Leadership Request: No Promotion Please

by Alli Polin on January 24, 2014

Is your promotion a cause for celebration?

My phone rang and it was one of my clients urgently trying to get in touch with me:

“I have a problem,” my client, Perry, opened, “they want to promote me.”

Huh?

For many people I work with that’s a goal, not a problem.  I dug in to find out more.

“I love my job and I love my team… do they want me to leave?  I’m not a leader…”

Whoa

There is a lot of pressure and expectation tied up in the word “leader.”

I firmly believe that it’s OK to not want to move to the next level if you love the work that you’re doing today.  I’ve met and coached many people who are miserable once promoted because they long for the days that they could just be heads down and get sh-t done instead of leading and inspiring others to do and be their best. For them, it’s emotionally draining to lead a team.

Back to Perry, my “whoa” came because others, like him, get their energy from the team and spend all of their discretionary time focused on shared success. I was confused as to why he wasn’t excited about being recognized for his personal leadership with a formal title and promotion.

I began to dig in and ask some critical questions:

  • What do you most love about your job now?
  • What are you most afraid will change with promotion?
  • Why you?
  • If you have a new title, how will that change how you interact with the team?
  • How will it change you?

I listened, asked clarifying questions and we unpacked two things:

  1. Fear of change
  2. Fear of staying the same

A new title can formalize the informal leadership role that you’re already playing or it can dump a truckload of admin on your plate.  My client, Perry, didn’t fully understand his new scope of responsibilities but made some big assumptions about his new role and it was overwhelming.

Facing Fear

Perry needed to figure out how to move forward in the face of fear.  A great place to start was realizing that he had a choice.  When Perry fully embraced that the new position was his choice, nobody was forcing the promotion on him, he was able to get in front of his fear and in control.

For a moment, in his stress, it was as if he was in a tug of war, one arm being pulled into an unknown future and one arm fighting to stay in today’s reality.  The pulling was overwhelming and painful creating unbearable amounts of stress and little focus. To move forward, he had to release the tension and  fear to see a fresh perspective.  I invited him to take a step UP… to 10,000 feet above his current quandary.  We stepped out of the language of fear that was pulling on him and took a deep breath to uncover some new truths without the pressure of “will you or won’t you?”

Truths

We ended our emergency conversation with a deep breath and some newly uncovered truths:

You are a leader NOW because you’re driven to serve your team and enable their success.

You are a leader TODAY because you truly believe that leadership is about your team, not you.

You are a leader in THIS MOMENT because you care enough to be concerned that your new title creates ripples of change.

You are READY because you have a leader’s heart (as well as exceptional skills).

You are READY because you are already leading.

You are READY because your team and your organization need you.  Not someone, not a butt in the seat, YOU.

Letting go of the comfort zone to leap into the unknown is a challenge.  How have you successfully made the leap from where you are to a new role, title, or organization?

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon Mertz January 24, 2014 at 6:59 am

Interesting thoughts, Alli, on how we may get too hung up on titles and lose the connection point to the work a position may require and how much of that work we already do. Maintaining a empathetic connection to people, a connection to results required, and a connection to a healthy process to get there…. leadership! Thanks for sharing this story and ways to breathe in what a change may really mean. Jon

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Alli Polin January 24, 2014 at 8:44 am

This person really loves what he does for a living and the people that he gets to work with day in and day out. Interesting to see that getting hung up on titles goes two ways – the people that are always chasing them and the people that shy away altogether.

Thanks for your comment and insights too! Always valued and appreciated!

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Cynthia Bazin January 24, 2014 at 7:37 am

Excellent post Alli! Definitely great thoughts that at times, titles get too much focus. An employee who already has the characteristics of a leader, doesn’t have the change the core of who they are, just because they get a promotion. Great story about Perry!

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Alli Polin January 24, 2014 at 8:46 am

Many thanks, Cynthia! He really made a strong positive impression on me for so many reasons.

I think you’re right on – no need to change who he is because of a shift in title!

Best,

Alli

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Karin Hurt January 24, 2014 at 8:11 am

Terrific insights. I’ve seen this go both ways… folks afraid to step up to formal leadership roles who needed to face their fears… and folks who really were much happier being on the team rather than leading the team. The process and questions you shared here really can help.

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Alli Polin January 24, 2014 at 8:48 am

It absolutely works both ways. I know people that were miserable for years in management positions before they finally spoke up and asked to be put in an individual contributor role where they made a HUGE impact and were much, much happier. In Perry’s case, I’m glad he decided to step up to the promotion and he is too.

Thanks, Karin!

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Bill Benoist January 24, 2014 at 9:24 am

Hi Alli,

One thing I have notice over the years as I have progressed up the corporate ladder is the increase in politics, not to mention a few inflated egos.

I’m well respected in my career and fully certain the opportunity for a C-Level position is within my reach, I just know I would be miserable pursuing such a position. As a result, I’ve taken the education I’ve learned as a leader and putting my strengths to work in other areas.

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Alli Polin January 24, 2014 at 9:34 am

Bill,

I admire both your self awareness and integrity. Many people view the C-suite as the ultimate goal – you are helping to shape future generations of leaders in all that you do.

Thanks, Bill!

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Terri Klass January 24, 2014 at 9:34 am

This is a common concern for many new leaders when the time comes for them to be promoted and moved into a more managerial role. I think you nailed it, Alli when you talk about the fears. I have found that sorting through the fears usually helps people become comfortable with the new responsibilities.

No one wants to fail and I think sometimes we worry that leaving our technical tasks behind, which we were so good at, will make us less valuable. The opposite is actually the truth- we become stronger when we pick up more conceptual and people-focused responsibilities.

Great post!

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Alli Polin January 27, 2014 at 8:32 am

Terri – Technology is right or wrong. The code works or it doesn’t. Leadership, coaching, team management can feel like a foreign language and miles out of the comfort zone for so many. Not everyone will be good at it, or great but a willingness to sort through the fear and a desire to try, in service of the team success, is a great place to start.

As always, love your insights. Thank you!

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Joy Guthrie January 24, 2014 at 3:28 pm

It seems that many companies look as promotions with a greater number of team members reporting to you as the only way to advance team members. There are skillsets and people who need (and should) to advance in their field; but, not with a new slew of direct reports. That’s an area that definitely needs to be resolved in many companies. Really enjoyed this post Alli. Thank you.

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Alli Polin January 27, 2014 at 8:38 am

I recently spoke to someone that told me that their middle managers really weren’t managing that many people, only 30 or so for each one. Hopefully I did a good job with my poker face. Thirty direct reports will be a struggle for any leader, let alone a new manager learning their way.

In my first company, the only way forward was promotion after promotion on a specific timeline. It was an up or out organization. Thankfully, they finally recognized that exceptional technical skill, or depth of skill in change etc was important! The created landing points where people could be experts, not worry about selling and running large programs. It made all the difference and some talent that would have been out the door sooner, stayed.

Excellent points, Joy!

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Sharon Reed January 24, 2014 at 8:16 pm

Great post, Alli!

Years ago my former boss and long-time mentor marveled when I initially resisted my first promotion to management in a formal consulting environment. Like Perry, I enjoyed doing the work itself and feared being put in a role where I was expected to be more focused on selling and managing than actually doing. Over the years, however, I discovered that leadership does not have to mean playing politics and delegating work. Instead, I can derive joy from nurturing teammates, valuing our individual contributions and leading our collective efforts to a successful outcome. Learning that a title does not have to separate us from our team can sometimes assuage these fears.

Sharon

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Alli Polin January 27, 2014 at 8:42 am

Sharon,

YES! Part of the reason I left consulting was that I had to not only be a leader but sell huge projects. Too many people were promoted to the top levels with extremely poor leadership skills because they were given a pass after selling large programs. Ultimately, their direct reports and the people on those programs suffered.

You touch on the heart of leadership – people. In Perry’s case, he loved the people and would have the opportunity to spend even more time working with the people on the team and that excited him. Too often we confuse Top Dog / Sales Guru with leader.

Thanks for sharing here, Sharon! Means a lot to learn from your experience.

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Michael Feeley January 25, 2014 at 3:02 am

This is a wonderful and interesting post Alli.

I’m most taken with the idea of how change can create fear in us until we face the fear and realize that the change (in this instance a promotion) doesn’t mean we have to alter who we are, our life purpose or personal integrity…that change is an opportunity.

Opportunity can surprisingly create fear especially when we’re happy and have peace and success with our lives and work. It’s happened to me and I usually find if I splash around in my doubt and fear I find the positive things for change release the tight fear I first experienced.

Your questions were excellent and inspiring and I really like your leadership points at the closing of your post..

My very best – Michael

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Alli Polin January 27, 2014 at 7:38 am

Michael –

I love the words that you use!! “Splash around” in your doubt and fear to find a positive path forward. It’s true – even great opportunities can freeze us in our tracks while filling us with doubt and confusion. Sometimes a good splash with some fresh perspectives thrown in for good measure can show us the answer that’s impossible to find when standing with the fear.

Really fantastic insights, Michael! Thank you so much for sharing them here!

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Stephen Lahey January 26, 2014 at 12:53 pm

As a headhunter for many years, I’ve known hundreds of newly promoted directors, vice presidents, etc. Negative behavior changes often occur once someone is promoted because they are now subject to the intense pressures of corporate politics in a far more direct way. Within most large corporations, you can’t opt-out of the politic games. Sad, but true.

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Alli Polin January 27, 2014 at 7:36 am

Corporate politics can make someone with fantastic leadership potential fall on their face… so much of why culture truly does matter. Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s absolutely spot on.

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Karen Jolly January 27, 2014 at 11:57 pm

Hi Alli,

Great post! It blows my mind how much we can get in our own way when we resist change. The interesting part to me is how we get so quickly “attached” when something is working well that the thought of a change, even if it is a promotion, can freak us out. You are so right that when we step back and realize we always have a choice, the fear level starts dropping and we can make an empowered decision. Loved this…lots for me to go to bed and contemplate Alli! Thank you for always making me dig a little deeper within myself. 🙂

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Alli Polin January 28, 2014 at 6:26 am

Yes! We do get in our own way! Also interesting that once we leap to something new, the attachment happens all over again. For me, it really does boil down to choice and empowerment. When I feel stuck in the corner, that’s the worst.

Thank you for sharing your insights! You always add so much richness to the conversation.

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Chery Gegelman January 29, 2014 at 8:30 am

I love this post Alli! Especially the list of truths at the end! Beautiful!

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Alli Polin January 30, 2014 at 8:42 am

Thanks so much, Chery! Your feedback (and friendship) always means so much to me!

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