Three Ways to Transition from Doing to Leading

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It’s possibly the toughest transition you’ll make in your career: the shift from doing to leading.

If you’ve made a name for yourself as a rock star high performer and are recognized as a high-potential emerging leader, the day will soon come when you’ll have to stop doing everything you’re great at and discard the strengths that got you to where you are today  to become an effective leader.

You see, those skills—things like your subject matter expertise, your “just do it” track record of execution, and your ability to take a task and run with it without close supervision—can actually derail you as a manager if you keep trying to accomplish things the way you’ve always done them.

As a leader, it’s no longer your responsibility to “do.” It’s your job to help others do the tasks  —and do them well. Leading and doing are polar opposites, and it can be hard to “switch hit” and start swinging in the other direction—but swing you must if you’re ever to be more than just a doer.

Even if you’re not in a management position yet, you can start learning this skill. To give you a head start, here are three things you can learn—and apply—immediately about the transition from doing to leading:

1. Become an Ex-Specialist and a Well-Rounded Generalist

Leading is all about marshaling your resources and stepping out of your comfort zone. Lisa Walsh, vice president at PepsiCo Sales, says, “You’ve probably built success as a specialist who is adept at knowing your topic or your area of the business.  It’s one of the reasons you’ve gotten promoted  . But as you go higher, you will be valued for understanding the business and how various pieces of the business integrate into the whole.”

So, those company-wide email updates that you’ve been ignoring? It’s time to stop hitting delete and start mining them for information that can contribute to your knowledge of what’s going on outside your department. In addition,  start networking outside your team  , looking for people like yourself who are subject matter experts trying to broaden their exposure to other areas of the business. As you begin to trade knowledge, you’ll become each others’ go-to people.

If you work in finance, for instance, recruit some smart new friends in research, engineering, manufacturing, and marketing. Then, you won’t only have an expert contact in each of those areas, but by collaborating with them, you’ll begin to learn that knowledge yourself and become more well-rounded within the company.

2. Own Your Failures, Not Your Successes

Until now, you’ve probably  made a point of showcasing your accomplishments and promoting your value  up the chain of command. It’s how you got recognized as a high-potential emerging leader in the first place. Well, get ready for that to change. In the transition from doing to leading, you’ll have to re-evaluate how you deal with successes and failures.

Walsh says, “Most of us work on high-powered teams, but every team needs a leader. You have to be willing to put yourself out there, take risks, and take responsibility for both successes and failures. That’s what makes a great leader.”

The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “When the best leader’s work is done, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’” To be a great leader, you’ll need to get in the habit of letting your team own the wins,  while you assume responsibility for risks and failures  .

According to a CFO with Bank of America, true leaders are humble enough to apologize publicly and gloat privately. “You don’t see leaders bragging about their success,” she says. “They talk about their team and their team’s contributions. And if they feel really good about themselves, they boast at home or with a close friend, but not publicly.” What’s more, a leader will apologize and  take accountability for his or her actions when things go wrong  .

So, how can up-and-coming leaders display this skill, even if they’re not in a leadership role yet? Next time a group you’ve worked with achieves a big win, publicly acknowledge each individual for his or her effort. And next time the team suffers a setback, don’t play the blame game. Instead, raise your hand to be the one to deliver the bad news to management, along with a plan for how the team can move forward.

3. Turn Your To-Do List Into a To-Lead List

The best way to learn leadership skills is not to wait until you are promoted, but to take on a management challenge first, regardless of whether you’re in a supervisory position.

Your challenge is this: Identify a task or a project that is currently on your to-do list, such as an assignment at work or, if there’s nothing suitable on-site, a project outside of work, such as a charitable drive or a professional association event. Then,  try to achieve the end result by leading  —not doing—the work.

For example, if you work in HR, you might be the go-to person to stay up late finessing the PowerPoint deck the night before a big presentation to the executive team. But is this something you could accomplish by leading someone else on the team, rather than doing the work yourself? Those are the questions you’ll find yourself answering in a leadership position—questions you can practice answering now.

To do this well at work, you’ll need to get to know your peers,  the things that motivate them  , and their career aspirations. And let your manager know that you’re looking for ways to practice your people management and project leadership skills. (To be clear: This is  not  about mindlessly pushing your workload off onto others!)

Get clear on the goal or end result of the project, share your goal with your manager, and offer to include colleagues who would be excited to get involved. Tie your request to your colleagues to something that you know would benefit them, like “It’s not just another presentation; we have the opportunity to change the way our company handles flex working” or “Here’s an opportunity to show off your graphic design skills.” They key to success is to make it personal and meaningful.

Don’t tell them what to do, but work together to create clear goals, expectations, and accountability by asking questions like “How will we measure success?” “What steps do we need to take to make that happen?” “How will we hold ourselves accountable?” and “How will we celebrate when we achieve this?” By shifting the focus away from yourself and onto a team member, you’ll  learn the valuable art of leadership  while still working one-on-one with a trusted collaborator.

So there you have it: To make the leap from employee to leader, move from specialist to generalist, let the team own the wins while you own the failures, and turn your to-do list into a to-lead list.

In short, don’t just do it—lead it!

This article was first published at The Muse.

Jo Miller

A leading authority on women’s leadership, Jo Miller is a sought-after, dynamic, and engaging speaker, delivering more than 70 speaking presentations annually to audiences of up to 1,200 women. Her expertise lies in helping women lead, climb, and thrive in their corporate careers. Jo has traveled widely in Europe, North America, Asia Pacific, and the Middle East to deliver keynotes and teach workshops for women’s leadership conferences, women’s professional associations, and Fortune 1000 corporate women’s initiatives. Jo is founding editor of Learn more about her speaking engagements at and follow @Jo_Miller on Twitter.


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