Promotion pitfalls:

navigating the shift from comrade to commander


Published on: April 2021

Written by: Laura Fay

There’s a great Simon Sinek quote that says, “When you occupy a position of leadership, a whisper becomes a shout.”

In other words, what and how you say something becomes much more meaningful and lands more heavily as you move up the ranks. Same goes with your actions. It’s a great position of influence to be in – but it comes with a pretty big responsibility – one that leaders often don’t realize until it’s too late.

I recently worked with a client who had just been promoted to head up a large business unit at a global technology firm. She was successfully making the leap from leadership team peer to executive leader in all ways but one – setting boundaries with her team. Gone were the days of commiserating over shared experiences, tough clients, unhappiness with company policies. Like it or not, she was now a boss at the executive team level, and she needed to support the strategic priorities of the broader organization.

Experts in the team management space talk about this idea of a “First Team” – in other words, leaders must prioritize the team they are a member of over the team they lead. It’s a well-intentioned model that seeks to break down silos, and force managers out of a fierce – and often insular – advocacy of their functional team at the expense of the enterprise. However, it comes with risks. Skew too far to the left, you lose the trust and credibility of your direct reports. Skew too far to the right and your executive team peers feel you’re biased and not acting in the best interest of the organization.

So how do you strike a balance? Six tips for a seamless leadership transition:

  1. Don’t second guess yourself: You already got the job. You don’t have to take a heavy-handed leadership approach with peers or micromanage direct reports to demonstrate your value. Be confident in your position, and humble in your approach.
  2. Talk less, smile more: You’re used to rolling up your sleeves and finding solutions. But not only will you not have all the answers in this new position, your role has changed. You’re no longer working along side your team – you’re the facilitator and empowerer. Ask questions rather than make recommendations. Show the team you trust them.
  3. Set clear expectations: Discuss the team’s role in decision making and priority setting. Be clear about when and how you’ll share information and set up open communication channels for raising concerns and gathering feedback. Help create structure for this new dynamic which is awkward for your old team too.
  4. Be ok not being “in”: Your personal relationships with peers will change when they become your direct reports – especially as you move up in the organization. It’s a tough pill to swallow, and one that no one really tells you about. Don’t take it to heart – focus on the positive culture you can foster so that the team feels unified, connected, and supported from within.
  5. Focus on fair play: To the prior point, you need to reset your interactions to ensure equity. There’s a tendency for recently promoted executives to share information and updates – even innocuous ones – with former peers who they were close to and talked to more frequently. This will only reinforce mistrust and competition within the team. Keep the side conversations on the sidelines.
  6. Find a peer confidante: We’ve heard the saying that it’s lonely at the top – but leaders need to vent too. It will be tempting to overshare with your team, so it’s important to have a thought partner or colleague who can help you think through challenges. Think broadly – beyond your company – and find partners in your network with similar seniority and roles who can serve as a sounding board or outlet when things get frustrating.

Under normal circumstances, these transitions can be tough. In a virtual environment – it’s tougher. You don’t have the benefit of in-person conversations, travel to different offices, or team sessions to build rapport and create excitement about the path ahead. Rather, you have to be intentional about redefining and building relationships with each new stakeholder. Consider a “Listening Tour” – set up 1:1s to ask peers and directs how they prefer to communicate and receive information in this environment, how frequently they like to meet, and what kind of support and balance they need right now. You can start demonstrating your leadership style from day one – using empathy and concern as a foundation.

While taking on a bigger role often creates a different dynamic, being an “executive” doesn’t mean leading without transparency or authenticity. Quite the opposite. But it does require a new mindset and reframing of your role to protect and buffer the team from unnecessary conflict or issues, while recognizing that you have new stakeholders to build relationships with. Broaden your loyalties, set necessary boundaries, communicate often, demonstrate empathy, and above else – build self-awareness around the impact of your whisper.

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