How to prepare for your first leadership position |

How to prepare for your first leadership position

By Laura L

Updated Updated

As the director of the world’s first business school focused on health and healthcare, UCL Global Business School for Health, and with a background as a health and international development economist, Professor Nora Colton has a wealth of experience in leadership.  

“I think it’s important to distinguish that leadership is different to management, first of all,” Professor Colton said. “In the business education world, you hear that so often it sounds cliché, but it really is different and needs to be emphasised.  

“What’s often most challenging for people when they come into a leadership role is that they’ve usually got there through management, working at a more operational level. Leadership moves away from the day-to-day operations to focus on strategic thinking. It’s more about influence and persuasion. That transition can be difficult for people to make.” 

Becoming a dean of a top-ranked business school was never on the cards for Professor Sankar Sivarajah, dean of the University of Bradford School of Management – one of the oldest business schools in the UK. His passion was always in business, but through his studies he found a love for technology and moved towards academia, experiencing his first leadership role as a head of department in business analytics.  

Professor Sivarajah said: “Being a good leader is easier said than done for anyone, so having good mentors, an open mindset and a willingness to keep learning are key to your success.” spoke to Professor Colton and Professor Sivarajah for their top tips on what makes a successful leader and how to prepare for your first leadership position. 

What are the key skills and qualities in a successful leader? 

“The world that we live in today is very project- and initiative-driven,” said Professor Colton. “So, I think one of the most critical skills that anyone who wants to be a leader in an organisation should start to acquire is teamwork.  

“Being able to be a good team leader, bringing people together and getting them to work together, particularly cross-functional teams or diverse teams, is a valuable skill in the workplace. Many of the challenges that we face today – both at an organisational level and within society – take a multidisciplinary perspective. It's about harnessing people’s unique perspectives to drive forward solutions.” 

For Professor Sivarajah, a professor in technology management and circular economy, the top skills that come to mind are around versatility and adaptability. He said: “There are many different types of leaders and it’s important to have a balanced mix of people who can bring varying skills and approaches to the workplace. However, it’s also important that leaders can be versatile themselves and adapt their skills and approaches to different contexts and challenges. 

“It’s also about vision and being able to see the big picture clearly, but also developing strong storytelling skills to communicate that vision clearly to other stakeholders and workers within the company. It’s about being able to resonate with people to gain a following and make change,” he said.  

How do I prepare for my first leadership position? 

The steps you take towards your first leadership position can be as important as what you do when you get there. According to Professor Colton and Professor Sivarajah, there are a few key things you should be working on in your development.  

Widen your perspective 

“When you start to move up into leadership roles, you need to start thinking more about the organisation as a whole and less about your individual place in it,” said Professor Colton.  

“One of the ways that you can prepare to be a strategic leader is by taking an interest in your organisation beyond your own department or your own functional area. Really challenge yourself to find out how other areas work, how different systems work, how different units are interrelated. How do they work together? What is the impact of one area of business on another?” 

Gain a 360° view of yourself 

“It’s important to gain a clear view of how other people see you, how they find working with you and any challenges they find,” said Professor Sivarajah.  

“Find out where your blind spots are and understand whether you are winning the hearts and minds of other people, or whether you’re simply managing and micro-managing. That’s a great measurement of where you’re currently at as a leader and how you need to grow.” 

Learn small lessons every day 

Professor Colton added: “People say you often learn more from your failures than your successes, but that doesn't mean that it must be a catastrophic failure. It can be learning from the little things each day, like how you manage relationships and projects.” 

“You won’t be perfect at anything,” said Professor Sivarajah. “That’s where the building and learning comes in. Over time, you’ll become a better leader so seize the opportunity to start learning.”  

Create your manifesto 

In his own leadership preparation, Professor Sivarajah chose to focus on the three key strengths and characteristics that define him as a strong leader, rather than giving agency to his weaknesses. 

He said: “What are three genuine characteristics or strengths that you want to build your reputation on as a leader? I’m good at seeing the big picture. I can see the impact that a decision will have and I can analyse whether an idea is achievable. If you can enhance those three characteristics and build that manifesto of who you are as a leader, you can be clear about what you bring to the table.” 

Practise upward management 

Professor Sivarajah said: “In a managerial role, you will be used to downward line management where you ask your team to work on specific tasks and to report back to you.  

“In leadership, there are bigger influential responsibilities on top of line management that include persuading upwards and sideways. You need good diplomacy skills and negotiation skills to do that well and build trust around you.” 

Consider a zigzag career  

Depending on your field, it may be possible to create a career that crosses various roles and areas. It’s what Professor Colton calls a ‘zigzag career’. 

She said: “Think about how you can move into different parts of your organisation and take opportunities to work on short-term assignments or placements in other areas. It’s about widening your perspective and gaining broader knowledge about leadership and management across the business. 

“Becoming a leader is not like a light switch. It’s not something you can turn on and off. It’s something people gravitate towards throughout their lives as they gain a cumulation of experiences and leadership skills. Not all people are positional leaders. You might be a leader and not in an official leadership role, but you’re leading all the same. There are many different types of leadership and some of the best leaders don’t have official positions.” 

What should I expect from my first leadership role? 

“There is an operational vs strategic balance in leadership. You need to have the confidence in your team and be able to trust them to do what they need to do, but know when to step in and say, ‘OK this isn’t going in the right direction’ and set them on the right path,” said Professor Sivarajah.  

“You want things to be done, delivered and implemented so you need to also be a finisher. I think the biggest challenge is creating that balance of when to step in or step aside.” 

He added: “There is also a brutality needed in blocking out your time, while still being available for your team to reach out if they need to. Time is going to be the biggest factor to contend with in a leadership role and being able to be present with each task while having the space to sit back and consider the right direction. 

One of the greatest lessons Professor Colton has learned in her career is that being a leader does not mean you know everything. “It’s cliché but often in your first leadership role, you come in and think you understand everything, but as you grow in your capacity and performance, you realise just how much you don’t know. That’s a good thing,” she said.  

“Sometimes new leaders can launch straight into new initiatives without taking the time to acquire the right knowledge, to listen and reflect before acting. It can lead to fatigue, uncertainty and distrust in your team, so it’s important to learn how to listen to your people before making decisions. 

“A lot of learning within a new leadership position is around learning to manage yourself. Our personal values may not always align with our organisational values, so it’s crucial to be self-aware and reflective enough to see where your personal values are influencing your work and when it is appropriate for them to do so and to not indulge yourself at the expense of the business or your staff. In fact, I think managing yourself is the most important thing you need as a leader.” 

This article was originally published in . It was last updated in

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