How I switched careers without realizing it.
Getting promoted to management is more akin to a fork in the road than a rung on a ladder.
My phone buzzed urgently. It was my manager, calling to tell me the news.
“Are you ready for this? Things are happening fast.” She was excited, talking quickly, and I could hear the smile in her voice. The leadership team had been in a group offsite all day and I was hearing about all the changes practically in real-time. I’d just discovered my manager, Gina*, was being promoted to a new bigger role within the group and I was going to become team manager, starting tomorrow.
It was fast. We had discussed my potential interest in management as part of my regular, ongoing career development plan, and I’d even taken on a few stretch assignments to get more familiar with the scope of her role. When we talked about where I wanted to be in the next five years, management was definitely in the picture.
I’d been a lead designer on the team for nearly seven years, and consistently delivered great results. My internal clients enjoyed working with me and gave me good reviews. I also helped mentor new junior designers when they joined the team to help them navigate things and get settled in.
I was going to be a manager! Woot woot! I did a little dance, a little shoulder shimmy. I was definitely going to celebrate tonight, and I couldn’t wait to tell my husband.
“When will it be official?” I asked.
“We’ll announce it to your team tomorrow. Jeff is working on an email to the group right now and will send first thing.”
I had another burning question, but didn’t know how to ask. It was awkward.
“Am I getting bumped up a level?” I had dollar signs in my eyes. Now that I was a manager, how much more was I going to be paid?
“Well…” Gina paused briefly. “We’ll likely revisit that at midyear, once you’ve been in the new role a little while.”
My heart sank a little. More responsibility… but not more pay? It didn’t seem very fair. Still, it was only five or six months to wait. I took a deep breath.
“Oh. Okay. That makes sense,” I replied. I knew she could hear the disappointment in my voice as hard as I tried to hide it.
“This is exciting, Alicia, it’s such a great opportunity for you. You should be proud!” (She really was a superb manager. I learned a lot from her over the years.)
Looking back on this moment over a decade later, I’m admittedly chagrined. My primary concern at that moment was the self-serving pieces around my promotion. What was my new title going to be? How much would my salary increase? Instead, I should have been asking myself, “What does this new career path look like? What skills will I need to learn? How will the people on my new team feel about this change?
I didn’t know to ask those questions, because they hadn’t dawned on me yet.
The next morning I drove into work, my phone buzzing with emails from other colleagues congratulating me and welcome notes from the leadership team that I was now going to be a part of. I was feeling nervous and excited.
Emails from my new team were conspicuously silent thus far. I realized they were likely waiting for me to send them a note — a transition message to help bridge the gap. Gina had moved on and now one of their peers would be stepping into her place. I hadn’t realized how awkward this would feel in the moment, both for me and for them. I sat down to draft an email.
“Hi team! I want to wish Gina congratulations on her new role and thank her for her leadership in helping to grow the capabilities on this team. I’m so excited for the opportunity to work with each of you and continue our momentum on the team’s mission...” I started things off on a positive note. (Is this what managers are supposed to say?)
An email popped into my inbox from our wonderful admin Julia.
“Hi Alicia, congratulations on the promotion! We’ll be moving you into Gina’s old office today. Would you like to keep her round conference table or have it moved out? Also, I’ll be helping to move all of her recurring one on ones to your calendar so please look for those invites shortly. Thank you!”
One on ones. Gulp. Individual meetings with my new employees to discuss their current work and future career goals. I’d have to spend some serious time preparing for those. The more I thought about it, the more nervous I felt.
Gina had prepared me for the role of team manager as best as she possibly could — but in reality no one can prepare you for the transition, except yourself.
Becoming a manager isn’t a promotion — it’s a completely new, different career.
I wish someone had told me this before I embarked the next phase of my journey. It’s a whole new mindset. It required a radical shift in the way I approached my work and career, and I made a lot of mistakes first before I finally figured it out. I read a handful of management books recommended to me, but they didn’t specifically address the challenges I was facing.
To be fair, my organization arranged leadership training for all new managers, including a week-long immersive offsite program and other regular training courses throughout the year. But it was a chicken-and-the-egg problem, because I only received that training after being promoted. I remember the first one-on-one I had with one of my employees. This was someone I’d worked with for years. She had been my peer, and was a good friend, and now I was technically her boss. What an awkward conversation it was. All I could do was squirm uncomfortably in my chair and parrot questions I’d learned to ask by observing my prior manager Gina in action. I was a total noob.
Looking back I realized, you can’t expect to be awesome on Day One. You’re going to struggle, because this is a brand new gig.
Realize that up until now all your past work experiences have taught you that individual success is what matters. Sure, being a collaborative team player is important, but the majority of the time it has mostly been about getting the work done and doing it well. You already know how to work hard in order to get ahead (usually harder and faster than others). You may have arrived at management because you are a smart, hard-working employee with a solid performance record and nowhere to go but up. Maybe you are interested in climbing the career ladder and having more responsibility. Maybe you’ve outgrown your current role and need a bigger challenge. It is likely a minority percentage of people who become a manager because they are truly interested in switching to a new career track a.k.a. management.
Management (which should really be called leadership) is a 180-degree change in perspective. Everything shifts from a focus on the self/individual to a focus on the team/collective.
- Your work
- Your time
- Your priorities
- Your skills
- Your professional identity
- Your reward system
Being a manager is like being a therapist. A mediator. An accountant. A salesperson. A writer. A strategist. An executive assistant. A motivational speaker. An HR representative. As a manager you will wear many new hats.
You will probably lose control of your calendar for awhile, at least until you get the hang of things. If you thought you were busy before, you will likely be busier now. Your team, other people you work with, your boss, and your boss’s boss will need and expect more of your time. You will need to learn how to promote your team’s ideas up the management chain, frequently referred to as “managing up”.
I wasn’t prepared for that at first. I’d get caught flat-footed in an elevator with a senior exec, lacking a crisp bite-size vision of my team’s future, instead trying to spark his/her interest by talking about the many projects we were working on — or much worse — the horrific Seattle traffic, or the weather. (Yikes.)
You’re used to being a rock-star at what you do. Now your secret to success will be how well you can teach and mentor others to be able to hold their own in the spotlight. It will be oh-so-tempting to jump back into your old groove and work late into the evening or pull an all-nighter to independently “save the day”. Avoid that if you can. While on a rare occasion you may need to jump in to help get things back on track, 99.9% of the time you would be doing your team a disservice. They will look to you for advice and support, but what they really want is for you to get out of their way. You need to step back. It won’t be easy, because it’s out of your comfort zone. You have to leave the warm comfortable nest of your team and network with a whole new set of people.
As a frontline manager, you’ll have one ear tuned to listen to your team, and the other tuned to what’s going on in the larger organization. What changes are ahead that will impact your team and how can you prepare for them? What new capabilities will your team need to adapt and grow? So many unknowns. Your team is depending on you to be informed and to be ready with answers. A map. A plan. A north star they can align to.
Give each person on your team plenty of opportunities to stretch their capabilities and pay attention when they have too many things on their plate. Be prepared for some tough conversations. It will likely throw you for a loop the first time, and again every time after. People will cry, be frustrated, and get upset. It may have nothing to do with you. It might have everything to do with you. Ask questions. Start with simple questions. What can I do to help? Ask harder questions. How might this have gone differently?
I put my foot in my mouth all the time. I said the wrong things or took the easy way out by avoiding a difficult conversation. But over the years I worked hard to improve, get feedback, and build that muscle. The more I used it, the easier those hard conversations became (though they were never easy).
If you do a good job at all of this, your team will shine, and they will get the recognition they deserve. A gentle heads up that going forward you likely won’t get personal kudos from your internal clients very often. Instead, you’ll be busy removing obstacles for your team so they can continue to do great work.
Therein lies the crux of the issue: is this enough motivation for you? It might sound selfish, but the direct reward that comes from individual success looks and feels very different than the reward that comes indirectly through others success.
I struggled with this. Really struggled. I wish I could say I moved past it. But eventually I landed on middle ground where I both delighted in the successes of people on my team and simultaneously worked on independent side projects that helped fulfill my need for direct and immediate feedback.
Management is a selfless job. Note that I didn’t say thankless. It can be amazingly rewarding, if you can adapt your thinking and motivations from being focused-in to being focused-out.
If you’re pining to get promoted to management or considering management as the next phase of your career, consider that it is more akin to a fork in the road then a rung on a ladder.
For privacy reasons, some names and details have been changed.