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Moving into Management: How to Succeed in a New Leadership Role

By Alexander T. MacDonald


You’re probably familiar with the Peter Principle. Named for its progenitor, the educator Lawrence J. Peter, it theorizes that people are chosen for their performance in the jobs they have, not for the jobs they’re being promoted into. It’s a theory that haunts every new leader, inside and outside law offices. Whether you’re a new supervisory attorney or a new junior partner, you’re liable to feel the pressure of performing at your usual level while learning a completely new job. You might even lie awake at night, wondering whether you can do it.


Don’t worry: you can. No, not everyone is a born leader, just like not everyone is born with perfect teeth or the ability to dunk a basketball. But unlike perfect teeth and dunking ability, you can learn to be a leader. And that learning process doesn’t have to take years. Here are a few tips to speed you along your way.


Act like a leader—even when you don’t feel like one. Nobody feels like a leader at first. By definition, new leaders don’t have experience leading people. But even if you don’t feel like a leader—even if doing the things you associate with “leadership” feel awkward—you have to do them. That’s the only way you’ll get comfortable in your new role.


The first thing you have to understand about your new role is that it’s different. Like most people, you probably got promoted because you were good at your old job. You were a good individual contributor: you wrote well, you researched thoroughly, you got along with your colleagues. But that’s not what the organization needs from you now. You won’t be doing much of that stuff yourself anymore; you’ll be making sure other people do it as well as you did. So you’ll have to take a different approach. You’ll need a new mindset. And the sooner you realize that, the better.


The biggest mistake new leaders make is trying to do too much themselves. That’s what they know. They take on all the hard projects, they micromanage their team, and they work way too many hours. But they’re just spinning their wheels. Eventually, they either realize they need to take a different approach or they burn out.


Don’t let that be you. Delegate tasks. Coach your subordinates. Make them feel like key players, not bench jockeys. People can tell when you trust them. When you do, they reward you with more thoughtful, engaged work. And when they do good work (or even when they don’t), you have to tell them.


Get to know your staff. Which brings us to the second biggest mistake new leaders make: not communicating enough. Most new leaders understand that they need to keep their teams informed. They remember how they felt when they were kept in the dark, and they’re usually pretty good about passing on information. What they don’t always understand is that communication is a two-way street. In fact, the most important part of communication is what your team tells you. You need to know what’s going on with your subordinates—whether they’re happy, how their work is going, whether they need any help. And you can only do that by listening.


Listening will do two things for you: it will help you collect useful information, and it will show your subordinates that your care about their input. People work harder for you when you value their opinions. And they won’t know you value their opinions unless you take the time to listen and consider what they have to say. They’ll appreciate the respect you show them, even if you don’t always accept their suggestions.


Develop your network. Just as important as your relationship with your team is your relationship with your peers. When your subordinates need to connect with someone in another part of the organization, or another organization entirely, they’ll look to you. Your value to them will lie in how wide and how diverse your peer network is. The old truism—it’s not what you know, it’s who you know—is a truism for a reason: it’s true. So meet people, make friends, do people favors. In the long run, it will make you a better leader and more valuable to your team.


It will also make you more valuable to your bosses. Keep in mind, your superiors will evaluate you differently now that you’re in a leadership role. They’ll expect you to be the face of your team; they’ll need you to be the point person with external partners and clients. And they’ll expect you to know whom to call when problems arise. What they don’t expect is that you’ll call them every time. High-level managers are busy people, and they don’t want every problem to land on their desks. So to the extent you can keep problems from reaching them, do it. And the best way to do that is to develop your own connections.


Alexander T. MacDonald is a 2012 graduate of the William & Mary Law School and currently works as the acting Chief Counsel of Employment Law in the Office of the General Counsel for the U.S. Postal Service. He is also Editor-in-Chief of the Practice Tips Series and Executive Editor of Docket Call. He can be reached at