I firmly believe that internal promotions to leadership positions have far less risk than external hires. A newly promoted leader knows the culture and has succeeded in it well enough to deserve a step up. They know the market and the company’s assets and weaknesses. They have well established relationships to leverage. Even if they face a learning curve, it is minor versus a comparably competent executive coming in from outside the company.
But there are lots of things that can go wrong for the newly promoted leader. Here are four “watch-outs” that can help avoid missteps in the new role.
1. You do the same work you did before the promotion.
There is a reason you got the promotion beyond that you were doing a good job, even if you’ve been promoted in place. There are plenty of people doing good work who would be disasters at the next step up. The organization determined that you are ready to handle greater responsibility, more senior relationships, broader scope and the stress that comes with it.
If your promotion makes you a member of the executive team now, your scope is not limited to your function. Inclusion on the executive team carries team responsibilities with it. You represent your function, but you are expected to have a voice in how the business is managed and how the organizational culture evolves.
Get clear what your boss sees as their expectations of your new role. A CEO might only have broad notions about how things will change, but they have some direction to give. It may be that your promotion represents a strategic emphasis on your function that was not there before. Perhaps you are expected to provide continuity after a retirement or create a spark that was missing from a terminated predecessor. If no strategy is articulated, conduct your own STaRS evaluation. Is the business in start-up, turn-around, realignment or sustaining mode? How does this inform how you will lead?
Your promotion is a vote of confidence in your ability to do a bigger job. But you and the organization are susceptible to blind spots , if you continue to run in the same groove as before. Question current practices, even if they are what got you promoted. What is holding the organization back? What outside practices are even better than the good things you are doing now? This openness to explore other ways of doing business can start off small and continue incrementally. After all, if a radical redesign were desired, the company would probably have hired from the outside.
Develop a vision for your role and share it with your peers and your team. This need not be done on Day One. Even somebody with your experience on the business will need to take stock and learn from new constituents, before announcing strategic direction.
2. You expect the supportive relationships you’ve had with other functional heads will not change.
This is one of the more difficult things to get used to. Other members of the executive team will be happy for you and may welcome you into the fold, but they have their own turf to protect, and they are more practiced at senior in-fighting than you are. This change in relationship may be most pronounced between you and a person who viewed you as a mentee/protégé. Now you are a peer, and sometimes a competitor or rival. It’s time to find a coach or mentor from outside the organization.
New leaders are often surprised to learn of the level of conflict and dysfunction in the executive team. Exec teams that operate under cabinet responsibility will very infrequently let the organization see anything besides consensus. But the team is comprised of strong-willed people with deeply held convictions and healthy egos. Sure, there is collaboration and generally a presumption of positive intent. But organizational leadership is a full-contact sport.
Be ready for conflict where it did not exist before. In fact, your boss will expect you to initiate some conflict, to take a contrary view and to push back on a colleague who is impeding your path to success. Handled well, this can have positive outcomes for everybody. Fight, respectfully, for what you believe in. Give your team air cover; you represent them, and their output is a reflection on you. I have seen leaders lose the respect of their peers by being too transparent on the faults of their own team.
3. You don’t recognize the fundamental change in dynamics between you and those on your team.
You used to be viewed as a captain on the team. You‘ve been admired, loved and considered “one of us.” You’ve socialized together with these colleagues for years. They all applauded your promotion. And then it struck them. You’re not the captain anymore. You are the boss.
The power equilibrium of your team has been disrupted. How they appear to leadership is now through your lens. You and have direct control over their livelihood. They are on their guard. They hope the move to leadership does not change who you are. Because you are home grown, they hope that any changes will be in a direction they can anticipate.
It is a mistake to believe or pretend that nothing has changed, at least in the workplace. Leadership can be lonely. You will distance yourself from long-established relationships to ensure necessary objectivity. If you don’t do this, it will happen to you, because people don’t treat a coach the same way they do a captain.
If you were selected over a colleague who had reason to believe they had a shot for that position, you need to address it straight on. Give this person the respect they deserve. Recruit them to be a major player in your plans. Consider how they can have ownership for a given scope of responsibility, a “consolation prize” of sorts. Keep your radar up for any indications that they cannot get on board with your agenda, either in initial conversations or subsequent weeks or months. You cannot afford for this person to become disruptive to your efforts. If this happens, talk to them about what you see and how you can support them achieving their goals inside or outside the organization.
4. Your behavior doesn’t reflect people paying closer attention to what you do and say.
Middle managers like you and rooted for your promotion. You are one of the company’s success stories. You were once one of the guys. Now you have become a role model. Remember when you and colleagues gossiped about the executive team? Those same colleagues are gossiping about you.
Some will continue to pull for you, because they see their own future in your success. Others will wonder, “Why not me?” and become skeptics. Whether they remain fans or not, they are watching everything you do, listening to everything you say. The frown on your face when you leave a meeting? Noted. The animated discussion over lunch with a fellow executive off-site? A subject of conversation.
You have to get used to being in the public eye. And you have to exhibit social awareness, on top of self-awareness. Be careful what you promise; you will be judged on how you deliver on your commitments. Resist the temptation to think out loud; this comes off as an exhibition of indecisiveness. In publicly traded companies, you are now an insider. Speculation on or discussion of future moves that the public does not know about is verboten. These governors on behavior might appear to get in the way of authenticity, but it doesn’t take long to get into a groove and be yourself.
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.