Are you an accidental leader?

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Many executives now leading major organizations did not set out on a leadership route. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, designers - technical excellence in one discipline advanced them through their organizations until one day, they find themselves at its summit. Nothing has prepared them for this new role; they often lack training and leadership experience. Some won't mind: They will regard their ascent as a natural reward for their talent and, victims of hubris, they may well fail. The smarter ones will recognize that they're in a bind: Highly visible, with much expected of them in a role where they feel uncertain and unprepared. If this is where you find yourself, what should you do?

1. Recognize that this is normal. You are not alone: Many hospitals are run by doctors for whom surgical skill was poor management training. Many medical schools are led by outstanding lab scientists who themselves can't see any correlation between excellent experiment design and managing thousands of people. Remember that you have a great capacity to learn - and lead on it.

2. Ask for help. Ask for or find leadership training away from your organization. You may have a lot to learn but you don't have to broadcast your insecurity. Find a strong, appropriate, intense and condensed leadership program that will provide some context and some tools to help you re-frame your job, your talents and your expectations.

3. Assemble a group of external advisors. No organization ever will - or can - provide you with the network of advice you will need. And everyone inside the organization has an agenda - not because they're malign but because they're your colleagues with their own hopes, dreams and goals. You have to find what Saj-Nicole Joni calls "a third opinion": A thinking partner who has only your best interests in mind. There will be many problems and questions along the way that you need to explore with complete intellectual freedom and you can't do that alone or with vested interests.

4. Get feedback. If you haven't already had 360 degree feedback, you need it now. It's impossible for any individual to appreciate how their performance plays to the crowd. Just because you're hitting your milestones and people are smiling doesn't mean a thing.

5. Be prepared for mistakes. Own up to them quickly not with grandiose mea culpas but with clearly articulated learning. Every mistake teaches you something: Make sure you recognize what has been learned and share that.

6. Treasure the people who tell you the truth. These people are much harder to find than you might imagine. Moreover, when you become the boss, past colleagues change how they think about you. The frank peers may not be quite so blunt any more, now you're in charge - but try to convince them that that is what you need.

7. Sleep well. When you're tired the first thing that goes is the ability to think critically. You need this more than ever. So stop being heroic and working insane hours. Now you're at the top, it is quality not quantity that counts.

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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