Here Comes the Boss

By Hannah Wallace February 28, 2007

If you want some thought-provoking and actionable insights on being a manager, get a copy of this January's issue of Harvard Business Review. The entire focus is "The Tests of a Leader," and it's a treasure-trove of ideas, perspectives, case studies and research regarding success and failure at the top.

Several articles in this special issue resonate, but one in particular made me vividly recall my first management position. "Becoming the Boss" is all about the difficult process of becoming a leader. Its author is Linda Hill, a Harvard Business School professor with heavyweight credentials who has studied new managers for 15 years. She aptly describes the process of becoming a leader as "an arduous, albeit rewarding, journey of continuous learning and self-development." Deftly placing a magnifier on the transition from managing oneself to overseeing a group of individuals, Professor Hill essentially asserts that it's far more challenging than most new managers anticipate. And she suggests that misconceptions or myths often make the conversion to manager tougher than it need be.

"Why New Managers Don't Get It," a highlighted exhibit, provides five aspects of a new manager's role along with their corresponding myths and realities. "(1) Defining characteristic of the new role: myth: authority; reality: interdependency. (2) Source of power: myth: formal authority; reality: everything but (it has to be earned). (3) Desired outcome: myth: control (I must get compliance from my subordinates); reality: commitment (compliance doesn't equal commitment). (4) Managerial focus: myth: managing one-on-one; reality: leading the team. (5) Key challenge: myth: keeping the operation in working order; reality: making changes that will make the team better."

It was a few of these myths and other success obstacles that made me smile regarding my own personal first manager's experience, which wasn't very smile-worthy at the time because I was being brought in as part of an overhaul situation. While learning how to be a leader, discarding myths and dealing with realities, I concurrently had to restaff half the sales department and build my own team.

That job taught me a lot, as has every one since. I've tried to approach each new management role-with its own special environment and circumstances-as a separate challenge from those in the past. Adapting what has previously worked to fit a new situation, as opposed to automatically adopting old, proven methods, has been the objective. And every once in a while there's a brand-new personality or market condition to contend with, making leadership the work in progress it inherently is.

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