How to Survive the Big Promotion

Don’t let your anxiety or the uncertainty surrounding the new position derail you.

April 7, 2010

Congratulations. You’ve just gotten that much anticipated BIG promotion that you’ve been longing for: huge leap up the corporate ladder, large well-resourced team, enormous pay increase and crushing responsibilities. On your first day in your new role, you walk into your new office, sit down in your new chair, put your feet up on your new desk and savor the sweet taste of success. But what now?

If you’re like most of us, you probably start to panic, because you know that whatever happens from this moment on, you’re responsible. You’re probably starting to wonder whether you are up to the challenge; whether you’re really qualified for the position. You know about the Peter Principle; the theory that in any business hierarchy, employees tend to be promoted to their level of incompetence—and you’re starting to wonder if that’s you. Sure you excelled in your last position, but your job functions and accountabilities were totally different, and the relationships and collaborations that you painstakingly nourished are only tangentially relevant to your new role.

Don’t let your anxiety get the best of you. It’s true that first impressions are important, and that new leaders often have an opportunity to ride the tide of change and help reshape their team or organizations. But your ultimate success or failure depends as much upon the relationships you forge and how you conduct yourself during your first few months, as it does on what you are able to accomplish. In fact, relentlessly pursuing early wins may actually do more harm than good. You may achieve your objective in the narrowest sense, but compromise your long-term success by burning bridges and wastefully expending your leadership capital and goodwill.

Rack-up early wins the right way by surveying your new environs and taking stock:

  1. Identify your support. Who can you confide in as a mentor or coach? Who will provide honest and constructive feedback? Who are your allies? Who will champion your ideas?

  2. Understand the culture, politics and objectives of the organization and your new team. Whom do you need to influence or impress? What are their pet projects and accountabilities? Does the culture encourage collaboration or individual achievement? What are the key organizational goals and initiatives?

  3. Know your limits and take stock of your influence. What resources are at your disposal? What is within and beyond your control? What leverage points can you lean on?

  4. Formulate a game plan. What kind of leadership style would you like to convey? How will you balance observing, listening and questioning with communication, decisiveness and action? What will be your value-add to the organization? And what are your priorities for the next few months? Next few years?

  5. Execute. Establish A-list priorities and identify low hanging fruit. Focus initial efforts on items that a) are aligned with broader organizational goals, b) can be accomplished in a reasonable amount of time and c) will yield operational and/or financial improvements. Look for overlap and delegate in a manner that consolidates similar functions, while playing to individual strengths.

  6. Reflect, reassess and adapt. Make time to review your efforts and to assess your progress and the impact the work is having on your team and the broader organization. Reflect on your initial assumptions and modify your approach where you are not seeing the results you anticipated. It is much easier to make adjustments earlier on before tasks, functions and roles become operationalized.

Achieving success early on in a new position will help to combat promotion anxiety and bolster your leadership self-confidence, but don’t discount the importance of how you set about your new work. Take time to contextualize the new role and make sure your early efforts align with organizational goals and the vision and leadership style you’d like to convey. Because you are in uncharted territory, your initial first steps may feel uncomfortable or lonely, but if you do your homework and ensure that your early efforts are consistent with the culture of the organization, you’ll be fine. Remember that many of our greatest accomplishments in life are defined by overcoming loneliness and anxiety.