20-30 Years Old and Suddenly Sitting at the Boss’s Desk

I was recently interviewed for an article in the Wall Street Journal for the column You at the Boss’s Desk. Here’s the article

I wanted to expand on the topic a bit. For people in their 20’s and 30’s a sudden promotion to a management position can have its joys and challenges. Of course there’s usually a higher salary, perhaps some company perks, and even a corner office. Your friends and family will be expecting you to be feeling thrilled and fulfilled.

What most people won’t understand is the anxiety and even depression that can come with a promotion. You are no longer with your peers, you must get to know your new management peer group, you may be asked to do things you’ve never done before like budgeting, hiring and firing, and you may be feeling like you have to be seen as strong and successful without help, or they will give the job to someone else.

Here are some tips:

When dealing with your old peer group, especially if you have to manage them, say the truth that everyone is thinking anyway. Tell them you know this is a strange situation and you’re hoping they will stay open to talking. Tell them the good news is you know what their job is. Ask them to understand that being the boss requires some objectivity, and that will mean you won’t be as involved in the day to day work as you were. Tell them you’ll miss their company, and that you’ll be demanding their best because you know how good that can be.

With your new management peer group, start getting to know each one over lunch or coffee. They will be important support to you as you build skills in your new position. They can help you with who to talk to, how to navigate company hierarchy, and how to make successful presentations. They can also give you objective feedback and will welcome your openness to learning. And over time, they will become friends, too.

When you have to build new skills, go to the source for the best advice. If you have to put together a budget, find someone in Finance or ask your boss to walk you through the steps. For hiring and firing, connect with the HR department for company policies and even ask someone to tag team with you as you go. The company may have an internal training and development department. Seek them out and take advantage of their services. No one will expect you to know how to do these things, and your boss will welcome your effort to get what you need.

There are two final tips that are really at the bottom of all success.

The first is to ask for help. It seems simple, but is often the hardest thing to do when you think your reputation depends on being seen as smart, capable or in control. When I say “ask for help” I don’t mean get someone else to do your job.  Laziness is different from strategic delegation. What I mean is asking for help with your own performance through feedback, ideas, opinions, information, advice on how to get something done more quickly, asking for mentoring, coaching, or clarification. People who ask for help with good intent are often seen as open and worthy of respect. They create webs of support and trust and encourage others through their own modeling of openness. The act of asking for help may be briefly uncomfortable, but almost always results in more and better connections, skills and ideas, than if you don’t ask. And most people like being able to help.

The second thing is not to let the the sometimes negative emotions of transitions dissuade you from doing what needs to be done. Transitions are times when people leave behind an old way, live through some uncertainty as a new way is being developed, and then begin to behave in the new way. Your transition from your old job to your new job is a transition not just for you but for all the people around you. You bring new ideas and ways of behaving, and those are absolutely critical to the health and success of the company. At the same time, people within the company may behave as if they don’t want the transition to occur.

Sometimes in business we call this reaction to transitions “resistance to change”. My belief is that people aren’t resistant to change unless the new way is obviously detrimental to them or people they care about. Instead, in most cases the “negativity” we see is grieving for the loss of a way of life in which they have invested energy, spirit and passion. They may be losing special relationships – a friend and mentor if you are replacing someone who is retiring or moving on, you as a peer, or the retiring manager as a colleague. They may be losing a successful way of communicating and a shared language of understanding they worked hard to build up. They may just be losing the ideas they committed to and that have served them in the past as you bring and represent new ones. They will grieve those losses, and there is nothing you can do to control or change that process except respect it. They will feel what they need to feel. What you can do is be honest, consistent, and show integrity in all your interactions. Help them believe that there is hope for the future. And ask them to co-create that future with you.

It sometimes seems easier to compromise your ideas to, you think, help someone else feel more comfortable with generational or style differences. I’ve seen many young managers shaking their heads but staying silent in meetings where the same old bad policy was promoted. They were afraid to deal with the reaction to promoting their new ideas. Instead they became passive resistors, doing, but hating, the things they knew could be done better.

Have courage!  The workplace needs the ideas of new people, new managers and employees. Workplace transitions will play out in time, and in the meantime, you need to believe in the ideas that will generate a real, sustainable future for you and your employees. Your ideas are just as valid as those of older, more “experienced” workers. They will come to trust you if you are open, approachable, and trustworthy, or they will leave. In either case, the future demands your commitment and leadership, and your modeling of progressive behaviour. With help and with time you can make a new future.


One Response

  1. Modeling good behaviour – integrity, connection with others with good behaviour, supporting others, asking for help – are not just smart, and ways to demonstrate the company made a good decision in promoting you. They also demonstrate leadership.
    At any moment you can be the leader for a new idea, approach, project and people have to decide whether to follow or ignore, support or resist. If they see your approach has good intent and you are connecting with them to include their ideas and efforts, you now have followers.
    Followers = Leadership.
    Give it a try – you’ll have a lot of fun and satisfaction.
    Paul Reeves

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