Are you a first time leader? How are you feeling right now?

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Becoming a leader for the first time is an amazing achievement. But sometimes it can feel overwhelming and even terrifying. That’s all just part of the learning experience. Remember that even the best actors, musicians and sports stars still feel butterflies in their stomachs before they walk out onto the stage, court, or field and into the spotlight.

This is your moment to shine. But it’s also important to understand the psychological journey you’re about to embark on, too.

Seriously, how are you feeling right now?

Rest assured, you are not the first new manager to feel like this. In fact, every first-time leader experiences this feeling as they step into their new role.

Here’s a quick exercise for you.

Grab a blank sheet of paper, turn it horizontally, and draw a straight line along the middle of the page. Then mark five points along the ‘axis’ from left to right, and label each of these ‘milestones’ as follows:

  1. Unconsciously incompetent
  2. Consciously incompetent
  3. Consciously competent
  4. Unconsciously competent
  5. [Subconsciously competent]

Give your artistic masterpiece a title – ‘The New Leader Competency Continuum’.

Now let’s flesh this out for you in more detail.

1: Unconsciously incompetent

This stage represents the very early days of your leadership career when you literally don’t know what you don’t know. For some people this stage might even feel a bit ‘cruisy’.

Sure, you’ve had managers in the past and you may have decided what you liked or disliked about their various leadership styles. You may have worked with your colleagues for a while, but suddenly you’re their boss. But let’s face it (and sorry to be blunt here), when it comes to managing a team of people, you’re literally completely unaware.

But that’s nowhere near as daunting as stage 2 on the continuum.

2: Consciously incompetent

It will then quickly become apparent just how much you don’t know about leading people. Or more realistically, just how much you’re expected to know … and just how quickly you’re expected to pick it all up.

From now on you won’t be able to simply rely on the same skills that got you this far. Leadership requires a completely different skillset. 

It’s not uncommon for any new leaders to panic at this point. But please don’t stress out too much. Nobody is expecting you to pick it all up overnight. After all, when it comes to managing people for the first time, there’s really no such thing as ‘hitting the ground running’.

It’s during this phase where you may start to feel uncertain, lose confidence, or even start to doubt your own ability to meet the organisation’s expectations of you.

This is why it’s a good idea to find a buddy internally, a mentor who has been in the same shoes as you, or even better still, an experienced leadership coach to accompany you along the way.

3: Consciously competent

You know you’ve progressed to this next stage along the competency continuum when you suddenly become aware just how much you know.

In terms of the dynamics of your team members, you’ve got a good idea of “who’s who in the zoo”; the internal management requirements are all starting to make sense; you’ve found your groove when it comes to your one-to-one catch ups and team meetings; you may even feel like you’ve had some early wins as leader.

Above all, if you make a mistake, or if you’re unsure of something, you know who to ask, where to look, or you can quickly discover a way to find the solution yourself.

‘Consciously competent’ feels good.

4: Unconsciously competent

Then one day you just wake up and it all feels like second nature to you.

You’re no longer feeling overwhelmed; you can swap hats seamlessly between meeting your own on-the-job deliverables and leading your team; you go into your weekly catch ups with your team members well-prepared; present in a leadership meeting confidently; or you might even be asked to take the lead on an important project.

You’re “cooking with gas”.

For many new leaders, it can take 6, 9 or even 12 months to reach this point, so please don’t put too much pressure on yourself.

5: Subconsciously competent

This point along the competency continuum probably doesn’t really apply to first time leaders. But for any new manager, ‘subconsciously competent’ is definitely something to aspire to.

At some point down the track you might find yourself waking up in the middle of the night remembering a challenging conversation you had a year earlier that has a very similar backstory to a situation you know you have to deal with tomorrow; you might be asked to provide some leadership tips for a blog of journal article; you may be invited to present at a conference; you might even be asked to become a coach or mentor yourself; and one day you might even see individuals that you previous led displaying leadership traits that they observed in you.

It’s a very nice feeling.

Whether you keep a copy of your competency continuum in a drawer or take a photo of it and save it somewhere that you can quickly come back to is entirely up to you. But it’s important that every now and then you pause and recognise where you are at. You may even want to highlight what stage you feel you are at when you have that ‘aha’ moment and realise that you are in fact progressing along the axis.

Please note that it’s not uncommon for a first-time leader to slip back to the left. This could happen (most commonly from stage 3 back to stage 2) if, for example, you have a heated discussion with one of your team members as part of one of your first performance reviews, or when you are faced with your first resignation.

It’s also not uncommon for new managers to be at different stages along the competency continuum, even if you were all promoted at the same time. There is no prescribed timing as to when anyone should progress from one stage to the next. So technically the milestones along the axis on your drawing didn’t necessarily need to be equally spaced. 

What stage you are at doesn’t really matter, as long as you feel as though you can genuinely celebrate your progression as you move along the timeline to the right.

As we said, if you’re looking for a coach to accompany you along your leadership journey and to help you reach your full potential, a confidant with whom you can share the highs and lows, you can reach out to hellomonday at any time.

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