Intuit’s Brian Ascher, 30, got the call last September. He’d been part of a small group developing new investment features for the company’s personal-finance software. Suddenly he was product manager for the Windows version of Quicken — the company’s flagship product, with 9 million users.
Ascher had known that this promotion — the biggest of his career — was a possibility. But nothing had prepared him for starting the job. He had 12 months to create a new Quicken that was faster, better, smarter than any version before it. How could he coordinate his immediate team of 15 engineers, plus a huge supporting cast from across the company, without suffocating under the pressure?
“As the leader of a team, you become the contact person for everything,” Ascher says. “No matter who has a question, they call you. You really have to focus your priorities.”
PictureTel’s Nancy Toro, 33, got the call last July. She’d been working on an important new product for the videoconferencing-equipment manufacturer. An independent contractor, she was helping to design an electronic whiteboard. Suddenly she was a full-time employee responsible for the team of six engineers developing the whiteboard — with only five months to ship it.
“I’ve been an individual contributor for most of my career,” Toro says, “so when PictureTel asked me to become project leader I was very excited. But I had no experience. I’d been on plenty of teams, but I’d never led a team.”
Boeing’s Bruce Moravec, 38, got the call last August. He’d spent 15 years as a manufacturing engineer, 8 of them as a manager. Suddenly he was handed the opportunity of a lifetime — to co-lead the team that would design a new fuselage for the Boeing 757. The technical demands were awesome: stretch the plane by 24 feet, add lots of functionality, do it in less than two years. The human demands were just as daunting: coordinate 300 team members, few of whom reported directly to him, almost none of whom knew their new leader very well.
“I had to boost my credibility,” Moravec says. “I had lots of credibility as a manufacturing engineer and second-level manager. But suddenly I was responsible for tool design, fuselage definition, all kinds of areas that weren’t in my background.”
Different stories, different companies, different pressures. But a common challenge — how to make the transition from team player to team leader. That transition has become a defining rite of passage in the new world of business. More and more work is project work; people are getting bigger assignments earlier in their careers. The result is a generation of young leaders who feel overwhelmed, underqualified, and just a bit dazed and confused. What do you do after that big promotion? First you celebrate. Then you agonize.
Finally you figure out what it means to lead.
“It’s a tough transition for a lot of people,” says Kimball Fisher, coauthor of “Tips for Teams” (McGraw-Hill, 1995) and a teamwork trainer for companies including Chevron, Hewlett-Packard, and Apple Computer. “Team members don’t automatically respect your new title. They want to know how you’re going to help them accomplish what they need to. You have to become a facilitator, business analyzer, interface manager, boundary definer.”
It’s almost impossible to juggle all those roles — especially when so few people are prepared for their responsibilities. “Most new leaders get no formal training,” observes Mark Christensen of Learning Point Inc., a consulting firm in Vancouver, Washington. “Companies wouldn’t think of letting someone run a backhoe without training. But they let people run teams with no training at all.”
What follows is Fast Company’s six-point survival guide for new leaders. We’ve combined advice from the experts with hands-on resources. We’ve also culled lessons from an intriguing collection of young leaders — from software engineers to factory managers to basketball stars. Their lessons are worth studying. The promotion you save might be your own.
Eric Matson (email@example.com) is a member of the Fast Company editorial team.