The Promotion Survival Guide: From expert to leader and beyond

Promoted to team lead? Moving up to management? Making the leap to leadership? Congratulations! As a new hire or star employee, someone upstairs has recognised your achievements and glimpsed your potential. But are you ready for what’s in store? Having risen to the top of your field by applying your expertise and experience to solving problems, the transition to manager and leader can be tough. The rules of the game have changed, and the skills that you have spent years developing become secondary to the organisational awareness, relationship management and communication skills you need as an effective leader. To apply the Peter Principle; promotion is often based on employees being good at their current job. Therefore people will continue to be promoted until they reach a level where they are no longer competent to do the job. Sound familiar? How can we prevent this?

How do we as ambitious, engaged employees evolve our skills and behaviours to become competent in the new skills a promotion requires of us? How do we as an organisation make the right promotions and support our new leaders? The answer lies in the perseverance, hard work and motivation it took you to build your expertise in the first place. Harnessing these inner resources and applying them to leadership challenges in a supportive organisation makes all the difference. It’s worth the effort. Rather than sinking in the quicksand, you can build the pyramids.

Collaboration not hierarchy

In our post-industrial economy, value creation is driven not by efficiency of systematic repeatable work, but rather by collaboration between professionals with deep expertise in their subject matter, whether it’s in IT, marketing, engineering, medicine or finance. It is the role of the managers and leaders of these organisations to combine, focus and direct the expertise of their people towards a common goal and make decisions for the good of the business as a whole. As you move from expert to manager to leader in an organisation, your vantage point changes, and a mental shift has to take place to be effective in your new role.

Key behaviour and focus shifts:

Expert to Leader table

Of course in real life people and companies do not fit into neat boxes, and one of the many challenges of moving to a more senior role involves being able to shift levels; recognising when and where you need to be a manager, a leader, and often, a combination of both.

Humans are creatures of habit. It takes time and concerted effort to function at expert level, and like moving from junior school to high school, the move from being at the top of your game to the new girl takes adjustment:

  • Getting to grips with politics. Part of being a leader involves working towards a common goal with many egos, each with their own opinion on what’s right. Playing politics to get things done can come as an unpleasant surprise.
  • Becoming a multi-lingual translator. Effective leaders understand the language of experts from all functions in the organisation, and translate as necessary. This is magnified when it comes to the outside world: communicating with the board, investors, and the general public.
  • Understanding people and emotions. Experts often find themselves surrounded by like-minded people. Your natural preference for certain behaviours led you down a similar path, resulting in affinity and mutual understanding. Leading diverse teams where people have very different interests, values and motivators from your own takes real effort.
  • Letting go. A classic trap for experts moving into management and leadership positions is micromanagement of the function you know well, and its bedfellow, under-managing the functions you don’t know well.

How to let go?

According to the Chief Technology Officer of a software company growing in diverse markets:

One of the benefits of leading an organisation having been a technical expert yourself is that you can ask informed questions of the people working for you. The danger is micromanagement. The key is probing with a genuine effort to understand and improve an approach, rather than to point out mistakes or take over and do it yourself. There comes a point where you have to give others space; say what you want done and leave people to deliver. This is hard at first because you are the one with the experience and know-how. Even if you have very talented people they will make mistakes, and you will probably see these mistakes coming. Sometimes, you have to stand by and let this happen. If you step in too often people will become demotivated and you will become overworked and lose sight of the big picture, neither of which is productive in the long run.”

What else can we do as individuals to address the challenges we face in transitioning from expert to leader?

  • Increase self-awareness. Identify and address your strengths and gaps in hard and soft skills through feedback, personality assessment tools, and coaching.
  • Reflect. Systematically review what’s working and what isn’t.
  • Ask for help. Everyone can lift weights in a gym, but if you really want to push through your comfort zone, a personal trainer can be very helpful. It’s the same with leadership.

What can organisations do?

  • Anticipate your leadership needs in recruiting/promoting. If you recruit the very best technical experts, you will have a highly competent technical organisation. When you have a need for managers, don’t be surprised if there are slim pickings. Employing some people with good, but not necessarily the best, technical skills in combination with people skills can pay off in the long run.
  • Recognise your organisational needs. Knowledge of an industry and organisation can be critical. More critical is recognising where your company is in its life cycle, and matching the current and future needs with the right leadership expertise. The type of leadership required to revive a large organisation in decline is very different to creating an established stable business from a start-up.
  • Provide opportunities and exposure. Years of experience are not enough. What counts is the quality and appropriateness of the experience. Giving increasing levels of responsibility in a range of business initiatives will both test capability and increase confidence on both sides.
  • Provide support. Recognise leadership as a set of skills to be developed, and not a case of leaving people to sink or swim. People learn best in different ways; training, coaching, executive education and mentoring are all options.

Finally, it is important to realise that just because you, or society at large, recognise leading an organisation as an aspiration, doesn’t mean that everyone does. Not all smart and competent people want to manage others, and neither should they be forced to in order to progress in their careers. Remember the Peter Principle. If we have people promoted out of jobs where they are competent into jobs where they are not, this benefits no one. Having a career ladder for those who are technical, creative, visionaries, and are recognised and rewarded at senior management level, without leading people, can be a win-win for all.

The transition from expert to manager to leader is not easy. The key is in recognising leadership as an expertise like any other, with distinct skills which can be learned and developed like any other; through motivation, practise and perseverance. With an open attitude, exposure to opportunities and the right support, the journey can be as rewarding as it is challenging.


2 thoughts on “The Promotion Survival Guide: From expert to leader and beyond”

  1. Thank you Corrina, I enjoyed that tremendously.

    In your work, I imagine that you have seen quite a few examples of experts making (or attempting to make) the transition to leader. I am curious – have you seen if there is any one of these focus shifts that experts struggle with in particular?

  2. Hi Frode, thanks for your interesting comment, I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

    If I was to pick one (or two!) areas that experts struggle with most as managers and leaders, especially in the first few years of transition, I would go for ‘micromanagement’ and its twin ‘inability to let go’, arising from underestimating how difficult it can be to manage a group of people/an organisation.

    Experts are very often high-achieving, smart, motivated individuals and have risen to the top of their current role because they have applied these attributes and skills to tough, but logical, problems and opportunities. When it comes to managing a group of people, this is a very different game.

    People can be illogical and emotional. Teams and organisations can be political and dysfunctional. Getting things to happen and creating value for the organisation as a manager therefore requires very different skills. Unfortunately for experts, who are often used to being excellent, or at least competent in what they do, this can be frustrating. It can be more comfortable to slip into micromanagement rather than harness the resilience and motivation to learn the skills needed to lead.

    This is where having support from the organisation, in the form of a strong and competent team you are managing and a leader/coach to help show you the way can be invaluable.


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