Once you’ve got the promotion, the real work of leading a thriving culture begins.

Sadly though, in company after company, promotion into leadership roles, frequently leading your former peers, can be a slippery slope from top gun to lacklustre leadership, and too often goes something like this:

You’ve been in your job for a while now; you’ve kicked goals, hit targets, achieved objectives, innovated and created. You’re one of the best, maybe the stand-out best, at whatever it is you do – finance, IT, sales, customer service, HR. And so, you get offered a promotion into a leadership role. Depending on the size and type of your company, you’re about to become for example, a team leader, supervisor, section leader, general manager or state manager.

Fabulous! Congratulations! You head home on Friday night after a couple of celebratory drinks with your workmates, having noticed an odd, slightly uneasy feeling as they chatted to you. And, as you fill in the requisition form for the new, shiny, bigger car to go with the new shiny, bigger job, it hits you. You’re now their boss. And as most leaders will tell you, this is one of the toughest transitions to make.

If you’re lucky you’ve been on some kind of emerging leaders program and, if you’re luckier still, have had a coach or mentor to prepare you for this incredible transition in your career. Sadly, all too many people have been left to wing it, hoping for and desperately trying to do their best.

Either way, your journey as a leader starts now. Now is the time to start thinking about the legacy you’d like to leave, whether that’s for the next person into the role after you, when you leave the company or when you retire.

Yes, there are a few balls in the air now, lots of balancing and reordering. One of the most common questions I get asked is how to balance leading and managing people with the results or profit side of the business. My answer is always this – fundamentally, the main thing is that if you get the people and culture stuff right, the productivity and profit will follow. Funny that.

The hardest thing though, for most people, is in starting to let go of the relative security of your technical skills. You know, those wonderful skills you’ve honed and developed, that led to your track record of success and excellence, and then led to you being offered the leadership gig. Because the fact is that the higher up the leadership ladder you go, the more critical people and culture related skills become. And while being busy doing tech skills stuff might appear to be what you need to do, that way does not success and profitability guarantee.

Remembering that there’s no place for ego in leadership, this is when you need to get very savvy about delegating things, too. Things to stretch people below you, things someone can do more economically or better than you, things you just don’t have time to do.

Earning the right is everything now if you want to have what’s called informal authority – where people will do what you ask of them not just because of your title, but because you’ve earned the right. And they’ll do those things even when you’re not there – another true mark of leadership.

Bucket loads of research from Daniel Goleman1 and others tell us what multiple climate and engagement surveys reflect – the leader in any team or group is what drives the culture, how people feel about working at a company and can account for 20% to 30% of profitability. And that’s 20% to 30%, up or down.

The truth of the matter is that the buck really does start and stop with the leader. There’s an old saying, attributed to various sources, that sums up the impact of leadership on culture: ‘The fish stinks from the head’. Harsh I know, but sometimes a bit of a slap across the face with a wet (and stinky) fish is what people need to wake up and smell the reality of what your culture’s become.

The leader’s mood you see is highly infectious and the team will take their emotional cue from the boss. I’m not talking about being Pollyanna here, what I am talking about is what I call realistic optimism, even when the chips are down.

In David Hamilton’s book, The Contagious Power of Thinking2, he quotes research covering around 50,000 customers of about 2000 employees of a large retail chain. He notes that ‘the moods of leaders are so contagious that they actually affect the bottom line … for each 1-point decrease in a manager’s job satisfaction (and general attitude), there was a 5% decrease in customer spending’.

When you do a few numbers, that’s one big heap of income lost, on a daily basis, for good.

During tough times, that might sound something like this: ‘I know things look bad right now, it might be hard to see a way ahead. I don’t know what the answers are, but what I do know is that we have a great team here and we’ve weathered some tough times before. Let’s get our heads together and smash out some ideas’. Realistic optimism, that’s what I call it.

Neuroeconomics professor Paul Zak and his team came up with some startling figures in their research on just how important a culture of trust is to your bottom line. ‘Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives and 40% less burnout – high-trust companies hold people accountable but without micromanaging them. They treat people like responsible adults’. 3

Those are some mighty fine figures right there, just for being trustworthy.

In short, to be the kind of leader who fosters a thriving culture, there are a few things to do to earn the right and to keep getting right, ideally from the get-go.


2 The Contagious Power of Thinking, Dr. David Hamilton, Hay House, 2011
3 The Neuroscience of Trust, Paul J. Zak, Harvard Business Review January February 2017