Working Identity: Forget Everything You Think Makes You Special

For the moment, let’s accept that Marshall Goldsmith’s famous phrase – what got you here, won’t get you there – is true.

The Leaders Journey PDF

Clients often invite Clearwater Consulting to help them identify the next rung of talent who is ready to shift up the leadership ladder, and to build programs that help them do just that. Over the years we have identified three significant shifts in roles that require parallel shifts in mindset and practice as part of the leader’s journey:  

  • the shift from individual contributor as an expert in a particular technology, process or content to the role of team lead requiring the management of multiple experts
  • the shift from team lead to functional lead requiring greater cross-functional influence for impact 
  • and, finally, the shift from functional lead to enterprise lead, requiring the broadest view of all.

So, take a moment to answer the question: Wherever you are today, what got you here?

Most likely it was being expert about a certain set of information, a particular process, or more broadly, a field or industry. And that, oddly enough, is what we have found to be the greatest deterrent to getting “there”: the belief that I am my expertise. That’s my working identity and I’m loathe to give it up. It’s what I know, what I’m good at, what I’m recognized for achieving.

For now, let’s focus on that first pivotal shift: from individual contributor to team leader. For the first-time team leader, releasing the identity of I’m the Expert can be excruciating – it’s truly who we think we are, it is our identity, it is our value to the company. At least that’s our perception. In the midst of needing to disengage from that narrow lens, we also scramble to embrace the team leadership role that requires a whole host of new skills: building trust within a team, encouraging others in their development, facilitating debates, understanding when to direct, when to delegate, when to coach. We are no longer just getting our work done, we’re helping others find the best ways to get their work done.  

The excitement of stepping up and into a more demanding job requires that we release the very core of who we think we are. It can be painful. The initial challenges are often in learning to delegate – not just what and when, but how, and to whom. That need for the project to be handled the way we did is palpable. There is ongoing temptation to delegate, and then, alas, when the project does not proceed the way we (the Expert) would have handled it, we snatch it back and handle it ourselves, deflating the staff and overburdening ourselves. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

So what skills help us cross the chasm from Individual Contributor to Team Lead? A willingness to admit I do not always have the answer, and a desire to continuously learn. Building self-awareness and awareness of others through any kind of diagnostic that reveals my patterns to me is essential and there are many tools available: DiSC work style, Hogan, Birkman, or whatever your organization uses for insight. The other tool is a 360-degree feedback assessment, which helps the individual start to understand how others see him or her, prompts the continuous learning journey around Who Am I and pushes that forward into the question How do I choose now to show up?

Truthfully these questions nip at our heels all along the journey and wise leaders pay attention to them at every stage, from Team Lead to Functional Lead, from Functional Lead to Enterprise Lead. The lens broadens, the mindset expands. Understanding our evolving patterns of responding, synthesizing, reaching out, exploring, judging, embracing is key to getting “there”, wherever that is.  

Clearwater would love to help your organization along the journey to develop next generation leaders and strengthen the top-tier talent you already have. Reach out if you would like a complimentary Whiteboard Strategy Session to explore what’s possible. (404) 634-4332