Climbing the ladder to leadership success
“Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.” Dr Stephen Covey.
Climbing the ladder of leadership success is not always easy. Whether you are climbing the rungs or enjoying the view from where you are, you need to ask yourself one very important question: have you got your ladder leaning up against the right wall?
Let’s take our metaphor a little further. The “wall” your ladder of success leans on is the leadership skills, qualities and experiences you have acquired over time. From the beginning of your management career, before you even start to climb the corporate ladder, success is about constructing the most solid wall possible. This way, when you take each step up the rung, you can do so without fear of the wall collapsing, taking you and your career with it.
No matter how high you climb, reinforcing that wall will always be critical to your continued success. Here are some key considerations to reflect upon as you climb.
Be brave, but deliberate, with each step you take
Just because an opportunity for promotion comes up doesn’t mean you must take it. It would be very overwhelming to climb to a high point on the ladder of success too fast and early in your career without the right support in place. Imagine looking back down and seeing that the wall your ladder is resting on is about to crumble because your leadership skills, experience and competencies have not increased at the same pace as your job status or perceived external success.
You never know what’s going to happen next, so rather than pursuing opportunities you are not ready for, work on developing yourself and reinforcing the wall your ladder of success is leaning on.
Sometimes you need to step out of your comfort zone, learn on the job and be willing to take risks that might become mistakes. However, don’t let anyone pressure you to take a position that you know won’t be the right fit; this is one sure way to jeopardise even better things that may lie ahead. You must be truly ready for the next rung.
Leadership is not about getting things done; it’s about the people who can help you get things done
If you’ve ever been considered or chosen for promotion to a management position, it’s likely that you are great at your job. However, being great in your technical role does not mean that you have the right skills and abilities to manage people properly.
Sadly, many organisations still make the mistake of promoting or hiring managers based on their proven skills in a technical job role, and expecting them to be great leaders without investing or discover our full range of developing their people management skills. That’s not good for the organisation or the managers, and of course it can be rather unpleasant for the people they manage too. As an emerging leader, before making the transition into a management role, it’s important to take responsibility for your personal development.
As you climb the ladder of leadership success, on each rung, you are in hands of the people you manage and the network you have built around you. Those are the hands that helped lift you so far, and they are the ones who will take you further. If they let go, you could be in trouble. Do you have the skills to build – and keep – a strong team around you? To have tough conversations with staff and manage poor performance and difficult behaviours? If not, do you have someone who can coach and support you as you face these challenges for the first time, as well as mentors who can advise and assist you to make good decisions?
By taking responsibility for developing your people management skills and building your support network, you’ll not only climb higher, but you’ll also know your ladder of success has a solid foundation to lean on. A few people will drop off here and there, but others will be ready to take their place or connect you with people who can. This confidence in yourself and the people around you will help you enjoy the journey more as well.
It’s never too early or too late to identify, acknowledge and develop your weaknesses
Having people around you who provide constructive feedback and credible guidance is essential. However, if you want to be a successful leader, don’t sit around waiting for someone else to plan your development or tell you when it’s time to do some leadership training.
You need to take responsibility for your own development, but part of taking responsibility involves asking for help. Share your development goals and plans with your line manager and ask them to support you. If you are your own boss or your current line manager cannot provide the support you need, find a mentor who can provide additional support. Just don’t expect anyone to know about your leadership aspirations if you don’t tell them, and don’t expect others to offer the help you need if you don’t ask for it. It does happen, but it’s the exception, not the rule.
It is best to start planning your learning pathway and building your leadership skills before have people to manage. However, if you’re already a manager, it’s never too late to reinforce the foundations of your wall so you can improve your performance in your current role or take the next step up the ladder.
Why wait until your next performance review to plan the next step in your management career and rely others to point out your blind spots? Do some self-reflection now, or complete a behavioural assessment such as the DISC® Profile or MySkills Leadership Potential Indicator to help identify your interpersonal strengths and weaknesses. Ask for feedback on your leadership skills and potential, especially if you feel you want or deserve a promotion and it hasn’t happened yet.
Be honest with yourself, and develop trusting relationships so that others know they can be honest with you. Identify and acknowledge the areas in which you can improve. This is not about making yourself feel weak or miserable; it may be hard to face, but it’s a necessary step to becoming more self-aware and identifying areas you need to strengthen as a manager.
At Leadership Directions, we sometimes see experienced managers sitting alongside new supervisors in our flagship “Supervision and People Management” course, and they almost always learn something. We often receive feedback such as “I got so much out of this course – I only wish I’d done it five years ago when I first became a manager.” It may feel like a humbling thing to do, but there is no shame in going back to fill some basic gaps or cracks in the wall of your leadership skills.
Decide what leadership success means to you, but make sure you include this one word in your definition…
Leadership success is about people. Poor managers may think they are successful because they tick processes and steps off their list of daily accomplishments. For a while, even the people around them may believe they are successful. However, if those daily accomplishments don’t include developing their own people skills and relationships, the ladder of their success is leaning against a very shaky wall.
Never, ever underestimate the importance of people management and people development. Pay attention to the people you work with, the people who work for you, and the people you work for. Understanding people is not something you learn overnight. It requires a commitment over time to learn from what you see and experience along the way, and a willingness to accept and act upon constructive feedback from all levels.
Finally, don’t compare your management career with others who seem to be climbing higher and faster than you. Maybe they are talented or maybe they are just lucky, but if they don’t have their ladder leaning up against the right wall, a fall might be just around the corner. Focus on strengthening the wall your ladder is leaning on and remember: if climbing the ladder to true leadership success was easy, everyone would be doing it.