Is A Promotion More Stressful Than Divorce? 5 Tips To Help Your Employees Succeed

Promoting people to their first management job is harder than it looks—for everyone involved. Here's how to increase the chances that it'll work out—up from the 60% average—and that you've got the right person for the job.

Promotions are usually a cause for celebration.

But they’re also transitions, and that first promotion from individual contributor to management is particularly fraught.

"Your identity changes," says Rich Wellins, senior vice president at Development Dimensions International (DDI). "You have to identify more with the company than with the employees, and you are now responsible for the success of others rather than the success of yourself." Consequently, one DDI study found that "Transitions into leadership positions are actually more stressful than divorce or raising teenagers." And another DDI survey found that the success rate for internal first-line promotions is just a bit above 60 percent, which is not much better than for external hires, despite employees’ familiarity with the company and culture.

How can you increase your employees’ chances of success?

Cast a broad net.

It’s human nature to view certain people as management material because of factors that probably aren’t relevant: where that person went to school, even that the person happens to be tall (height discrimination is surprisingly prevalent). Smart companies look systematically for leadership potential, even using simulations to see how people might perform in common situations. "There are tests that are used—we have some, and other people have leadership tests—that have a fairly high correlation with performance," Wellins says. Many assessments are cheap, yet few companies use a validated instrument as part of leadership selections.

Also, don’t rule out people just because they’re in certain jobs. Andrew Ly, CEO of California’s Sugar Bowl Bakery, which produces many hotel and private-label baked goods, reports that a former intern became an assistant, and from there, did such a good job in all her tasks that she moved on to be an office manager. Later, she became an assistant general manager. "We have an open-door policy, and I walk my plants every day," he says. "Sometimes you spot one of the warehouse people, and he is so intelligent. He’s giving great ideas, and you see he has some great potential."

Let people practice.

Internal committees and projects are a good way for people in individual contributor roles to try managing. "That’s a safe environment to test out those skills and grow and learn," says Karen Miller, vice president for people at Seamless.com, the online food ordering service. Figuring out how people might serve in such roles can be part of employee evaluation conversations.

Don’t flatten too much.

While middle management and multilevel hierarchies have gotten a bad reputation, you need some roles in your organization that allow people to manage just a few team members before they move on to managing whole departments. The bigger the transition, the harder it will be.

Focus on skills.

Management training needs to be practical. "What I see most is that new managers have a hard time setting expectations—making sure people understand what’s expected of them," says Miller. So during their training sessions, new Seamless managers drill on delegation and feedback. "That gives them the chance to try out using the words," says Miller. Lots of role-playing helps new managers see that "We do give feedback, and not only is it okay, but it’s expected and it’s part of the role and how we all learn and grow."

Follow up.

New managers need support. After the initial training, check back in frequently to evaluate how things are going. Angela Loeffler, chief people officer at Lending Club, a peer-to-peer lending company, reports that new managers receive formal quarterly training after their initial promotion and "ongoing coaching, one-on-one as needed." The goal? Learning to "define what a successful outcome looks like"—when success is no longer just about your own work.

[Plant: Tom Saga via Shutterstock]

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