You’ve just been promoted to a more senior position. Before you run headlong into taking action, be smart about your opening moves. Whatever the role is, you’ll have some odds to overcome. According to Corporate Executive Board, your chance of failure is between 50% and 70%. With any luck, you won’t be among the three per cent of executive transitions that “fail spectacularly.”
Why do so many promotions end in disaster? For starters, few leaders know how to navigate the transition from the middle of the organization where work is more tactical to the upper level of the organization where more strategic and uncertain work is done. Many new leaders enter bigger jobs with unshakeable faith in their mandate and vision. They have a pre-constructed idea about the impact they’ll create, and they’re eager to hit the ground running.
In our 10-year longitudinal study, we uncovered some common pitfalls that snare otherwise promising leaders once promoted. Here are five ways to avoid those pitfalls and secure the success you worked so hard to achieve.
1. Re calibrate relationships with new and former peers.
One of the most confounding challenges in an upward move is your reconfigured peer set. Now that you’re an executive, your former peers—some of whom are now direct reports— are no longer sure they can trust you. Your new peers withhold their trust as well, because at higher levels, stakes are higher, the wins and losses more public, and the competition more ruthless. Despite apparent risks, it is now more important than ever to establish solid relationships with both your former and current peer groups. To do so, you must display an unwavering sense of self, integrity, courage, and a willingness to acquire knowledge in service of the greater good. Don’t let setbacks or rivalries with peers throw you. Re-set boundaries and expectations by openly talking about them. Remember that you have to purposefully and thoughtfully construct, and reconstruct, your relationships one at a time.
2. Leverage your knowledge of the organization without biases. The good news is that as an internal promotion, you’re more likely to perform better and serve longer than an external hire. After all, you know how the organization works and how decisions get made. The organization knows you, as well — and your status as a known entity will often serve as an advantage. However, you and the organization also have biases about one another that may distort the accuracy of your knowledge. You may have deeply formed beliefs about your new boss. You may believe this is your chance to right organizational injustices you’ve long complained about. You may see peers as political rivals instead of allies. Any preconception, if not carefully deconstructed, can become a liability. You must recognize and address bias with honesty and intention.
3. Extract yourself from the work you used to do. It is challenging for many newly promoted leaders to let go of the work they know. They often argue that their successors “simply aren’t ready to take on the full set of responsibilities,” so these leaders plan to extract themselves “gradually” so as not to create a huge gap. Unfortunately, gradual extraction usually stretches into years, with the full transfer of responsibility never occurring. This arrests the development of leaders behind you, and stunts the organization’s growth. While work you used to do well, that made you successful, is understandably more gratifying than more strategic, ambiguous work at this higher level, let it go. A well-choreographed plan that plots your extraction in measurable milestones will ensure you leave behind a more capable organization that is not dependent on you for success. In turn, this creates sufficient capacity for you to focus on succeeding at your new altitude.
4. Size up talent and build a team. One of the hardest aspects of rising to a bigger job is inheriting your predecessor’s team. There is no guarantee that the team in place — many of whom may be former peers — is right for you. Therefore, you must form a systematic way to assess who can stay, who can grow, and who must go. Most newly appointed executives gravitate to one of two extremes. They are reluctant to make hard calls, especially early in their tenure. They fear alienating their team and sending political shockwaves through the organization by removing people who are obstacles to change. Whether through a lack of competence, commitment, or both, not everyone will be able to make the journey; the sooner you are honest about this fact, the sooner you’ll have a team that embraces your vision and direction. The other extreme is to “clean house on day one.” People expect changes when new leaders arrive. But too much too fast can be destabilizing. It is still vital that you take time for thoughtful study and reflection, especially when people’s careers are on the line. However, once you have a clear understanding of the data, don’t hesitate to act. Get the people you need in place, and get the organization moving in the same direction.
5. Solicit and act upon personal feedback. If you don’t have a way of knowing how your intentions and actions are being interpreted, you’ll keep plodding ahead as if everything is fine — only to discover that you’ve left a segment of the organization behind or were blind to your own leadership flaws. You must establish a cadence of feedback loops to determine whether the messages you are sending, vision you are casting, leadership you are modeling, plans to which you are holding people to account, and the changes you are initiating, are all being metabolized as you intend. This is especially important in the first six months, when people are still forming first impressions of you. Whether you collect it through surveys, third party interviews, or other methods, consistent feedback is vital to your success. Don’t worry that people’s unfamiliarity with you will limit what they can offer. The key to leveraging feedback, of course, is acting upon it. Many newly promoted leaders graciously invite feedback to establish the look of openness, but damage the credibility they gain by doing nothing with it.
As a leader, if you’re focusing exclusively on the changes you believe you have to make, you’re ignoring the fact that you must also be the modeler of change. Indeed, to succeed in your new role, you’ll need to embrace change on a deeply personal level. You must figure out how to adapt, grow, and develop a new understanding of your place within the organization. The organization must change you as much as you must change it.
When it comes to promotions, the old cliché rings especially true: knowledge really is power. The more you know — not just about the organization, but about yourself — the better equipped you are to lead. Hit the ground learning, not running.