Advice for First-Level Leaders


Most of us have had the experience of moving from being a member of a team to leading a team. There’s a big difference between being an individual contributor (someone who makes the widgets) and being the one who leads a team of individual contributors. My first experience with that was when I was a teenager. For a few summers, I had worked with a group of other teens. We were a good team that worked and played hard together. At one point, I was promoted to a leader of that team. I didn’t understand how my role would be different, and I really didn’t understand why the others didn’t respect my new authority. What is the difference? Why can it be so hard to make this shift?

Several years later, when I was in one of my first “real jobs” after college, I had a similar experience. I was a member of a team whose work was very technical in nature. We were good at what we did and we enjoyed and celebrated that fact. Nevertheless, I realized that with certain functional and organizational strategies we could provide much better service. So, the upper management made me a supervisor of the team and I began to make those changes. Unfortunately, management, my teammates, and I did not understand the functional and relational implications. I didn’t handle this transition well and today I understand why some of my teammates did not either.

One of the biggest mistakes made in organizations today is to promote someone into leadership position because of their technical skills. “John has demonstrated excellent engineering skills. Let’s promote him to a director position.” This is very common, but it’s akin to saying, “Because John knows how to build implantable heart pacemakers, let’s make him a surgeon.” The logic is ridiculous, but we do it all the time.

Just because someone is good with numbers, or programming code, or editing, or graphic design, or network security, or teaching, or…you name it, does not mean they will be good at leading others who do the same work.


Because what’s important for effectively doing activity X often has little to do with effectively leading people who do activity X.

The following is an intended oversimplification of the issue—I’m trying to draw ultra-clear contrasts, but here are three differences between doing the work and leading people doing the work.


On the front line, what you value is producing an excellent product or service.

When leading people, what you value is developing a strong team of people who value producing an excellent product or service.


On the front line, what you think about is the technical details of your work.

When leading people, what you think about is increasing the capacity and proficiency of people doing the work and the relationships of them and your team to other teams.


On the front line, what you do is the work.

When leading people, what you do is coach, support, and serve your team so that they can do the work.

Note that in each case, the focus shifts from the work to the people.

Note, too, that navigating this transition is important not only to first-level leadership, for also for each subsequent change of leadership level: from individual contributor to first-level supervisor, from supervisor to manager of supervisors, from manager to department head or director, and so on. In each case, the focus of heart, head, and hands will shift.

What you value, what you think about, and what you do will shift in every transition to a larger sphere of influence.

Take a moment to assess how you’re doing with the heart, head, and hands of your work. Do you have the right focus in each?

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.

Photo by Modestas Urbonas. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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