybe some of our listeners did. If you think now about how many younger professionals are moving into leadership roles for the first time and how that's happening more frequently, how valuable were those experiences you had outside of the workplace where you got leadership experience? How valuable was that experience when you finally became a leader and had direct reports in the workplace?

Janice Burns: I think I was really fortunate, Craig, in that what I've learned outside of the workplace really are the same things that contributed to what I think allowed me to be an effective leader. First and foremost, I learned that you need to learn and understand people individually. I was not thinking each volunteer as just being a volunteer. So understanding in the workplace what motivates people. What gets people excited. Why do they want to get up and come to work every day.

Janice Burns: And then tapping into that is critically important. The other thing I learned early on is the power of thank you and appreciation. And I can't stress that enough. Again, think about there is no real monetary reward for a volunteer other knowing that they're making a difference and knowing that you appreciate them. So when I think about the workplace itself taking the time to specifically thank and acknowledge and appreciate people. It's what gives them purpose. It's what enables them or motivates them to do things again in the same way or in the right way.

Janice Burns: And lastly I would say that people do want to feel valued and respected, not just for what they've accomplished. Sometimes it's just the effort that they put forth. So while that's tied to the thank you and appreciation, I think it's critically important to respect people, to value people and acknowledge the efforts that they're putting forth in the workplace every day.

Craig Irons: You talk about acknowledging people. And oftentimes that doesn't take any more than just a little bit of your time.

Janice Burns: That's exactly right.

Craig Irons: There's no cost involved.

Janice Burns: And I just read a great article about the power of the word thank you. I'm a big believer in writing thank you notes instead of emails. And I can tell you as a leader, there is nothing more gratifying than walking by somebody's office or cubicle and finding that note posted there with tremendous power and gratitude.

Craig Irons: So Janice, given your experience as a leader, both in the workplace and outside of the workplace ... And you've also trained leaders all around the world to help them become better and more effective. So you probably have a really good perspective on this question. Why is it harder to be a leader now than it's been in the past?

Janice Burns: I think one of the things that new leaders in particular don't really understand is that being a leader, a good leader, is a full time job. Most leaders including myself really struggle to find the right balance between planning and managing work, achieving the goals. And spending enough time to coach people, to develop people, to give them feedback. As much as we talk about time being a problem in so many areas of our life, I do think that often we underestimate the time it takes to effectively lead others versus taking that time to focus on doing the work, if you would.

Janice Burns: I think the other thing that has made it more challenging is that there's just not enough ramp up time anymore for new leaders. So often they're unprepared for the job. We tend to promote on technical expertise versus looking at individuals and maybe doing an assessment. But really tapping into their motivation to lead others. And if they don't have that motivation, I think it's really difficult for them to be authentic and to be effective in that job.

Janice Burns: And last but certainly not least, we are so much more geographically dispersed than ever before. I wonder how many of the leaders listening to this ever even see their direct reports on a regular basis.

Craig Irons: Yes.

Janice Burns: And if I don't see my people, how do I acknowledge them? How do I recognize them? How do I know where and then they need my support? So while technology has been helpful in that regard, in some ways we perhaps rely too much on the technology and not enough on forging and maintaining those interpersonal relationships with the people that we lead. As I said, it's a full time job.

Craig Irons: Oh it is. And one that gets harder all the time, especially you mention time and leaders have less time it seem than ever before to do a lot of these things that are so important. As a facilitator, someone who has delivered training courses for years, you've had to opportunity to see leaders across time and some of what their concerns or the challenges that they were bringing to training years ago versus the challenges and the questions they're asking and what have you today.

Craig Irons: What's been the biggest change that you've seen in leaders over that period of time?

Janice Burns: Well, I think leader's expectations today are very different. Again, part of this comes back to respecting the time that they're giving us to learn and develop. We often make the assumption that leaders, especially younger leaders, who love technology want to learn through technology. But in fact, the research would tell us the exact opposite is true. So very much like many generations, leaders today do want to meet with other leaders. They want to learn with other leaders. But they don't somebody lecturing to them. They're showing up smart and ready to go. And facilitators, we need to be ready to engage them from the minute they walk in the door until the minute they walk back out of the door.

Janice Burns: So I think it's a little bit different in terms of expectations today, Craig.

Craig Irons: Sure learners, leaders as learners when they come to these courses, they're different than their predecessors were before. But what about the skills that leaders really seem to lack today? Is there a skill or maybe a skill or two that you're seeing that leaders are really aren't as strong as they've been in the past. Or maybe that they just seem like they're more hungry to learn a particular skill than they've been previously. What does that look like?

Janice Burns: Craig, that's a great question. And just coming off of eight to 10 pilots of some of our new courses, here are a couple of things that I noticed in today's leaders and these audiences. Number one, this whole notion of EQ or emotional intelligence, they're hungry to get better at it. So they're actually excited when we talk about EQ and the fact that we can develop it. That they can get better at it. At the same time, they struggle with empathy. No surprise, many of us have read articles and blogs about how critical empathy is. But the funny thing is, there's such a simple formula for empathy. Recognize fact and feeling. And it's almost as if the light bulb goes off when we equip leaders with that skill set. But I don't recall in the past them being so focused on empathy. Help me with that.

Janice Burns: And then last, but certainly not least, delegation. I don't think leaders today want to be viewed at the dump truck where I'm backing in and dumping work on others. I think many of them have a heightened sense of awareness of what it's like to be in that job. So they don't want to be that leader who dumps and runs. At the same time, they don't really understand how to delegate, who to delegate to, and how close to stay once you've delegated to someone.

Craig Irons: Right, right. Interesting. Okay, so now let's get into the fun part here where we're going to talk about some of the specific challenges that leaders are facing today. Especially new leaders. And so let's start with one of the toughest. Managing a former peer or former peers. Who may be your friends, but regardless that you were in the trenches with these individuals before. So what does a new leader need to do to handle that situation. A very common situation, isn't it?

Janice Burns: It's very common especially when many organizations are promoting people sooner and at a younger age than ever before. You've probably heard this idea of being the buddy on Friday and the boss on Monday. What does that really mean? Number one. As a leader in any organization, there is certain information that I need to hold and treat as confidential, regardless of how close I might be to some of my former peers. That's number one. And leaders should never violate that.

Janice Burns: Number two, the thing that I want to remind new leaders of is that you do have insight around former peers. So yes, I'm not the buddy and I can't share everything with them as I might have done in the past, but I probably know what really motivates people who were my former peers. Or what really gets them upset when our leader did that. So I can watch out for those things. I can tap into things that are really important to them. So those are some of the things that when I think about former peers, there's the need to protect confidentiality, the ability to tap into what I know about those individuals, but I always need to remember that as a leader in the organization, there are certain expectations around integrity. Around being the positive model. So I always have to keep that in mind.

Janice Burns: And that's a little bit challenging with former peers. You can so easily fall into that let's talk about the boss or let's talk about the company. And I don't want leaders to do that.

Craig Irons: Yeah, that's a fantastic insight, by the way. That I think a lot of people who are in new leadership roles may lose sight of. The fact that, okay you're having to manage someone you know very well. And there's probably a lot of stress and anxiety associated with that.

Janice Burns: Definitely.

Craig Irons: But the fact that you know that person. You understand what leads them get up in the morning and come to work every day is really valuable.

Janice Burns: Exactly right. You already know what they're capable of doing in many regards, right? And what they would be excited about learning more of or doing more of, so I would encourage us to tap into that.

Craig Irons: Great. I want to go back to what you were talking about just a few minutes ago around delegation. And you talked about how hard that can be. To delegate and then to not micromanage and step away. What practical advice can you offer leaders for doing that effectively?

Janice Burns: It's a great question, Craig. I think first think about why we don't delegate as much as we should. Part of that stems from the fact that many of us are promoted because we were very strong and capable individual contributors. So if I continue to do what I was doing before, I'm going to stay in my comfort zone, right? But what we need leaders to do is to get out of their comfort zone and delegate the work to individuals who either already have the prerequisite skill set and motivation, or understanding that I can develop them to do those things that are required to get the job done.

Janice Burns: So I would say challenge yourself. Look at what you have on your plate at the end of the day and say are there one or two things that I don't have to do. That somebody else could do instead. And very often you'll find that's an opportunity for them to grow and develop which frees up our time to coach and to communicate and to do the more strategic things that organizations expect from their leaders.

Craig Irons: We're talking today to Janice Burns, a Vice President here at DDI, and an expert in the field of front line leadership development. Let's move to a different topic. A few months ago, we ran what we called the DDI Leadership Tournament on Twitter. It's a huge success. And what we did in that tournament was we asked people to vote on what they felt was the greatest challenges facing leaders today.

Craig Irons: And the winner for what people thought was the greatest challenge facing leaders today was having a clueless boss. This is an issue many leaders run into, especially new leaders. But what should our listeners do if they find themselves dealing with a boss they view as clueless?

Janice Burns: It's a tough question, Craig. And I don't think there is a textbook definition of clueless boss. But if there was, I would suspect that it might include behaviors like the boss doesn't ask for or show interest in my development. My boss doesn't involve me in decisions. Doesn't listen to my concerns. Does things that damage my self esteem. I'm sure the list of infractions is much longer than that. So if you're dealing with any of all of the above, my first suggestion is that you talk to your leader.

Janice Burns: I think most leaders want to be good leaders. I don't know many that get up every day and say, my goal is to make Craig's life miserable today. I think, on the contrary, they don't just ... They don't recognize the behaviors and the impact that it's having on others. So maybe they need a wake up call.

Craig Irons: Right.

Janice Burns: And by that I mean, schedule time to talk with your boss one on one. Let your boss know how you are feeling. My guess is that they may be surprised. I think they will respect the fact that you took the courage to give them that feedback. And I also would suspect that you're not alone in feeling that way about a clueless boss. But please don't fall into the trap of commiserating and talking with others about that clueless boss. Instead, be bold, have courage and talk to your boss about how you're feeling.

Janice Burns: And I would suspect while your boss may not change overnight, you probably will have at least the beginnings of a wake up call. And ultimately will appreciate it.

Craig Irons: A flip side to that that I think I've discovered over my career is at various times, especially early in my career, I thought "Boy, my boss is really clueless." Well then as I got a little more experience and began to reflect back on that individual and their role, it occurred to me that they probably weren't as clueless as I thought they were. It was more just a matter of they were juggling a lot of things. And so my perception may not have been reality.

Janice Burns: I think that's a good point, Craig. So we've talked about how time is a challenge is for all of us. I think sometimes that we think about our own challenges around doing the things that we want to do as a good leader, but we don't give our own bosses the benefit of the doubt. I think that's a good perspective to have. But again, having the courage, if you really feel as if your boss is not respecting you, not involving you, find a way to have that conversation. In private, of course. And I think most bosses will appreciate that you do that.

Craig Irons: Yeah, great. And we talked about the challenge around suddenly you're having to manage former peers. But another challenge that happens with newer leaders is they are placed into a leadership role and suddenly they have some direct reports who may have more experience than they do. So that presents a whole new set of challenges, doesn't it? In terms of managing more experienced employees. How should a new leader deal with that?

Janice Burns: Again, that's another one of those tough situations. It reminds me of the first person that I managed at DDI who had been here much longer than I had been here. And what I had to remind myself is that this person, even though he was close to retirement, was still an important member of the team. So I had to hold him to the same expectations around performance, around respect, around being a member of the team as anybody else. And it was a little bit challenging at first. But again, it comes back to what is fair and equitable? I don't want to treat somebody differently simply because they'd been in the job longer or in the role longer. At the same time, it's an opportunity to expertise that those individuals have.

Janice Burns: I think again, if we recognize the value that they have as long term employees or team members, they will feel less threatened. And some do feel threatened by the fact that I may be a new leader and I don't quite have the experience or years in the trenches that he or she might have.

Craig Irons: Related to that, a challenge that is increasingly common for new leaders today is having to lead a team that's made up of people who represent multiple generations. We now have an environment in which we have five generations in the work place. I believe is the figure. And that can be really challenging for a leader. Really of any experience level, I would imagine. But how do you deal with a multigenerational team?

Janice Burns: It's funny, every once in a while, I'll get an email from a client or from one of my DDI associates and they will say, "Don't we have a course on how to manage different generations in the work place?" And I say, "Yes we do. It's the foundation course that teaches basic critical interpersonal skills." Regardless of when I was born or how long I've been working, I want to feel valued, respected, involved every day that I come to work. I want a sense of purpose. I want to know that my boss cares about me appropriately as an individual, as well as somebody who's contributing to achieving the goals of the team.

Janice Burns: So I think instead of looking at how generations are different, I would challenge leaders to think about how we are all alike. And what it is that we need from a leader and what we need from the organization when we come to work every day.

Craig Irons: That is some fantastic advice.

Janice Burns: And ironically, I think the areas where we often think people differ, it's around things like using technology or not wanting ... Wanting work life balance, for example. Sure there are some nuances there, but I think again, there are more similarities than differences when we look at the people side of things.

Craig Irons: So I understand you have a son who has recently become a leader for the first time. And he's encountering some of these very challenges that we're talking about today. What advice are you giving him?

Janice Burns: It's so interesting. When I think about my son, first of all, he's a great, great example of leadership coming from unexpected places. Something I haven't said earlier, as leaders look for that hidden talent, my son grew up surrounded by three very high achieving, vocal sisters. So we would often characterize him as the quiet one. And he was well respected and very successful as an individual contributor. And I never once heard him say I want to be a leader. So when he announced to the family that he'd been promoted to lead his team, most of them former peers, I was pleasantly surprised.

Janice Burns: But my advice to him was something I shared earlier. Remember what you already know about your team members and tap into that. Engage the hearts and minds of each of those people who last week were your peers. The other thing has been very fortunate to have is a very good leader. A mentor. Someone who developed him, who coached him. So I think the way was paved for him, number one, I'm hoping that I was a good example for him. But having a boss who modeled those behaviors as well. And I'm so pleased to say that in spite of some of the challenging situations.

Janice Burns: In fact, he had to let someone go shortly after he was promoted. But was able to do it with integrity and courage, he's already been promoted to a mid level manager. So again, thinking about what he knew of his peers. Bringing the expertise that he had around the job, but leaving that in the hands of his team members and focusing on what they needed from him as a leader, I think, has really been his key to success, Craig.

Craig Irons: Fantastic. You have ... We've talked here about how you have trained leaders. And you've facilitated leadership development courses. And of course, probably I would say most companies have leadership development programs in place to help their new leaders acquire the skills they need. But that can only go so far, of course. So I guess my question is what can leaders do on their own to help make the transition into a leadership role easier?

Janice Burns: I think first of all, ask yourself what do you want to be a leader? If it's for power or influence or to make more money, chances are that you're not going to be effective as a leader. Not in the long term anyway because you're really not motivated to do that. On the other hand, if you have a desire to lead people to broaden your skills, to contribute to the organization. Think about what can you do to prepare and how do you get better at it?

Janice Burns: And again, it's a hard job. It's like being a parent. You can read a book or two. But that's certainly not sufficient. So I would say as you're starting out on your journey to be a leader, think about keeping it simple. One conversation at a time with a team member, with a client. And remember that you always have control over your emotions. How you handle that conversation. That interaction.

Janice Burns: So while my hope is that your organizations do invest in your leadership development and I think many of them do, I'm going to encourage you to control what you can control and ask for feedback. Again, being a leader, in many ways, takes courage. Ask your boss. Ask your team members, how am I doing? What am I doing well? They will tell you. Where do you see opportunities for improvement? If you create that safe environment, they will tell you that as well. So those are some things, I think, that are well within any leader's control.

Craig Irons: Sure. If you're a new leader listening to this, and you're just feeling a little overwhelmed like you're in over your head. You mentioned having a mentor. You mentioned the role that a manager can play, but where should a leader turn for help if they really feel like they're struggling?

Janice Burns: I would say assuming that you don't have that clueless boss that your boss is a good resource for you. Again, most of us, as leaders, want people to succeed. And I would say the same of true of your boss as well. But sometimes we don't recognize when people are struggling. When they need help. And there is no shame in admitting to your boss that I need your help here. I'm scheduling with the situation. I need some coaching. And again, I think that managers will help because they do have a sense of just how difficult this job can be. The demands that we're placing on leaders. I also think that it can be helpful to have a peer network. I would never underestimate, especially for a new leader, the value of networking.

Janice Burns: None of us can do our job on our own today. So think about the reciprocity of having a network of leaders who can help you when you're struggling and you can do the same for them. And last but not least, have the courage to self reflect. Where am I struggling? Am I asking for help? And am I really making an effort to get better? And I think most of us can improve if we're candid with ourselves.

Craig Irons: We've been talking to Janice Burns, a Vice President here at DDI and a real expert in front line leadership development who also some great insights and some great advice she's been sharing today. Janice, I want to ask you one more question, and that is can you share a moment of leadership that had an impact on you?

Janice Burns: I can. And it was quite a few years ago. But I was part of a relatively large team tasked with the launch of a new product at DDI. There were many moving parts and pieces. Many people working on the project. A lot of tight timelines and deadlines. So a lot of stress as you might imagine. The team had a meeting and we actually invited the senior sponsor for this team. And he came to that meeting and behaved badly. Instead of asking people what barriers there were, how can he help. He more or less berated the team for the project not being on track. He left frustrated and really took the air out of the room.

Janice Burns: People were so demotivated after that and to that leader's credit, the next day, he came into my cubicle and said, "I think I behaved badly in that meeting yesterday, did I?" And I said, "Yes, you did." And he asked me for examples and said, "I owe the team an apology. I owe individuals an apology." And for me it was a good reminder of we are all human. We will make mistakes. Sometimes our behavior will not be what we want it to be. But the courage to recognize when that happens and to admit it, I think, is the hallmark of being a good leader. And that has always stuck with me. I'm not perfect and when I realize that I've done something wrong, I do take immediate action to try to address that. To recognize it.

Craig Irons: That's a great example.

Janice Burns: Thank you.

Craig Irons: We've been talking today to Janice Burns, a Vice President here at DDI, and an expert in the field of frontline leadership development. Janice, thank you so much for joining us.

Janice Burns: It was my pleasure.

Craig Irons: And a thank you to all of you, our listeners, and we invite you to tune in to our next episode of the Leadership 480