Mark Frey is the president of Cambridge Global Payments.
Almost a year ago, I had the honour of taking the helm of Cambridge Global Payments. After spending more than seven years with the company, including more than three years as chief operating officer, I found myself feeling prepared and confident for this next step. I was ready to take on this new challenge because I had developed a plan and had been afforded an opportunity to build a coalition of people within the company who supported my vision and believed in my leadership.
As I look back on my first months as president, and the years I spent preparing for the role, I believe there are four key steps to building a foundation of trust when transitioning into a leadership position, whether it’s your first time in management or you’re taking the next step in your career.
Earn the right to lead
My first piece of advice to anyone striving for a management position is to not wait until you’ve been granted the title. This goes for all managers, but especially those stepping into leadership positions for the first time. Think of it as laying the foundation every day, so that when the time comes your new team understands you’ve earned the role and the mandate to lead – the title alone won’t earn their respect. Contrary to popular belief, you work for your team members as much as they work for you. You have a responsibility to them: to protect them when they need it, be that from unrealistic expectations, negative situations in the workplace and sometimes even from customers. It’s a tough job that requires strong interpersonal skills that becomes progressively more challenging as you ascend the corporate ladder.
You don’t always need to have the answer
Managers often feel the need to have a definitive answer to every question, and that isn’t realistic or even advisable. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know, but let me come back to you." If you’re unsure, admit it. If you need time to think about it, own that. Take the time to gather perspectives, find the right information and make the best decision given the circumstance. By leveraging your team to help inform your decision, you’re more likely to have their buy-in with respect to the initiative in question. Even if the ultimate decision runs counter to their view, your team will appreciate the process and the fact that they were involved in formulating the plan. And if I can offer a tip to managers: When you’re leading a meeting, be the last to speak and let everyone else share their opinion first. A more junior employee may have a perfect solution that you haven’t considered, but it’s going to be difficult for them to stand up and disagree with their boss in front of their co-workers.
Don’t make decisions you can’t defend openly
This is a simple, foundational principle that you should follow both inside and outside of the workplace. While your team might not always like your decision, you will increase their engagement when they can understand the rationale. The ideology of “I’m the boss, I don’t have to defend myself” is not an effective strategy for being a respected leader. You need to own your decisions and be accountable for the results while being mindful of the impact on personnel.
Traditional command and control philosophies drive short-term results, but ultimately aren’t sustainable
Many managers favour direction over collaboration and use competition and tension among their team as a strategy to drive results. This strategy is often used in sports, when a new coach will join a team and their approach is to come in with aggression – to push the team to their limits in the hope of making them grow. In my personal experience, sustained individual and group performance is optimized when team members are engaged, supported and feel as though they are stakeholders in the organizational vision. While they should be challenged, they should also be empowered. Encourage them to work hard, but don’t make them feel as though they are constantly being measured against the people around them. People don’t do their best work when they are constantly looking over their shoulders or are afraid to take risks and make mistakes.
Earlier in my career, I worked with an executive who I would sit and share my ideas with. He didn’t always agree with my suggestions, but he’d listen, share his concern, and then give me the space I needed to test my philosophies and business tactics. My strategies didn’t always work as I hoped, but we both ended up learning together through the process. After all, if you succeed 100 per cent of the time, you probably aren’t taking enough risks both as a leader or as an individual contributor.
Ultimately, being a leader requires flexibility and respect for your team. As Nelson Mandela wisely suggested, “lead from the back – and let others believe they are in front.” Lay the groundwork to build strong interpersonal relationships, encourage the people around you to try new things, ensure they feel supported even when they fail, and focus on long-term sustainability over short-term results to drive an organization that will execute your vision.
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