Ryan Hawk is the host of one of the most popular management and leadership podcasts in the world called, The Learning Leader Show. The show was chosen by Apple Podcasts as an “all time bestseller” in 2020 and it has received acclaim from Forbes and Inc. Magazine.
He is also the author of Welcome to Management: How to Grow From Top Performer to Excellent Leader. It was named one of the 100 Best Management books of all time by Book Authority and it was named the best leadership book of 2020 by Forbes.
You can watch the video of our full conversation below or just listen to the audio version as a podcast. If you want more content like this you can subscribe to my Youtube channel.
Contrary to popular belief, top performers do not always make the best leaders.
At the beginning of his career Ryan was in sales making cold calls for LexisNexis, and he was very successful at it. Because he was a top performer he was promoted several times and ultimately he moved to a sister company and became the VP of North America. Over his time as a leader he learned a lot and was able to gain the skills needed to lead, but thinking back to his first management role, Ryan says he wasn’t prepared for it.
Being a top performer does not mean that you are a great leader. But so many companies still rely on this benchmark alone when promoting people to leadership roles.
As Ryan shares, “the funny part about it is there’s very little of what you did as an individual contributor that actually translates to you being a good coach or manager of a team of others doing that. The skill sets are just completely different. And I understand why you look towards the top performer because basically the thought process is well, they were really good, so they probably have earned some respect from their peers. Let’s elevate them and then tell them okay, tell everybody else exactly what you did so that you can create a bunch of clones essentially. So I get that that’s why it happens. However, there are a lot of superstar performers that are horrible coaches.”
Ryan was able to learn from hands on experience and ultimately he decided to create his own sort of leadership PhD in the form of one on one conversations with leaders from all walks of life. This turned into his podcast, The Learning Leader, which he still hosts today. He interviews CEOs, athletes, authors, professors, and many others who have experience in leadership in order to help listeners continuously learn, grow, and improve.
The difference between a top performer and a leader
Most of us have had a teacher at some point in our lives who was extremely smart and knew their subject very well, but had a hard time teaching it to others. They make what they do look easy, but as soon as someone has a question they struggle to help that person truly understand.
As Ryan shares this happens in sports too. Superstar players like Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan are put in coaching roles and while they are amazing players, they are not great coaches.
“I think the same happens in the sales world. The same happens in all the business world where you’re just grabbing the top performer, without actually fully checking, can they coach others who aren’t as talented as them? Can they help other people who aren’t naturally as good as them? And that’s the problem, is sometimes we elevate and promote people who are just not good teachers, not good coaches, and a big element of management, of leading a team is teaching and coaching other people to levels that they didn’t even realize they were capable of reaching.”
Organizations need to look at other qualities for potential leaders aside from generating the most money or bringing in the most clients. They also need to invest more in training future leaders to make sure any individual who is being promoted has the skills necessary to lead.
Based on surveys I conducted for my recent book, The Future Leader, on average people are moving into their first leadership role in their mid to late 20s, but leaders say that on average the first time they receive formal leadership training is somewhere in their late 30s or early 40s. That’s a huge gap of time that people are leading without any kind of formal training.
How to solve the leadership problem
As Ryan shares, it is important that we realize that attaining a leadership role is not the only sign of success in someone’s career. Not everyone wants to be a leader, and not everyone is cut out to be a leader. There are other paths people can take in their career that will allow them to be successful without leading others.
It is up to organizations to create multiple career paths for employees. People need to feel like they can continue to be an individual contributor while also being able to grow and thrive in that role. Management roles should not be the only way to move up and grow inside an organization.
“I think it’s good to have both sets of people or a wide variety of people. I love having people on my team that I know, they’re never going to be a manager and that’s completely fine. They’re going to crush it here. Let’s just do everything we can to support them to make sure they’re feeling growth to take care of them. As well as there’s the other group that maybe they really want to be a manager and they have some of that innate skill and talent that let’s let’s work with them to get better and better, so when it comes time for them to run a team, they’re in a better position than I was when I got promoted cold.”
What Ryan looks for in a great leader
Ryan believes great leaders are fulfilled by teaching and coaching other people. They genuinely enjoy helping others grow and improve. They are selfless people who put others before themselves. People who get focused on an end goal and set out to achieve it no matter what with the mindset of “nobody’s going to get in my way”, aren’t in a place to be a successful leader. Leaders care more about people than the end goal.
Great leaders value diverse thinking and differing points of view and they are able to put themselves in other people’s shoes. They have patience and a willingness to learn. They embrace curiosity and they are comfortable admitting they don’t know everything–they’re not afraid to ask for help. They are both respected and liked.
Why you must start by leading yourself
In Ryan’s book, Welcome to Management, he points out that before you can lead a team, you must learn how to lead yourself. We’ve all heard the phrase that is used on airplanes when they say you must secure your oxygen mask before assisting others, and that is the same concept here.
It is important to look inward first and figure out what you need to do to put yourself in the best position to lead a team who actually wants to follow you. In Ryan’s case he wanted to become a learning machine so that his team would see him as someone who was constantly striving to get better. So he built a four part framework for himself to figure out what it actually means to be a learning machine and how to actively live it out on a daily basis.
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His four part framework consists of:
1. Learn: He is constantly reading articles and books, interviewing different leaders, listening to podcasts and finding new information and great ideas.
2. Test: When he finds a great idea he then tests it out to see if actually works
3. Reflect: After he tests an idea out he looks back on the process and the results to see how it went and to decide if he should keep going with it or let it go.
4. Teach: Teaching is a great way to reinforce new things. Ryan shares his experience with others in order to solidify what he has taken in and tested out.
To give a picture of what this process looks like in real life Ryan shares an example of how this could be used for something learned in an article. Perhaps you find an HBR article on how to run better meetings. So you’ve read the article and you’ve thought about how you could use this with your own team. And you’ve brought the idea to a mentor or someone who has led teams before to run the idea past them for their feedback. Instead of just soaking in the information and thinking about it, you need to test it.
So in your next meeting you try out the ideas from the article and you invite your mentor to sit in on the meeting to see how it goes.
After the meeting is done you meet with your mentor or with people who were in the meeting that you trust and who will be honest with you to get their feedback on how it went. You all reflect on how it went, what worked and what didn’t. Should you keep using it or scrap it?
Then you teach the idea to someone. It could be someone you are mentoring or someone in your company who is thinking of moving into a leadership role. You sit down with that person and explain the idea you learned, how you used it in your meeting, and what worked well and what didn’t.
“Before you know it, you’ve been in all four quadrants in one day, or maybe a few days, whatever it may be of saying this is how to….and you do that for basically everything within your career, or everything in your life, of always striving to fuel the intake engine, run experiments based on what you learned, reflect on how it went–what to keep doing what to stop– and then sharing with other people. And it just goes on and on and on and never stops. And then once you pause at the end of the year, if you’re regularly behaving on it, wow look at everything we’ve done over the course of the year, we’ve changed a lot. Because you’re in this constant state of being a learning machine. And that’s how I think you can regularly figure out new and better ways to do things.”
If you enjoyed the article and want more content like this here’s what you can do:
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