I share these ideas because promotion is fundamentally about moving forward into an unknown place. People don’t know what it’s like to lead until they get there. Too often, however, professionals overestimate how well they know this new place, thus they engage the stages of promotion with surprise and elevated stress. Good news: if you know what’s coming, it doesn’t have to hurt!
Stage 1: dreaming. Before the next big promotion, long before you have signaled your intensions and applied, you dream. You idealize the promotion. You focus on the joy of being rewarded, the feeling of higher status and authority, and the glee of higher pay. You rely on simple uninformed notions of what it means to be a leader. In short, you see in your future exactly what you need to see in order to maintain the feeling that you can do anything.
Stage 2: doubt. You have applied for the promotion. Others know what you have done. You begin to feel eyes watching you in larger numbers than ever before. You start rethinking your logic. You begin to question your timing and your skills. You work hard to maintain a belief that you have made the right decision, in the face of an odd and unexpected challenge to your self-confidence.
Stage 3: the honeymoon. You got it! You have been rewarded with the promotion! During your honeymoon month, self-doubt evaporates. You are overtaken with elation. People keep telling you “congratulations.” You have a new office, title, and salary. Even the office jerks seem to give you a pass. A glorious feeling of success and invulnerability defines you. It’s beautiful. Enjoy it. It doesn’t last.
Stage 4: paranoia. After the honeymoon, you begin to see your new reality more clearly. Many of the folks who were your buddies now look at you differently, some with suspicion. You feel abandoned. Sadly, nobody has given you a playbook for your new role. A sense of being overwhelmed sets in. Then you realize that not everyone wants you to succeed. For the first time, you are forced to think deeply about politics at work. You feel a sense of dread, wondering whom you can trust.
Stage 5: delusions of grandeur. Assuming you did not quit or get fired while battling the paranoia, you get a grip on your new reality, convince yourself you can do this, and begin plotting your grand success. You remember why you accepted the role in the first place. This is when you learn to read politics more clearly and unemotionally, you begin to build stronger coalitions, you learn to rally your team, and you begin espousing serious long-term improvement goals. You achieve your first small win and the emotional swing from paranoia and dread to a passionate belief in positive change is complete.
Stage 6: regret. While plotting to change the world, you fully realize the pros and cons of being a leader. You now understand that the challenges are bigger than you realized. The hours are very long. The constraints are now apparent. You know what the system can and can’t do. You see clearly the abilities and limitations of you colleagues on the leadership team. You comprehend both the rewarding nature of small wins, and the seemingly impossible reality of making large-scale change. You feel respected, but you often feel alone while facing difficult odds.
Stage 7: the choice. You know that you must make a choice about what you intend to do moving forward. Your initial learning curve after promotion lasted a few months, maybe one year. Now, with much more clarity, you must own your situation and make a choice. You can quit (get out of the current role), acquiesce (stay in the role and become an ineffective steward of the status quo), or strive to make real change (stay in the role and continue taking risks, fight the good fight – to heck with the odds).
Every leader faces this choice. It is unavoidable. There is no correct answer, only an answer that is best for you.
Leadership is vitally important and can be among the most fulfilling endeavors in life. It is also different and more difficult than most understand. That’s true for the first promotion and each subsequent promotion you accept. Before seeking to join the ranks of leadership, spend time seriously examining your values. What is it you desire? How many hours is enough? How much status do you need? How much do you value leisure and family time? How much is enough money?
Please don’t hear me wrong. Though leading others is tough, I believe there is more upside than downside. It is a noble endeavor. The challenges noted above are simply the price you must pay for the status, pay, and the opportunity to help improve your employees’ lives and your company’s competitiveness. It’s up to you. Is it worth it?