Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC.com
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/27/2007 3:09:24 PM ET 2007-08-27T19:09:24

Jan Tomlinson is a promotion master.

She’s had so many promotions during her 30-year plus career at insurance company Chubb it’s hard to remember them all. “Maybe, about 11 or 12,” she says.

Don’t be jealous of her quite yet. Even promotion pros like Tomlinson face problems when it comes to moving up the ladder.

Yes, believe it or not, promotions can be a harrowing experience. It’s not all the glory people make it out to be.

Many managers find job promotions to be among the most challenging life event, above grieving, divorce and raising teenagers, according to a study by DDI, a human resource consulting firm that polled 800 leaders. Promotions presented them with a host of problems, says the co-author of the report Matt Paese, everything from being thrown into a political quagmire to loss of tactical control over day-to-day operations. 

What the heck is going on? Promotions were supposed to be the high point of a person’s career, the big payoff for all the hard work. Well, it’s still that, but we sometimes allow the problems associated with promotions to send us off the deep end.

Human nature is often the main culprit. We’re not sure we can handle the new assignment, and the people around us are often jealous because they didn’t get tapped for the big job.

“One of the most difficult challenges for new leaders is they have to gain their stripes and credibility,” says Mitchell Kusy, co authors of “Manager's Desktop Consultant: Just-in-Time Solutions to the Top People Problems That Keep You Up at Night”. And talk about politics. The higher you move up the ranks, he adds, the more you’ll have to deal with sticky political issues.

For Chubb’s Tomlinson, whose exact title now is executive vice president for international field operations, the biggest issue over the years has been getting everyone on her team on board when she moved up the chain of command.

In one particular instance when she became a manager in the underwriting department, she was promoted because of her managerial ability as opposed to her technical knowledge of the business. “There was a gentleman, an excellent property underwriter, who had more years of experience than I had. He really felt I couldn’t run the department because I didn’t understand property as well as he did.”

Instead of wallowing in the lack of acceptance from this individual, Tomlinson decided to do everything she could to become more knowledgeable in the business she was overseeing. Doing this, she felt, would make her more effective in her job and it would help her garner credibility and trust among the people she now managed.

“I had to be able to talk the language so I took advantage of training programs just to get that working knowledge. They were programs a much more junior person than myself would have taken”, but she swallowed her pride and learned everything she could.

She also invited the reluctant employee into various high-level meetings with clients asking him to provide his expertise. “I had him showcase his talent and ability,” she explained. “He saw that I respected what he did.”

That’s how you start building trust, she adds, “showing you can value the knowledge this person has.” If a manager excludes the workers around them they’ll feel alienated.

Over a period of months, the employee began to accept Tomlinson and “we ultimately developed an extraordinarily good working relationship.”

In another promotion scenario, things didn’t work out as well. There was one individual who felt they should have gotten the job over Tomlinson. Even though she talked to the individual about the tension, and even enlisted the help of another manager the employee seemed to respect, the situation only deteriorated.

“It was starting to have a negative impact over the rest of the group,” she explains. “There were about 8 people in the group and when one person is not part of the group it really stands out.”

It was becoming a performance problem and that person would have eventually been fired, but the individual decided to leave.

“Sometimes we think we can fix everything but we can’t,” she adds.

According to Kusy’s research: “former coworkers who are now subordinates will set up three camps: 20 percent will accept the change and your leadership, 70 percent will get on board with new initiatives if given a reasonable process to work with, and 10 percent will be hard-core resisters. Focusing on the resisters, he says, is a very common mistake. “Studies show that newly promoted leaders are more likely to effect long-lasting change when they channel more energy into working with those who are receptive or neutral about the change initiative, rather than with resisters.”

Todd Dewett, a management professor at Wright State University, offers these tips for the recently promoted:

Recognize the first few months are by far the most crucial – and they present something of a paradox you must embrace.

  • You must take charge, be decisive, and project confidence.
  • At the same time you must show deference to the importance of your subordinates by genuinely seeking feedback about relevant issues, by providing them voice on issues that matter, and by sharing credit widely.

Above all else focus on these three things in dealing with your team: 

  • Find ways to reduce the ambiguity they sense about you or their jobs.
  • Be fair and transparent.
  • Always frame discussions and decisions positively.

Finally, two vital ideas for any new manager:

  • Pursue leadership training to continue your growth.
  • Find successful leaders in your organization who might serve as mentors to share with you what they have leaned.

Even more importantly, Tomlinson stresses, expect to make the occasional foul ups, and own up to them. “If you make a mistake your staff knows,” she notes. “If you say, ‘I can’t possibly make a mistake’ you will only damage your credibility.”

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