Transitioning from being a rockstar employee and individual contributor to being an organizational leader is not easy. As a leader, you need to master an entirely new set of skills. Skills that you are not a rockstar at and probably never will be if you are truly focused on inbound leadership.
On top of that, when you first become a leader in an organization, not only are you drinking from a firehose of learning these new skills, you may also find the skills you were a rockstar at start to slowly slip away.
You can’t be the best digital marketer or sales rep, and also be the best manager. You simply can’t focus on all things at once.
If you are exhilarated by the idea of reaching beyond what you’ve already mastered and staying in a role that will continuously keep you challenged for the remainder of you career, congratulations! You’re exactly where you should be!
(Although, if this is depressing, maybe management isn’t the right seat for you.)
Even if management excites you, there is still a very real emotional transition that happens as you carve out a new layer of your identity.
While the background for these stages is purely anecdotal, what follows is what I have seen time and again -- both through my own experience, as well as through helping new leaders find their footing as they climb up the organizational ladder.
Stage #1: "I'm Excited for My New Leadership Role!"
Woohoo! You just got a promotion!
All that hard work paid off, and you’ve proven you are someone the team looks to for subject matter expertise. Moreover, you've shown leadership skills without being asked and are a natural choice to be the manager of your team.
You are pumped. You may even get a little bit of ego during this stage.
(Don’t worry, it won't last long.)
Stage #2: "Whoa, I'm Not a Rockstar Anymore & This Is Really Outside of My Comfort Zone..."
As it sinks in that you are now going to be a manager, you realize all the things you now need to learn to be a good manager.
With a pretty big skills gap between what you were doing before as a subject matter expert and now as a leader, you start to question if you were the right choice. You might not see what your managers saw in you and aren’t sure you’re going to be able to do a good job.
You are uncomfortable.
You used to be the rockstar. Now, you have to do a job you have never done before, and it’s not easy or something you can pick up really fast. That means there's a good chance all of the praise and recognition you used to receive before will be in short supply now.
All the areas you know you need to work on are now on a pedestal for your entire team to judge you.
For me, I’ll admit, I liked the idea of “being in charge,” but I was nervous if I’d like managing people -- minor detail, right?
I’d been a manager in other jobs and had a mixed experience. But I also knew I was not a naturally influential or extroverted person. So, I had to do a lot of work recognizing there are other types of leaders out there than what I’d always seen.
But enough about me -- let's get back to you. You may have also been promoted within a team of peers, who you now have to manage. Will they resent you? Will they respect you?
Oh boy, you’ve got a lot to learn and need to figure out how to establish a manager-direct report relationship with your former peers.
Stage #3: "I Feel More Comfortable As a Leader, But Sometimes I Feel Left Behind -- in Expertise & with My Old Friends..."
After a few months, you start to feel like you’ve got a better handle on your new responsibilities. Your team sees you as their manager now, and you’re feeling like you’re establishing good relationships and being helpful.
You’re not perfect and make mistakes, but you’re learning and growing every time you face a setback.
Your biggest challenge is you know you are getting better as a manager and figuring some things out -- but while you're doing that, your team gets smarter and smarter in your old area of subject matter expertise.
If you had to jump in and help, which you still do, you have moments of doubt in your abilities -- you know you haven’t been as much of a student of the game as your employees have.
Instead, you’ve been studying a different game.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s still a weird feeling, especially if you have the mindset that the manager also has to be the best at doing the stuff your people do.
I remember a time last summer when I pitched in to help with a strategy project for a client. I was so nervous that the strategist on the account would think I was an idiot and would have no clue why I was ever selected to lead our services department.
Fortunately, none of that happened. But even this far into my career, I can feel insecurity rear its ugly head about tasks and duties that used to feel like second nature.
Although it’s an uncomfortable position to be in, you recognize you are working on exactly what you should be doing. And you are starting to be okay with not being the expert anymore.
This next part isn’t true for all companies, but it can happen.
You may have painful micro-moments of being left out of your old work friend group.
This can either be because you’re not as close to the group anymore because you’re working on different things. Or it can be because the team wants to go out and have a vent session. It happens.
When your team wants to blow off steam, you don’t get an invite. You’re the boss, and they may not feel they can speak freely around you anymore.
This is a weird experience, I know firsthand how lonely that can feel.
Of course, you don’t like feeling this way, so you vow to foster an environment where the team doesn’t need to blow off steam in the first place.
You also may recognize that you need to build peer relationships outside of your team. (Spoiler alert: You 100% need to do this.)
Stage #4: "I'm Getting Comfortable Being Uncomfortable!"
After a year or so, you realize that there will never be a normal rhythm or cadence to your day-to-day. You are working with people, and people are unpredictable. Rather than frustrate you, this excites you.
By now, you've likely learned what it’s like to help another team member step up into a new leadership position -- just like someone did for you -- and are fulfilled by the work you do.
In order to be there for your people, you start finding a better way to divide work responsibilities between you and your team, so everyone is working on an area that best suits their strengths.
You realize your strength is no longer your old subject matter expertise. Your strength is in driving performance of your team and creating the best environment to make that happen. You have let go of your grip on your old work and fully embraced the new purpose in your career. Now, you find discomfort as you learn new skills vs. letting go of old ones.
If you are focused on growing as a leader, you must become comfortable with the fact that this will never end.
So, How Do You Get Through the Stages More Quickly?
Sorry, y'all. There's no skipping through any of these stages. Every single new leader goes through them, and so you should expect to go through them yourself. Of course, some will be faster, and more or less severe than others.
You also may slip backward a few times as you encounter more new skills. It’s easy to fall into being insecure again or working through losing control again if your team expands and you have to let something go.
You are a human, so this isn’t an exact science. The point is it’s okay to feel the things you are feeling.
In my opinion, the only stage you can move through faster is the third one.
This is the stage where it is entirely up to you how you want to look at your world. This is the stage where emotionally agile people get through it much more easily than those who dwell on things they can’t control and let stories they tell themselves about what others think of them dictate how they see their own world.
In fact, I recently had the opportunity to help a new leader work through this stage more efficiently. She came to me when she was moving into a management role and opened up about the thing she was most scared about:
"I'm nervous. I was recognized for being stellar in my previous role. Now, I'm worried about the areas I know I need to work on, and I'm going to be under the microscope, because I won't have the glow of all of the great work I used to do to mask those shortcomings."
Her number one area that she knew, especially as a manager, she needed to improve her ability to let go of the task work, and let her team be more autonomous.
This was one of my favorite conversations ever.
While she may have considered such a confession as a sign of weakness, I saw it as strength in both self-awareness and maturity to recognize what she needed to do to get better for her team.
She was able to acknowledge her fear and then attack it head on with what she could control. As a result, she didn’t spend weeks or months living in "Insecurityville."
Worrying about her weakness wasn’t going to change anything. Instead, being proactive and focusing on what levers to pull to improve pushed her through this stage.
Now, Here’s the Exact Plan for How to Move Through Each Stage
There is no cookie cutter solution to working through the challenges of transitioning into a management role. The first thing you can do to help yourself is to recognize where you’re at.
Sometimes simply putting a name or description to how you’re feeling can help you create enough clarity of your challenges so you can figure out how to get past them.
In the meantime, my podcast with IMPACT COO Chris Duprey, Leadership in Real Life, is a great resource to approach leadership outside the typical paradigms we’ve become accustomed to. It might also open your eyes to how to move more gracefully through your management transition stage.