Leadership: Growing pains

Getting a promotion isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Envision getting a promotion. Practise your managerial strut. Pick out a new car. Arrange your new corner office. All set? Good. Now get ready to reach for the tissues. Canadian business leaders say climbing the corporate ladder is as stressful as divorce and bereavement, according to a recent study by global HR consultant DDI. Too often, the excitement of promotion is blindsided by transitional challenges, such as the fear of failure and the poor support mechanisms many organizations have in place — if they have any at all.

Part of the problem, says Suzanne Gagnon, director of consulting services for DDI Canada, is the trend toward eliminating the management level between junior and senior leadership roles — commonly that of mid-level manager. This has resulted in a gap between the people leaders and strategic leaders, with no one learning the ropes.

But it’s not just new managers who suffer. Ill-prepared leadership often leads to ineffective management, low morale and high employee turnover. Internal promotions fail a third of the time, and employees often leave the company altogether, rather than return to their old jobs. The organization loses a once valuable player, and also creates a stigma around promotion.

Those who do tough it out say navigating the political network higher up, learning how to get work done through others and dealing with ambiguous or uncertain performance expectations are the most stressful of their new jobs. Less than a third of the 186 people surveyed reported they were able to effectively overcome any of those three challenges. Gagnon says many new leaders have a hard time letting go of their old jobs, and try to “continue doing what they used to be very good at,” which can be stressful, if not crippling.

It’s not all bad, of course. Just over half said their promotions had a positive impact on their lives, but that doesn’t mean such transitions can’t be made more fruitful. Organizations need to abandon their sink-or-swim attitude toward new managers. Bosses should show concern for their fledgling’s development by spending time outlining clear expectations, offering guidance on how to approach various situations and building better professional networks. It’s also important for newly promoted employees to feel welcome during the “unboarding period,” says Gagnon, and get a rundown on the “DNA of the organization,” such as its culture, values and practices.

Wannabe leaders, in turn, have to be honest with themselves, and keep a record of positives and negatives when dealing with key assignments. They should also establish a personal “board of directors” including family, friends, trusted colleagues and outside professionals to offer support and criticism.

If everything goes right, those moving up the ladder won’t have to spend their raises on Kleenex instead of that new Porsche.