Overcoming Anxiety in Your First Leadership Role

Nov 13, 2012

by Carol Milano ASME.org

Moving up to your first leadership position brings new challenges and more responsibility. “You’ll have a lot to learn,” says Jeffrey Kahn, a psychiatrist at Weill-Cornell Medical Center, NY.

Your new role could include dealing with productivity, budgets, policy, design, implementation, and being in charge of how your team is doing, he continues. “You might be a little apprehensive about learning how to do all these things,” Kahn acknowledges. “But remember, other people think you can do them or they wouldn’t have given you this leadership role.”

Clarify Your Goals

To begin to lead most effectively, “First clarify your goals,” advises Amy Kohut, director of Cornell University’s Team and Leadership Center. “It’s essential to find out just why, and what, the people you’re leading are involved in. Do your goals and theirs match? If not, that’s a good place to spend your early time as a leader. Clarity is always essential in order to lead,” she stresses.

Some goals are very specific. For example, you might be directing a project with a definite completion date. “If your team is building a robot, you want to know, before beginning the work, exactly what you need that robot to do,” says Kohut. “Will it be aquatic or terrestrial? That impacts how it gets built, and exactly what components will be needed. You’re not looking for wheels if it’s an underwater robot.”

Often, your new role is less defined. “You might simply have ongoing, more general responsibilities,” Kohut points out. Whatever the situation, she recommends starting out with a team visit, to help you learn quickly whether everyone’s objectives are aligned. “People need a clear sense of purpose, of just what you’re all doing together. Talk about that with both your team and your supervisors. Making sure that all arrows are pointing in the same direction is very important.”

Early on, establish your team’s overall purpose. “Invite the group to formulate the plan with you,” says Kohut. “Then, you fit in the pieces – which members of the team will do each task? You want your strategic thinkers to brainstorm, and then the detail folks can work out the specifics. Once there’s a shared vision, the leader is able to observe and help others work to their full potential.”

Angst: The Origins of Anxiety and Depression by Jeffrey P. Kahn.

Seek Feedback

Excellent leaders follow an insightful guideline: “Know yourself, but seek to understand others,” Kohut emphasizes. To build understanding, get some feedback, especially when you’re starting out. “Ask, ‘what am I doing that’s helpful for the team?’ or “Can you suggest a way for me to be more helpful?’ Asking for input is a great way to build a relationship,” she explains.

We each have strengths; new leaders, like everyone they work with, are more naturally inclined to do certain things. Valuing the differences, says Kohut, is as important as following your own instinctive style. “The strongest teams have a variety of styles. Successful leaders bring out the best in each team member. Don’t pretend you can do everything. Rely on other people’s strengths, too, so observe what those are.” You can simply ask, “What’s your greatest strength for this project?” or “What do you love to do?” The reply might be, “I love to analyze details,” or “Interact with people.” Kohut calls this approach, “A very positive way to lead. You see where the skills mesh, so that everyone will be working at their full potential.”

She also recommends knowing your own bottom line. “What is not okay for you? It might be something, for instance, as simple as starting meetings on time. People on a team need a baseline, so state your expectations clearly.” You might say, “Everyone’s time is important here, and it’s disrespectful to show up ten minutes late.”

Often, in engineering, you may need to take charge of a project’s different elements, solve technical problems, and integrate not just the science but also the people components of your team, Kahn notes. “You can learn some of the skills by observing successful leaders in your own company, or from a coach. Reading management books and biographies of outstanding leaders can help, too.”

Kohut concurs. “Continue to grow and learn. For your own professional development, attend workshops or classes. You can ask your bosses to cover tuition for [relevant] courses.”

Surprisingly, feeling a little anxious may be very helpful. “It can motivate you to learn more about the new aspects of your job,” says Kahn, author of Angst: The Origins of Anxiety and Depression (Oxford University Press, 2012). So, “Instead of being overwhelmed by anxiety, keep reminding yourself that someone believes you’re very competent. That can encourage you to work extra hard and become quite successful as a leader,” he adds.

Carol Milano is an independent writer.

You can learn some of the skills by observing successful leaders in your own company, or from a coach.Jeffrey Kahn, psychiatrist, Weill-Cornell Medical Center, NY

You are now leaving ASME.org