You’ve been promoted to a leadership position — congratulations! Or maybe not. Maybe you aimed for this position of authority and now that you have it, you’re trying to figure out how to execute. Or perhaps you’re like me, thrust into a leadership position by surprise, and feel unprepared for the challenge. Either way, your first thoughts might be: What did the last successful leader do? What would the leader I most admire do? What do the experts suggest? For me, it was: What would my mother do?
My mother, the founder and CEO of BETAH Associates, was a dynamic force in business with a stellar reputation with staff, partners and clients. She was the previous leader and the leader I admired most. I worked in the company as a communications director and watched her wheel and deal with the best of them yet move with immense grace and integrity. Early on, she and I agreed that I would not take over the business. I enjoyed the creative role I held and had no desire to run a government contracting firm. When she passed away after a long-fought battle with cancer, I felt compelled to keep the doors open — I believed in the business, mission, vision and the clients and communities we impacted. I stepped into my mother’s position blindly, feeling woefully unprepared. I didn’t know the first thing about business operations or leadership.
Nothing could prepare me for the loss of my mother, and nothing prepared me to become a sudden CEO. So, I did what many new leaders do: I adopted her leadership style. For the first three years, I tried to act like her, make decisions like her, think like her. To be her. Whenever a decision needed to be made, I would ask, “What would Wilhelmina do?” I was trying to fill her shoes.
While it served me well in the beginning, at the end of the day, it nearly killed me. Literally. I was making myself sick with fear of getting a decision wrong. I placed unrealistic expectations on myself. I spent many long days and sleepless nights grappling with decisions I faced, trying to figure out how my mom would have responded to a situation or challenge. It got to the point where I was almost paralyzed by the inability to make decisions.
My “aha” moment came one day in my office. The company needed to right-size, and some difficult decisions had to be made, one of which was changing office locations. After my mother’s passing, the company remained in the same location. I sat in the very same chair she did, behind the same desk in the same office. It took years before I was able to call it mine. And now, I had to decide whether I should move to a more affordable office space or, for appearance’s sake, continue to burn through precious dollars that could be put to better use. I again quickly resorted to, “What would Wilhelmina do?” and a quiet voice from within quietly countered. “Michelle, what do you think the best decision is, what do you want to do? You can’t keep trying to fill your mother’s shoes. If you do, you’re never going to be able to stand on your own.” It was at that moment that I finally got it. I had my own heels to wear.
Sure, it was okay to look upon the wisdom and previous decisions that my mom made in business because she was all that and more. But I had to own the decisions I was faced with for the company. I had to rise up and be confident in the position that I was placed in and trust my knowledge, skills and instincts. I had to stop trying to walk in my mother’s heels and begin to walk in my own. And that’s what I did. In the beginning, it wasn’t pretty and it definitively wasn’t graceful, but I began to make decisions and not look back. I interacted with the staff and clients in my own way and slowly became comfortable and confident.
Whether you’ve sought out your leadership position or assumed a position because someone left who was fabulous and beloved, you may feel pressure to be like them. I want to encourage you to stop! You have your own shoes to wear. You just have to learn to walk in them with confidence.
Here are a few tips that may help:
1. You are it. So be it. When things get tough and you start second-guessing yourself and wondering what in the world you’re doing, resist the temptation to run screaming from the building. You were placed in the position of leadership for a reason; embrace your new role.
2. You’re not supposed to know it all. Often as leaders, we mistakenly think we’re supposed to have it all figured out. That’s unrealistic. Sometimes we need to engage people who have expertise and skills complementary to our own. In other words, it’s okay to ask for help.
3. Surround yourself with gladiators. Every leader needs internal and external support to see around corners they might miss. A senior management team or individual within the business that you can rely on is critical, as well as having external mentors to advise and encourage you in moments of doubt and uncertainty.
4. Find your own leadership style and strut your stuff. Much like trying on a new pair of shoes, understand that some styles aren’t right for you. They might be too restrictive or uncomfortable, while others may be too big, and you find yourself off balance. It may take time to identify the best fit for you, but when you do, you’ll feel comfortable and confident. All you must do next is put one foot in front of the other and strut your stuff.
Whatever leadership style you choose, the most important thing to remember is that you have your own heels to wear.