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Advice & News

November 18, 2019

Managing Your First Promotion


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Life is full of irony but perhaps none is more delicious than this: the skills that you developed in your successful career, especially early on when you were just getting started, actually turn out to be irrelevant or even dysfunctional as you move up in the hierarchy. What do I mean by this observation?

We are dealing here with that first level administrative position where you are both responsible for managing a unit and its work, and also have to lead others in that endeavor. In faculty roles, either your discipline prizes independent work (think writing books, painting pictures, etc.) or you have worked in a group where the senior faculty person shapes what happens and when (think laboratory investigation, field studies, etc.).

Likewise, if your career began in student affairs or development or finance, you entered a work environment where the roles and responsibilities have been set out by those more advanced in their careers.

When you get your first promotion, or change into a new and expanded role, usually it is a reflection of the fact that you have excelled at “doing.” You will continue to do things for sure, usually more complex and therefore, at least temporarily, energizing. But you will also have a new responsibility -- to lead others as they do their share of the work. And for that, many are ill-prepared.

Put another way, the skills that we master in our initial appointment are insufficient in enabling us to fully succeed in our next appointment, and may even be dysfunctional. Therein lies the irony, and it will only deepen as you climb up the hierarchy and ‘do’ less and less, and start leading more and more.

If you doubt it, think of how many successful deans are flops as provost, how many provosts fail as president, and how many perfectly successful people at lower levels turn out to struggle in a new position just a step above their old one. These are good and talented people who went a step too far or moved too fast or both. Many talented people flounder on the ladder of success and it is both unwise and impossible to predict which emerging leader will be the most successful over time.

It is useful, however, to be alert to these possibilities when applying for that first, entry-level leadership position. It should not deter you, but it should be at least in the back of your mind as you interview, moving to the front when you are offered the position.

Here are a few ideas to ponder as you decide to take that first step. They also might serve you well in later transitions upward.

First, you really do not know the scope of work that the new position entails. I remember when I became a program director in an innovative student-oriented academic program for one of our residence halls, then a novel idea, today ubiquitous. I was the third occupant and I thought the job was about recruiting faculty to teach our seminars, advising students, and schmoozing with parents on occasion. It was, but those were the easy and obvious things. The first thing I had to do was hire a secretary which gave me an introduction to the world of human resources which, in my prior experience, I thought just arranged for payroll and all the benefits. Nothing had prepared me for hiring an employee.

I’ll spare you other examples of near or complete ignorance on my part. The point is that you will have no idea what your predecessor really did and you will have to learn the ropes and rules fast if you are to maintain a new pace, as there are always more, not fewer items on that list.

Second, on some issues, people will expect you to make decisions. But they will also expect you to listen or consult them before you do. Especially when you know what needs to be done and the most efficient way to get it attended to by taking action, not talking the issue to death. I’ll have more to say on this in a future column.

Third, on other issues you are clueless about, you need to learn about them before you can do anything. The irony here is that among those who work with you, there will be those who know you are unprepared and others who think you must know, because otherwise why were you picked for the job?

Here is where you can develop your leadership skills. As a solo practitioner of whatever you were doing before this promotion, you were expected to do the work and make all the decisions (within limits, of course). Now you have an opportunity to lead a group in a discussion of how to address an issue before you decide. Your ignorance might drive the necessity to do that, but it also sets the stage for you to develop leadership skills such as listening, asking probing questions, managing group dynamics, and more. You will still decide but now with more information than you possessed before and with support from those who must help implement the decision.

This transition from doing everything yourself to management of a unit to leading it is a key step in your professional development and it will serve you well in other positions that are on your horizon.