The problem with promotions

Red ladder near white wall isolated on white backgroundPromotions are great. They acknowledge the quality of your hard work, they represent progress and feel like success, and hey, who can argue with a bigger paycheck?

So why am I suggesting that there’s a problem with them?

In general – there isn’t. As an individual contributor diligently climbing the promotions ladder, you typically (and, let’s face it, often very frustratingly) are doing at least 75 to 80 percent of the next-level job before you’re promoted into it.

But then comes the promotion into a management or supervisory role. And that’s a whole different ball game.

Managing people isn’t the same as managing work

As an individual contributor, each successive role isn’t all that different from the previous one. The skill level increases, the responsibility increases, the complexity of the work increases, but the fundamental job is still the same: do the tasks, complete the projects, deliver on time.

But now you’re responsible for ensuring that other people do the tasks, complete the projects, and deliver on time. It’s no longer just you; it’s everyone on your team. And people are a whole lot more complex than the work they do. They have personalities, needs, desires, problems, varying levels of skill and capacity, and you may not even like all of them very much.

And then there are the management structure variables: virtual teams distributed across multiple time zones, and dotted-line or matrixed reporting structures where you might not even have direct authority over the individuals on your team – but you still have direct responsibility for the work they’re supposed to complete.

It’s no wonder 60% of new managers fail in their first year

No matter how much responsibility you may have had in your previous roles, those roles haven’t prepared you for this new responsibility of manager, supervisor, and leader.

Every experienced leader I talk with rolls their eyes and groans when I mention that transition. Every. One. It’s not just you; it’s everyone.

And the real tragedy is that most organizations don’t provide the support – training, mentoring, coaching – that a new leader needs.

So what can you do?

It really does start with recognizing that this is a common problem, and not just you. One of the biggest challenges for leaders at every level (all the way up to senior leadership and the C-suite – believe it or not) is the feeling of being unequal to the task – being a fraud (Fraud Factor) or an imposter (Imposter Syndrome). And this is especially challenging for the new leader, when you know you’re struggling but you don’t know why – or how common this problem is.

Becoming a leader is a process. As an individual contributor, you had specific skills to learn, and once you learned them, you were competent and capable. As a leader, there are always nuances; leadership is all about navigating a never-ending gray area, in which there are far fewer yes / no answers, and a lot more maybe / maybe not situations.

If you can (and I recognize that not all organizational cultures will be supportive), ask your management for guidance. Read books and blogs and listen to podcasts on leadership. Find professional organizations that offer peer-to-peer support (if you’re a project manager (and seriously, every leader should have some understanding of project management), the Project Management Institute is great for that, and has local chapters in most areas).

Get training.

The leaders who succeed are those who recognize the difference between their previous role and what they’ve now been asked to take on. They acknowledge the challenge and the learning curve, and set themselves to acquire the new skills they need to be the leader they want to be – and that their team and organization need them to be.

It’s not easy. But for those who accept the challenge, it’s both deeply rewarding and a lot of fun!