E2A 037: Becoming a Leader of Leaders…and an Entrepreneur-Turned-Author with Ian Lees 

 September 6, 2022

By  Scott A. MacMillan

As a leadership coach specializing in the transition to senior leadership and executive roles, Ian Lees knew he needed to find a way to position himself as distinct from other more general experts; it’s a unique transition that requires a different approach.

In this episode of The Entrepreneur to Author Podcast, your host Scott MacMillan speaks with Ian about how he codified his unique expertise in his book Becoming a Leader of Leaders and made the jump from Entrepreneur to Author.


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Episode Transcript

Please note: The transcript is produced by a third-party company from an audio recording and may include transcription errors.

Scott A MacMillan:        
You're listening to the Entrepreneur To Author Podcast.

Mike Manz:
Welcome to the Entrepreneur To Author Podcast, the podcast that brings you practical strategies for building authority and growing your business.
And now here's your host, Scott MacMillan.

Scott MacMillan:
Today, I'm speaking with Ian Lees. Ian is a sought after leadership coach specializing in the transition to senior leadership and executive roles. He brings more than 30 years experience in leadership and developing leaders through insightful and practical coaching.

We're going to be talking about his latest book, Becoming A Leader Of Leaders: How To Succeed In Bigger Jobs and Still Have A Life, where he shares his experience, wisdom and practical steps that have helped hundreds of leaders successfully make this important transition.

Ian, welcome to the podcast. Thank you for joining us.

Ian Lees:
Thanks, Scott. I'm really looking forward to having a chat.

Scott MacMillan:
Wonderful. To start, I would love if you could share a little bit about your entrepreneurial journey and what kind of brought you to the way that you serve your clients today.

Ian Lees:
Yeah, it's interesting. I'd love to say I had a nicely detailed business plan when I first did it, but basically I found it really not a natural environment to live in large organizations for long periods of time.

So I first stepped out in my early thirties into my own business, doing learning and development work; a whole range of different things there. Then I did some corporate roles. So sort of went back inside, if you like. And then went out again, this time, getting more and more focused around initially management development and then leadership development. And then as time went on, my most recent business where I've been for the last five years, is focused on executive and leadership coaching.

So it's been an interesting journey. It's got clearer, I think, as it goes on, but of course, it's a never ending journey, which is what makes it fun, I think.

Scott MacMillan:
Yeah, it really does. That's really often how businesses evolve, don't they? Especially small businesses, where you're trying to find your niche.

So you've Becoming A Leader Of Leaders. Could you share a little bit about the book and who it's written for and what your goal is for them?

Ian Lees:
Yes. It's a book that emerged through my coaching work over many years. It's a book about how to make one of the most critical transitions of your career, which is actually from being your first leadership role, which could have the title 'manager', or whatever it is, to actually leading other people who are leading other people. So hence the title 'leader of leaders.'

So the book emerged because I was working with a lot of people who were struggling. And I didn't initially know exactly why, but as I reflected back over my coaching notes and spoke to many people, I could see there was this common thread that all these people were making this particular transition, this particular step in their careers, and they were really struggling.

And they were struggling not just in terms of effectiveness in their role; I think what moved me most was how much they were struggling in their whole life, because now this bigger job had taken over their whole life.

You had people who were literally working seven days a week, never seeing their families or their friends or doing anything other than work. And so that was a big motivator for me.

So it's really targeted at that group of people.

And people make that transition in a lot of different times, but one of the most common ones; it tends to be through people's thirties, maybe early forties. And so that coincides with so much other stuff going on in people's lives.

So it became really important for me to help people make that transition to be effective in their roles, but also, as the title says, to actually have a life as well.

Scott MacMillan:
That's a really important insight.

I mean, I remember when I was in the corporate world. Obviously the first couple promotions, you start to get some leadership experience, and you're leading first a small team and then maybe a much bigger team. But then there was that moment where I was in the first role where the people reporting to me had direct reports themselves. And in my head, I don't think I ever made a distinction between that type of role and the previous leadership roles that I was in.

So to me, it's really interesting that you've narrowed in on that and identified that, rightfully so, as such an important transition point for people in their career.

Ian Lees:

And it was one that, a lot of the time, even myself initially thought, "Well, hang on, surely leadership is just leadership, you know? You become a leader, and really you're just doing ... " In some ways, I think the common thinking is, "Well, I'll get a bigger job, but it's just a bigger version of what I'm already doing."

But in my work with my clients over many years, and also the approaches and solutions we started to develop together, it became really clear to me that, "No, this is a really different job."

And as I was writing the book, I became more convinced that it's actually a totally different job. And as you say, Scott, that transition, I think a lot of people, if I can use the old boiled frog analogy, you kind of just keep doing your thing.

And so what people are trying to do when they were a first line manager, they just keep trying to do that as they are leading other leaders, and the consequences are pretty devastating all around.

Scott MacMillan:

Yeah. So can you talk a little bit about what it is that makes that transition so different compared to the other career transitions?

Ian Lees:
Yeah, I think it's about how distant you become from the actual work. I think there's a couple of layers to it, but I think that's a really big one.

In my book, I identify three key career transitions, and the first one is becoming a professional contributor, which everyone does in some way, shape or form, whatever that may be.

You may study, but then typically, the people I work with tend to be in various professionals, like engineers and IT people, accountants, lawyers, and that sort of thing. And it usually takes them into their early thirties to just be a professional contributor.

Then, as you, in your career, typically how it works is everyone goes, "Wow, Scott's a great", whatever you were, editor, writer, or whatever, consultant; so, "Hey, let's make him the manager."

And that's not entirely invalid, because in that first line role, you do actually have to have a reasonably good grasp of the workflow and the nature of the work. So it's not completely invalid.

When you come to a leader of leaders, suddenly you've got teams reporting to you, and quite often, you won't know ... You might know a little bit, but it's quite common for people to not have a clue about what a particular team's doing.

And that transition means that the way you worked as a team manager, which was be aware of all the workflow, understand all the content, give feedback and commentary on the work that's being done, people keep trying to do that when they don't realize how significant this transition is.

And what happens is they burn out, because you just can't get across at all, but people feel driven to do that.

And oftentimes it's because they've got no other option because they've kind of got that idea that, "Well, leadership is leadership."

This isn't about leadership. This is just about a bigger job and having to know more stuff.

Scott MacMillan:
Yeah, that's right. You're bang on. I mean, I remember that feeling of, "I need to get into the weeds. I need to understand what everybody on the team is doing in order for me to lead this group." And that's an important thing that I think I certainly didn't realize at first, and I think a lot of people are in that boat as well.

Now in your book, you talk about the concept of your way of being and how that is very crucial in this transition. Could you explain that?

Ian Lees:
Yeah. It's an emerging concept really that's actually come more from biology and takes into account the fact that we are not just a brain in a kind of fleshy box, but we're actually a whole being, and our nervous system runs through our whole body. So how we perceive things, how we make sense of the world and how we make decisions, is actually a whole body experience.

So in my book, I talk about the three circles of that interplay; one is the language we use in our head; the other one is how we hold our bodies, how we shape ourselves. And I'll give some examples in a moment about that; and primarily the mood we then end up in. And mood really determines what you see as possible.

So just to give a few quick examples; one was ... I was working with someone who had already made this transition, but was struggling; became a leader of leaders.

And one of the things they were doing was, they were so tense that they were tensing up, and their language was all about control and all about having to make sure everything was okay. And physically, they were tense. And so they're getting to meetings and they couldn't think of possibilities. Their cognition just couldn't go any broader.

And so working with them, whilst I did work with them on their language, how they were talking to themselves about their situation, one of the things was I just started working on their body; "How are you holding yourself in the meeting?" You know, breathing, things like that.

And that was an amazing leap for that person.

And probably the second one, which is so common, is people finally getting into meetings with senior leaders, and they always talk about them as senior leaders as if they're from another planet or something, but it's understandable; when you're first in those, you go into some big board room or wherever. And so a lot of the time people are going in in a mood of anxiety.

And again, you can talk to yourself, you can say, "No, don't be anxious." And that can help. But what I've found really helpful in terms of way of being is say to the person, "How are you holding yourself in the meeting?"

Now, by having these kind of little subtle shifts in how ... You know, maybe you're sitting up a bit straighter or holding your shoulders back, things like that; you can make real changes in your mood in the moment.

And that's why it matters in becoming a leader of leaders, because in a leader of leaders role, in the moment, you don't always have the luxury to sit there and think about some big, long theory. But what you can do is make little adjustments to your thinking and also to how you hold yourself.

So it's a really important, powerful concept for becoming a leader of leaders

Scott MacMillan:
Yeah, that really is powerful. Absolutely. So what are those important steps or phases in making this transition, and what do you see as the benefits of doing it well?

Ian Lees:
Yeah, look, as I was writing the book ... And again, I keep coming back to the fact that I feel like I should reference, and I think I do reference, all the people I work with, because this is a combination of my own theories and also what they did in the real world. So I've framed it up as really an inside out experience. So working from your inner world out into practice. And so the core for me is adapting your way of being, which we were just talking about.

Then there's this head space shift, which I've labeled 'give yourself a promotion', which is consciously saying to yourself, "I'm no longer the job I was. I'm now one of the big people", whatever the language is that works for you. "I'm now ... "

I remember one of the ... It's a story in the book, someone I worked with, and her boss said to her one day .. She was railing against the establishment and he said, "Mary, you are the establishment now."

And so that kind of shift in your head space; give yourself a promotion.

The next two are really out in the world.

The first one I call 'creating sandboxes for your leaders.' And this goes to the point you were talking about, Scott, which is your leaders have to have scope to actually lead, and they need authority and clear responsibility and accountability to do that.

And so there's a way, a very practical way, you can do that with your reporting leaders.

You've got to make sure stuff gets done and you've got to make sure stuff gets done to the required standard, but you can no longer do that by having your metaphorical red pen and keeping an eye on everyone. So you have to set up these sandpits.

And then the final one, I've had a lot of feedback since the book went out, but this is actually also really important, probably more important than I realized in writing it, is influence to integrate.

So as a leader of leaders, your leadership isn't just leading your group of leaders. You're a leader more broadly.

And so the practical stuff there about giving priority to connecting to relationships inside and outside the organization and becoming influential in them is so important to make sure the work that you are responsible for is actually still relevant and actually hitting the mark.

So the benefits of doing that are huge.

Obviously the immediate one is, get on top of the role you're in; the other one, which is near and dear to my heart is, you get a life.

And I think the most satisfying thing in my coaching work, probably the last five to 10 years, is seeing people say to me, "Hey, I didn't work last weekend", "Hey, I took my kids to the park", "Hey, I finally caught up with my friends for Friday night drinks." I mean, to me, that's awesome.

And so that actually happens. It's not a pipe dream. It does actually happen.

And I think the other bit then is future possibilities.

So you move into the big wide world of leader of leaders roles. And if you can nail this transition and keep growing in it, you expand the options for yourself in terms of career possibilities.

And a big part of that is you then become far more influential for positive impact in the world, because in a sense, you can scale your influence up because you now know how to guide, but also activate multiple groups of leaders towards something really worthwhile.

Scott MacMillan:
I think that last point is such an important one. Because the first part of your career, I find your value goes up as you get more specialized and the more you can get into the detail and into the weeds, but then at a certain point, if you continue doing that, you become less valuable. And certainly at leadership roles, the more senior you get, the more generally you're able to lead people, like you say, the more options are open to you and the more opportunities are available. So that's fantastic.

Now you've talked a lot about writing. Could you talk a little bit about your writing process? How did you find that; getting the words, the ideas out of your head and onto the page?

Ian Lees:
Yeah. Look, I have been, and am still, a compulsive writer. I journal every day. You know, I can't go to the shops without having to write a shopping list. It just must be how I function. And so writing stuff wasn't a problem for me; getting words together and all that.

The bit I was struggling with was kind of getting it together, kind of, "How do I actually put this stuff together in a package that's going to be useful for others?"

And for me ... I'm sure you won't mind me mentioning Kelly Irving and The Expert Author. That was a book coach, and she was amazing. She really gave me the how to, the nuts and bolts of how to convert my passion for writing into actually a product.

So I think I've got other stuff to say later on about some tips on that, but for me, and I'll just throw one in now, because for me, it's about, turn it into a job. I think for me, I kind of mystified this writing thing as if I was some great novelist or Shakespeare or something, and I just had to lighten up a bit and treat it like work and give it a go. And I loved it once that happened. Yeah.

Scott MacMillan:
Wonderful. And on the publishing end, I think for a lot of people, particularly if it's their first book, the whole publishing process is very opaque and people don't know what to expect going into it.

Could you talk a little bit about perhaps what was surprising in that process, or even frustrating or exciting?

Ian Lees:
Yeah. It was. You're right.

And again, it was like, "Publishing? That's what God's do." And so initially, I oscillated on whether I even would bother. It was like, "Look, maybe I just PDF this and send it out to people and away we go."

And then I did explore some options. So the option of going to a publisher, and they take your book and do all the promo and all that stuff. And I couldn't quite find one that fitted.

And so for me ... Because my book is kind of specialized in a sense. It's a very focused book and to a very clear market. So I really wanted help from an organization that could help me do the whole lot.

Now, a lot of people talk about self-publishing. "Hey, everyone's got a computer. So now everyone can do layout, and everyone can get a graphics program, so everyone can do book covers", kind of thing. And it's a bit like saying, "Well, I can buy a violin. So now I'm going to be able to be a violinist." That's just not true.

And the big exciting thing for me was working with the Grammar Factory where it's one stop shop. I didn't have to become an expert in anything. And yet at the same time, I felt like I had around me a team that were supporting me, that wanted me to succeed, that were robust in their professions and what they bought and what they gave. You know, they told me what they thought, which was really important to me. I didn't want people just going, "Oh, you're wonderful. We love your book", and everything.

So I think at the end of it, I really questioned that idea of, "Oh, look, you can ... " I laid my own book out. It took me three months and I had therapy afterwards. But all those publishing skills are so specialized. And when you work with people who know their staff and have professionals in that, it's just such a weight off.

And then having it all integrated into one approach really transformed the whole deal for me. Yeah. It's really great.

Scott MacMillan:
Yeah. Good.

You talked about a few of the different publishing models there, and certainly, there is a role to play for what I like to call 'do it yourself self-publishing', where people are writing a large volume of books monthly, they're writing fiction to kind of get out there as quickly as possible, and it's just cost prohibitive if they were to go to a professional service publisher every time. And then on the flip side, there's a role obviously for traditional publishing.

And I think it's important that authors understand what their goals are and the model that best suits them.

Ian Lees:
Yeah. I think that's right.

Just quickly on that, I think for me, I should have prefaced all that and said, yeah, for me, in my situation, I've got writing buddies who went other paths that were far more suitable for them.

So yeah, you've got to work out which one's the best.

Scott MacMillan:

And so on that point, what were your business goals in writing your book and how were you using it to support your business today?

Ian Lees:
Yeah. I had ... Again, this is from Kelly and also from working with you guys; although I do have an aspiration, a dream to make money from selling books; but not for this one so much. If that happens, that'll be wonderful; but there were probably three goals I had which related to my business.

One was to increase my pipeline of new coaching clients. I had a good core, if you like, but I really wanted to make connections with others.
The second one was to sharpen my brand and service focus. So instead of just being leadership, through the book, I've been able to go, "No, this is what I do. And I actually don't do other things, but I do do this thing."
And then the third is probably to position myself as an expert, which took a bit of mental work for me, but I've been amazed at how writing a book, people rightly think that it really is an achievement. It took me a while to go, "Hey, yeah, it is an achievement." But it does carry a lot of credibility.
So certainly those were my business goals in heading into the project.

Scott MacMillan:
Yeah. And I know it's still a little bit early days, often the impact takes a little while to come to fruition, but since you published your book earlier this year, what sort of impact have you seen?

Ian Lees:
I've been amazed actually. Because like you say, I was understanding of the fact that, look, this might take a while. And my kind of book sometimes can take a couple of years before it really gets known and out there.

But a couple of things happened fairly quickly through ... I have someone who helps with social media, and also, the Grammar Factory helped me with social media, but it rekindled relationships in my network. Like people who I knew years ago, and were still connected to and still felt warmly towards me, but I think a number of them became interested and actually converted to paying clients.

So that was very cool.

I think the second one is it has positioned me as this expert. And the more I've been out and talking to people, as you've been alluding to, Scott, it's something that I think is missed.

I remember looking, "Has anyone written a book about this?" And I'm sure someone has, but I haven't been able to find it yet on Amazon.

Also, in terms of literally return on investment, the dollars around that ... In the four months since the book launched, I've been through new clients; so this is not just my existing businesses as usual. These are new clients that came in through the book and through the social media; I've managed to pay for the Kelly Irving coaching program and also the full price of the publication costs. And I think we're like 500 bucks in profit now, or something like that.

But that's pretty amazing, and I was ... I mean, that was what you and others said would happen, and I'm fortunate enough that it did.

Probably one I hadn't really ... I'd heard about and hadn't really considered was the effect it had on me by, I think it's called 'codifying', which sounds slightly boring, but by the fact that I now go, "Actually I do know stuff. I'm a very intuitive kind of person, very intuitive coach."

And it's easy to think ... People say, "Well, what model are you using?" I don't know. I just go with what the person needs. But I've found a boost in my confidence, because now I can articulate something. There is IP and thinking behind it.

So that's also been a benefit, which I think is going to carry on for quite a while.

Scott MacMillan:
Oh, fantastic. I have to admit that, even though I obviously am a huge proponent of publishing in support of your business, and I believe strongly in the benefits of that, the fact that you've seen those returns as quickly as you have, I think is a testament to you and how you are leveraging it the right way within your business. So congratulations on that.

Now for those who have considered writing a book, but haven't done it yet, because there are a lot of people I think listening who know that it's something that they want to do, but for whatever reason, they just haven't pulled the trigger yet, what advice would you give them?

Ian Lees:
Oh, look, the first one is what I've alluded to before, is demystify it. I have a phrase, "Don't de-magic it, because it is magic, but demystify it."

I read a book on writing once. And I don't know if in the Northern hemisphere they have this phrase, 'tradie' but in Australia, it means a sort of working tradesperson, right? And she talked about, "With your writing, be a tradie."

What she said was, "Turn up to work on time, do the work, stop, and go home, come back the next day, go to work." And I think that was really great advice for me.

And also, I suppose don't wait for perfection. Someone once said to me, "You can't edit a blank page." So just get words out, just write stuff. You can always edit it. You don't have to use it, but if you've got nothing, you've got nothing.

Another one is, perhaps back to the building, tradie analogies, don't compare your early drafts to someone's finished book. It's a bit like saying, "Well, I've bought a block of land, I've dug a hole, put the foundations, but gee, look at that mansion across the road. My house isn't as good."

And back to the help you get; the work that editors and book designers do ... Editors particularly; they're so magical in terms of how they make ... I've been rereading some of the stuff the editors [inaudible 00:25:50] me, "Yeah, that's what I meant to say." Like that.

So get support. I suppose that leads into my other point, is get support.

And don't be afraid to get support. Forget about the kind of novelist/writer laboring away, half drunk in the middle of the night. There's people who can really, really help you with it.

And probably the one we've already really spoken about; get your goals clear.

One of the early pieces of advice I got ... Because I thought, "Oh, I've got to write a book that everyone's going to want and everyone's going to love." And that's not, in my case, it may be true for other people's books, but for me, that's not the case. It actually is legitimately ... And I'm very clear on what I wanted from it. But I wasn't initially. That came from advice from people.

So have a go. Anyone who's particularly perhaps listening to this kind of podcast who has some kind of business or professional background, you would definitely have stuff that people want to hear. It's just working out who those people are.

And as I said, even if, in the absolute worst case, you write it, it will help you clarify what you are on about and potentially sort of build your sense of value in the world.

So definitely have a crack, I would say.

Scott MacMillan:
Wonderful. Those are really great tips.
Ian, how can people get in touch with you to learn more about what you do or get access to your book and the other content that you create?

Ian Lees:
Yeah. Look, probably the easiest way is my website, which is optimalfuture.com.au.

And I'm also happy ... I'd love to hear if there's anyone who wants to share a story about their transition to leader of leaders. So my email is, all one word, ianlees@optimalfuture.com.au. So if there's anyone out there that just says, "Hey, I had this experience and", whatever, "This worked or didn't work," it would be great.

Also I'm on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram. In all those cases, if you just search for Ian Lees Author, up it will come.

And there's been a series of some blogs and other short content, some of it based off the book and some in addition to it. So I'd love to share that with people as well.

Scott MacMillan:
Wonderful. We'll be sure to get those links into the show notes so that people can access them very easily.

Ian, thank you so much for being with us today and for sharing your expertise around leadership transition and importantly about your entrepreneur to author journey.

Ian Lees:
It's been my pleasure, Scott, and it's great to have a chat with you.

Scott MacMillan:
As we wrap up this episode of Entrepreneur To Author, remember, now is the time; time to write, time to publish, and time to grow.

I'm Scott MacMillan. Until next time.


Scott A. MacMillan

Scott A. MacMillan is a speaker, international best-selling author, entrepreneur, and the President and Executive Publisher at Grammar Factory Publishing. He and his team help expert entrepreneurs write and publish books that build their authority and grow their business.

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