There is no steeper learning curve in leadership than your very first frontline leadership position. Perhaps the only comparable experience in terms of needing to hit the ground running and quickly close skills gaps is in parenting. Many first-time management experiences parallel first time parenting. Here are 10 of my favorite similarities:
- There’s no handbook for success. While bookstores are lined with books offering parenting advice and management strategies, many first-timers read those books and struggle to apply the concepts and techniques to their own unique roles and complex circumstances. What every first-time leader/parent wants is a handbook that says “When X happens, do Y.” But nothing is ever that simple, and in the end trial-and-error (or learn and evolve) tends to be the most common approach.
- Before you take your first management position, you have a vision for the kind leader you’ll be. Every first-time parent thinks back on the opinions they had before their first child was born and laughs. “I’ll never let my child play on my iPhone at a restaurant.” The vision is broken when you just want to enjoy one hot meal together without anyone crying. The rules change when you’re on the inside. You learn which battles to choose, and which you must let go to preserve your energy. Frontline workers are often critical of their supervisors because they lack full understanding of the complex demands experienced by frontline and middle management. When an outsider’s perspective turns into an insider’s responsibility, the rules change very quickly.
- When you actually get that first management job, nothing goes the way you thought it would. Self-awareness is one of the most under-rated competencies for leaders. Knowing your strengths and development areas helps you anticipate the leadership experiences that will present challenges. When it comes to conflict resolution or motivating employees, for example, many people overestimate their skills in those areas. For most, these people-management skills take time and experience to develop and are not innate abilities that kick-in when necessary.
- No matter how prepared you are before accepting the role, for the first few months you feel like you’re drowning. Parenting classes and an MBA only take you so far. The learning curve for the first role/child is steep and it feels more like a race than a marathon. Each day is exhausting as you try to adjust to the routine and absorb all of the new information coming at you. The expression “fake it until you make it” is applicable to both parenting and management.
- You feel like everyone else knows more than you do! In my first leadership position, I frequently sat quietly in leadership meetings writing down things I wanted to research later. It was as if everyone else had found that secret handbook for success and I was just left off the distribution list. Many leaders fall into the trap of not asking questions because they believe it will show weakness. They don’t realize that every leader sitting at that same table had the same questions when they started.
- As soon as you get the hang of things, everything changes. There’s nothing more constant in the world of parenting and management than change. Managers and parents must embrace being comfortable with being uncomfortable. As soon as things seem to get easier, the child will hit a new milestone or the team will experience some new challenge that disrupts everything. Everything is a work in progress—always.
- Even though your position comes with power, you feel little control. Being in power and feeling like you’re in control are two different things. Often the title provides much less value than the ability to persuade, influence, build relationships, and earn respect (or, in the case of parenting, bribes).
- There are days/weeks/months when you won’t feel appreciated. Though the roles of leader and parent come with enormous responsibility, not all those efforts will be immediately appreciated. Like the teenager rebelling against a reasonable curfew, employees may resist change and initiatives that you believe will be valuable. In both cases, it takes patience and thick skin to press on when the long-term value isn’t immediately appreciated by everyone.
- It’s a team sport. In parenting, we say “it takes a village” but the best leaders I know have built their own villages as well. The trusted colleagues, predecessors, and mentors that surround a leader provide feedback, encouragement, and support that are needed during tough times.
- The longer you’re in the role, the more you value learning from others. In the beginning, many first-time parents and first-time leaders rebel against others who give unsolicited advice. They want to try their way first and see what happens. The longer someone has experienced the highs and lows of trial-and-error leadership/parenting, the more open they become to learning lessons from more experienced parties.
For both parenting and leadership, it’s the most challenging experiences that provide the greatest rewards. The trick is to persevere and be open to making mistakes and learning along the way.