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First Taste Of Leadership

By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

“I work for a management consulting company and am currently in a business analyst (BA) role. Soon I will start a new role as Lead BA, still with the same company, but with a different client. I will be expected to make decisions about the BA work stream and to manage two other BAs.

I have never been in a leadership role before and wonder if you have any tips on taking it on successfully. I’m a bit daunted by being the only female on the project and also about being the youngest person (I’m 25).  A final concern is that I have less experience in the new client’s industry than the two other analysts who I’ll be ‘leading’.”

You’re Not Alone

Concerns about this first taste of business leadership are not unusual. It’s great that you are asking for input and ideas rather than simply barreling in and hoping for the best. I’ve split my response into three parts, each reflecting a different lens for you to consider.

1. Focus on Yourself


Let me start by pointing out the obvious: you were promoted! That’s something to celebrate and be proud of.  And you were promoted despite being female, younger than the others and not well versed in the client’s business…

Your promotion means your firm’s management sees both current technical competence and future potential in you.  Do you know what they consider your key attributes to be? Go back to your recent assessments, whether written or verbal, and remind yourself about the various skills and abilities your managers have said they see in you.  Savour their words and let them give you confidence.

Assessments being what they are, you probably have areas for development – but, you know, there will always be things to work at. And if you look at the most senior people in your firm you can probably quickly reassure yourself that it is possible to rise to the top without being perfect in every detail!

By the way, the smartest managers know how to compensate for areas that aren’t their forte. Visionaries surround themselves with people who are good at filling in the blanks and dotting the i’s. Unconfident speakers get coaches and speechwriters. You say you don’t know as much about this client’s business as your two analysts. You don’t NEED to. They can supply industry-specific expertise while you’re still learning the ropes – remember, you have other skills to contribute! My advice would be: don’t pretend you know more than you do and do ask for their help. A little honesty, humility and gratitude are almost always appreciated.


What your managers see as your key strengths is one thing. Another is what you think you’re good at, and, importantly, what you enjoy. Those two are often, but not always, linked.

You have certain innate talents and you will also have developed strengths over time.  Strengths go beyond specific cognitive skills and knowledge. They stretch towards strengths of character and virtuous behaviour.  You probably feel good when you’re using them, and you may be at your most creative or effective then, too.

Whatever your sweet spots are, if you are aware of them, you can increase the chance of being staffed on work that suits you best – at which point you will find it easier to perform highly, to enjoy the work more, and to feel confident. This positive cycle builds up your ‘psychological reservoir’ so that when things go wrong you have internal resources to draw on as you struggle to overcome the problems.

Finding ways to use your strengths more often and in more ways can also build those wellbeing feelings and make it easier to tackle difficult situations. For example, I vividly remember a workshop at which one participant with a top strength of ‘humour and playfulness’ said she struggled every month taking the minutes for tedious board meetings.  We brainstormed that she could give the board members appropriate Disney character names in her (private!) notes and use that to liven things up for herself.


Being aware of your values is another very useful dimension to help you think through situations and responses before you take action.  Also, your team of analysts is going to want to know what’s important to you in order to try to fit in with your priorities and concerns. Note: I’d rather work for someone who is authentically herself, even if I don’t share her values, than for someone who tries to please everyone and ends up changing priorities every two minutes!

To identify your values isn’t too hard. Think about how you yourself like to be treated. What behaviours do you admire or despise? When have you thought, “I hope I can be like that when the time comes”, or “I will NEVER treat people like that”? The chances are that something on these occasions spoke to your value system. 

If you have trouble distilling your strengths, you might find it helpful to take a free online diagnostic test called the VIA  Survey of Character Strengths at (you need to register to take the 240 question test).  Over 1 million people worldwide have taken this test, developed by practitioners in the field of Positive Psychology.  It helps you identify strengths in your character from among 24 possible strengths that were identified by looking through every major world culture and belief system to find characteristics held to be admirable.

If you’ve taken the VIA Strengths test you may find that some of the more “virtuous” strengths such as honesty and bravery line up with your values.

2. Focus on Your Team

Communicate, communicate

It is really hard to have too much communication. While I have personally struggled as a manager to remember to schedule in enough regular review and catch-up sessions they are really important.  If you do have too many, it’s easy to agree to trim them a little. At worst you’ll all have wasted an hour or two. It’s much harder to put right the waste of heading down a blind alley caused by not keeping a close enough eye on progress. I don’t know how much control you have over this part of the logistics but you can always find opportunities to catch up informally – maybe suggest a three way lunch, or a chat over coffee. The break away from your desks will almost certainly give you all a little much-needed perspective.

Part of the early communication that can be useful is to share with the team how you each like to work: this will be easy now that you have done the reflections on your strengths and values! Early on is also a good time to find out about key personal dates and prior commitments. While you may not have the power to grant the necessary time off you can support your team by making sure the senior managers don’t lose sight of the dates.

You’ll need to think about communicating “up” as well. What are the partners and senior managers going to want to know? Progress against milestones? Keeping in budget? Potential road blocks? The team’s latest ideas on solving the issues in your project? Whatever those hot buttons are, get in the habit of tracking and distilling them so you can give a pithy rundown whenever necessary. It will give you valuable insight into how things are going, too.

This leading thing

Screeds and screeds have been written on leadership. What it is, examples of successful leaders, how to be a leader, paradigms, principles and practices of leadership, different leadership styles. You name it. I very much doubt there’s a simple answer out there but I do think authenticity is a big part of leadership. Authentic leaders are in tune with their values. Occasionally that might mean they are neither effective nor pleasant – I can think of command-and-control leaders who were true to their values of status and success and had everyone running scared – but usually it makes for better leaders. It’s hard to be someone you’re not for long!

You say you have no leadership experience but what about events at school or sports, perhaps? The essence of leading is the same for a netball team as a group of analysts on a consulting engagement. If you have experiences to reflect on, what did you learn from them? If you really have no past leadership experience then this is a time to experiment with different approaches and styles and see what feels natural and authentic.  You can lead by setting an example, you can lead by encouraging discussion and consensus forming, you can lead by command-and-control and so on.  One thing I have repeatedly had to remind myself when leading consulting assignments is that I don’t have to come up with the whole answer; instead, the team has to. So my job is more to coax out the best ideas than to produce the solution. And I have seen the best ideas come from the youngest, greenest team members…

A last thought here. One element of leadership that you often see in the literature is that effective leaders give their followers a sense of power and enablement.  My advice here is to specify to your team the inputs or the outputs of the task, but not both.  Put another way, you can give people tools and systems, or you can give them objectives and goals. Leaders who micromanage (a surprisingly common affliction) do both and end up severely limiting room for people to take ownership. Yes, you can specify outputs and also provide support and advice on the inputs, but don’t specify and insist on the latter.

3. Focus on the Future

At this watershed in your working life, the single best thing you can do for yourself and your future career is to seek out a mentor. Your mentor could be male or female, inside your company or outside. The research shows that mentors you choose yourself – based on shared values, interests and respect – are the most effective.  Early on in your career an internal mentor can help guide you through the politics of your organisation and can support you by sponsoring you for interesting projects and by protecting you from unreasonably arduous assignments.

The token woman

Right now you’re concerned about being younger, less experienced in your new client’s industry and being the only female. Some of those things will change, but your gender won’t.  I reckon you had better get used to being a lone woman: if you are in a tiny minority now, at the start of your career, it’s unlikely to get better as you rise through the ranks. If it really bothers you, you need to change company or, more likely, change industry. However, like anything, being the odd one out has benefits as well as downsides. The visibility of being the token female will give you a stage and a profile. Be ready to take advantage of it. Do great work, and make sure people know about it!

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