Fear Of Flying High
By Jack and Suzy Welch
My problem may not seem like a problem to you, but it has me completely panicked. My last project was considered a "huge" success, and as a result I was promoted up three rungs to run a department. I know I don't have the experience or the knowledge to be doing this job. What should I do? — Anonymous, Hartford
You're right, we don't often get letters from people who are worried about rising too fast. In fact, the vast majority of job-related laments we receive are from people bursting with frustration over the sloth-like pace of their ascent. But don't take that to mean you're alone. Hardly! There isn't a good manager in the world—even one who has been in the job for years—who doesn't have a daily panic attack about the load of stuff he doesn't know but should, the confounding challenges ahead, and the sheer impossibility of getting it all done.
So, congratulations. You've stumbled upon one of the best-kept secrets about work. Getting promoted is a double-edged sword: thrilling, yes, but terrifying. Everyone is calling you with hearty congratulations and slapping your back, saying you deserved it. And you're smiling away and thanking them, but inside you're feeling a lot less jovial than you look. It doesn't matter whether it's your first managerial stint or the culmination of your career, with a seat in the corner office. You are the only one who understands how little you actually know about the new job, especially when compared with those big, bold expectations your bosses keep mentioning. Whatever happened, you want to scream, to the perfectly logical idea of a grace period?
You don't scream, of course. After all, you've been told that leaders need to appear calm and in control, and that's true. Leaders should look and act like leaders for the sake of their people's respect and confidence and the organization's momentum. But being a leader doesn't mean you can't ask questions; good leaders are, by definition, voracious learners, relentlessly probing the people around them for ideas and insight. They are voracious relationship builders, too, really getting to know everyone in the business who can open their eyes to the "who, what, and when" of the job. Obviously, you don't ever want to seem clueless, and we can't imagine you would, given your past success. You want to appear deeply inquisitive about every aspect of your business and passionate about what your people think it will take to win. Those traits won't undermine your authority. They'll enlarge it.
Are we asking you to fake it? No—we're asking you to reinvent your self-perception according to reality. Right now you feel like virtually every new leader. Do you think that a President feels anything different making the leap from, say, running a little Southern state to having his finger on the nuclear trigger? Being in charge of something new starts the game all over again, no matter what you've done before.
Take your case. You're probably looking around at your team and wondering: "When will they realize I just had one little project that went well?" You're probably sitting in meetings listening to rapid-fire conversation about products and customers that are filled with so many new names and buzzwords that they might as well be in Urdu. You're probably reading e-mails from your boss about the next quarter's results, and you don't even know your current cash flow yet.
ALL THIS MAY MAKE you want to dub yourself "not ready." We're saying, dub yourself "normal." Sure, you will eventually come to know more about your job. There will even be days—say, six months or a year from now—when you feel on top of it all. But business today changes too fast and has too many variables for any manager to ever have the sustained sense of security you yearn for. Indeed, part of being a leader circa 2007 is being able to live with an uh-oh feeling in your stomach all the time.
Don't let that panic you more. Instead, consider the proposition that continually feeling a bit overwhelmed and underinformed is a positive thing, for both you and your business. Everyone knows that too much confidence can lead to arrogance and a kind of "that's how we do it around here" inertia. The flip side is an insatiable hunger for new ideas and better ways to do things—a hunger that makes you fight like hell to win.
Look, we're not telling you to enjoy yourself right now. Having walked in your shoes, we feel your knees knocking. But don't turn and run. Make peace with your panic. It goes with the job.
Jack and Suzy Welch look forward to answering your questions about business, company, or career challenges. Please e-mail them at thewelchway@BusinessWeek.com For their podcast discussion of this column, go to www.businessweek.com/search/podcasting.htm