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Don’t Let Promotion Anxiety Derail Your Career
Many of us dream about the moment when we get that longed-for promotion. Imagine that it’s yours: a great step up the career ladder, huge responsibility, a bigger team and a whopping pay rise.
It all happens so quickly: your predecessor gives you a fast handover, you meet your new team and peers, and your boss sets your objectives for the year. After a whirlwind few days, you walk into your new corner office (if you are really lucky), sit behind your new desk and savour your success.
But what happens next? For anyone who has been in this situation, the answer is not straightforward. Because from this moment on, whatever happens is your responsibility. You are the boss. You have to take the difficult decisions, make the judgment calls and perhaps even define your own role. And there will be the massive unspoken expectation — from your team, your peers, and your boss — that you will know exactly what to do.
A few unshakeably confident executives launch straight into action, but for most new leaders, this is a moment of unspeakable anxiety and uncertainty. Ironically, the greatest triumph of their careers is also defined by loneliness. And for some, that can be psychologically very disturbing.
Take Antony, 35, newly promoted to the board after his stellar success as marketing director of a FTSE 250 company. He had risen inexorably through the ranks and was tipped by the chairman to be the next CEO. After a busy few days, he was due to attend his first main board meeting. As he walked towards the boardroom, he felt a peculiar sense of detachment from the scene around him. He was aware of familiar faces greeting and congratulating him, but for some reason, he couldn’t hear what they were saying — it was as if a glass window was separating him from them. He was watching them speak but couldn’t hear the words they were saying
Ten minutes later, as they sat around the table, he began to feel dizzy. His heart was pounding and he broke into a sweat. Then he became aware that the room had fallen silent and that everyone was looking at him. The chairman stared intently at him and repeated a question. Suddenly overwhelmed by anxiety, he rose up, pushed away his chair and dashed to the door. Only when he felt the cool air on his face outside the building did he feel the sense of panic subside.
Back in the boardroom, the chairman asked what had just happened. The Antony they’d known until this point — a talented leader with a strong track record, a winning personality, and a cool head in a crisis — had just bolted from the room after being asked a simple factual question. This is not what they had expected on his first day as a board member.
A day or so later, Antony felt able to explain what had happened to a colleague. While he’d felt very confident at the outset, as he approached the boardroom he began to panic, sensing that everyone expected that he knew what to do, what to say and what to expect. Fearing that he wouldn’t be able to control the panic, he left the room as quickly as he could. He tried to figure out why he had acted that way. Later that day it clicked. The last time he had felt such panic was after the death of his father 15 years before: he had not known what to do then, but he had been confronted with a similar same sense of expectation from his family. Suppressing his own grief, he had acted then as though he knew what to do, although inside he was panicking.
It was clear that his new role had provoked a similar degree of anxiety that had stirred up deep and unresolved feelings from his past. Fortunately, Antony recovered his equanimity and was successful in his new role. Yet some executives fall victim to an overwhelming anxiety that derails them at exactly the moment when their careers should be soaring.
So what can be done? From my conversations with leaders in this situation and from my own experience, I suggest you consider some of the following questions:
- Where is your support? Do you have a strong ally, mentor or coach to lean on during the first few months of your new role?
- What is your plan for the first few months?
- What are your priorities for your new role?
- What do you need to achieve in the first week, month, or quarter? Are your priorities focused on tasks, targets, people, structure, culture, mood or vision?
- What kind of personal impression do you want to make from the outset?
- What are your values and what is your leadership style?
- What is in your control and what is outside your control?
- How will you reconcile yourself with these?
- What kind of balance do you need to strike between observing, listening and questioning and communicating, making decisions and taking action?
- Whom do you need to influence most? Boss, stakeholders, team or peers?
- And what kind of network do you have?
- Do you really understand the culture and politics of the organisation? If not, how can you find out and who will guide you?
- Who will give you honest and constructive feedback about your performance and help you understand others’ perceptions of you?
- How much time will you set aside for yourself to gain perspective, and develop your strategy and vision?
- What is your contribution across the organisation?
- How can you support your peers, your boss and other teams to achieve their objectives?
These are my thoughts on this subject — as always, I welcome your ideas and contributions. Have you ever found yourself in an anxiety-inducing situation similar to the one described above? If so, what did you do? And what would you recommend others do in the face of such circumstances?