Whether they admit it publicly or not, feeling like an imposter is common among people making the transition to their first general management role, like heading up a business unit. It’s the most stressful place to be in an organisation, the middle, where you have a foot in both camps.
On the one hand you’re still expected to be involved in some of the delivery work, calling on your excellent expertise; and on the other, your experience means you need to be managing and leading others to ensure overall targets are met. Either as new talent or senior director there’s more potential to hide - but not here, bang in the middle.
Under pressure it’s natural to try to stick to what you know. You’ve been picked out for management as someone who’s been brilliant at their job, so you want to keep that feeling of being in control and stay where everything’s rosy. The practical reality - in terms of mental and physical resources - is that you can’t keep clearing your Inbox anymore. You can’t keep pushing through to deliver all that’s needed, working until 2am, going in on Saturdays. Its burn-out territory.
It’s the career transition, more than any other, when it’s most about letting go. In fact, letting go of some of the things that got you here - which feels really hard. Space is needed to step back and see the fewest things to be done that will make the biggest difference.
Facing the storm
The challenge is the most universal of all transitions, one faced by a broad range of people, coming from different disciplines and functions, of different ages and types of experience. That doesn’t mean it’s the best understood or supported.
What unites these different people is that they’ve been rewarded for great work with promotion. Now they have to zoom in with their expertise and zoom out again to manage the bigger picture. It’s like crossing difficult, choppy waters. The first time you try, there’s the feeling of being out of control. You’re feeling queasy. Things are happening to you rather than the other way around. Next time you attempt the crossing you go back to the old ways of doing things, and that gets you a bit further, just because of that feeling of security. Then it becomes clear you’re never going to make it to the other side that way - there’s just too much to do, you can’t do it on your own.
...you’re never going to make it to the other side that way - there’s just too much to do, you can’t do it on your own.
You need to find a better way. That means lifting the gaze from the problems, and realising where you’ve got to go: recognising what’s holding you back, and, critically, learning what you need to stop doing, what other people around you should be taking on. Otherwise you’re just adding to your load until you drown.
How to do it
The first step is to understand yourself and what the triggers are that make you go back to old habits and the role you’ve meant to have left behind; learning how to manage yourself, those triggers and the feelings that go with it. It’s then a case of understanding the attitudes and behaviours of those you’re working with - why is marketing doing that? Why is that supplier making my life difficult? - and how best to collaborate.
With this new perspective, you’re able to look at priorities at what they mean for your role, become comfortable and confident about the new place you’ve come to. It all looks so much more familiar. Somewhere you can make yourself at home. This is how the General Management Programme works, by making the crossing pain-free. So there are sessions on the bigger strategic picture and how to fit into operations, digitisation and marketing, but it’s all integrated into what it really means for you and your role.
Work becomes rewarding again. The sense of control and empowerment comes back. And most importantly, you’re in a much better position to help the organisation - knowing when and how to push back and say no. You’re a better manager, and the organisation becomes a better place to work. It’s the middle management that are most important for making the strategic vision work in practice.
You’re a better manager, and the organisation becomes a better place to work.
They don’t always receive the investment and development needed. Understandably, with limited budgets, it’s easier for HR to focus on smaller bands of people in the early talent and top talent categories - but this kind of looking after the ‘stars’ mindset is wrong. Just because someone shows early promise doesn’t mean they’re going to be the best person for any role on the fast-track. It’s much more about having the right people in the right places at the right time. People change, adapt.
Sticking to a few stars leads to missed opportunities for other talent, a lack of collaboration and an unhelpful ‘me first’ culture. The ideal would be a stronger, better supported middle management - the real engine of operations - who are in the best position to influence those below and above them, instilling more confidence and positivity. They should be demonstrating all the good that comes with promotion, not what it might be worth trying to avoid.
To read more about career transitions and three key areas (early career or high potential talent looking for promotion; moving up to become a general manager or head of a business unit; and transitioning to a role as a leader, or organisational director) and how to successfully adapt to these, please download article below.
About the Author
Paula Broadbent is Director of the General Management Programme. Paula works with a broad variety of public and private sector organisations across a range of industries, both in the UK and internationally. She pulls together her understanding of business and people to help make things work for the organisation and the individuals working in it in a sustainable way.