Written by
Changeboard Team

Published
11 Sep 2015

Its tough at the top why promotion doesnt always mean progression

11 Sep 2015 • by Changeboard Team

So you want to get promoted be careful what you wish for

After 15 years in executive search I have been lucky to work with many senior business leaders across a range of organisations, sectors and countries. While the individuals I have met are all quite different personalities, they do share some common characteristics; they are typically intelligent, articulate, driven and committed. Yet only a smaller proportion appear to approach their jobs with a spring in their step, pleasure and infectious enthusiasm. Why this and what lessons are there for those who aspire to be a divisional MD, functional leader or even CEO? 

The highly ambitious are likely to be motivated by an individually specific blend of different traits and desires, which may include the wish to make an impact on organisations and events, status, financial rewards, the respect of their colleagues, family and friends and so on. Seeking promotion is a no-brainer, right? Unfortunately, there is also a price to pay for every step in the hierarchy. So before throwing your hat in the ring for that next step up, it may be worth considering some of the most common traps:

Time frames extend and complexity increases

As we grow in our career, our horizons change. For example, we typically start in our 20s by delivering tasks to a short time frame, maybe a single day or afternoon. By the time executives run a section of a company, they are usually held accountable in units measured in quarters or financial years. Once they reach the executive committee of a large corporation, time horizons naturally extend again, across years. For those who gain most energy by delivering to a challenging timetable today, this can feel unfamiliar and hard to do.

Thinking longer-term is compounded by the fact that senior leaders are faced with considerable ambiguity as well as the need to shape the future rather than simply respond to events. Problems become more complex, and solutions harder to find. This requires an agile mind that enjoys thinking through multiple scenarios and balancing the requirement to be tactically astute today with maintaining a longer-term direction. Not many have the chance to practice this on their way up.

Your leadership style must evolve

The more senior you get, the more likely you are going to have to change how you lead. Delegating more is perhaps the most obvious difference. Others may be less clear. For example, getting the best out of high calibre executives with their own ambitions and motivations often requires changing style for each individual subordinate, which may not be the way many have managed successfully in the past.

Your personal life may suffer

Some who step up to executive committee level for the first time may both enjoy their new-found independence but also miss having peers to bounce ideas off and learn from. Having a consensual management style can help but in some roles (e.g. group HR director) the need for great discretion may limit sources of advice. This can be hard for those who like to talk things through with multiple colleagues.

In addition, it’s a rare senior business leader who is not essentially working and on call 24/7. Many people work exceptionally hard these days but it only gets more intense with seniority. Going for promotion may be a family choice as well as an individual one. 

Tips for successful progression

  • Don’t assume that your next promotion is effectively a bigger version of the job you do today. Expect it to be very different and require a new application of your skills.
  • Know yourself and be realistic about what will make both you and your family happy as well as successful.
  • Develop an appetite to keep learning and developing. Those who get real pleasure out of their own skill development and evolution as leaders are often best placed to succeed in new, complex and ambiguous roles.