I’ll always remember the comment one of my colleagues, Dr. Brett Kaplan—previously managing director at the storied investment bank Evercore and currently CFO at Prevail Therapeutics—made to me about a year into my first managerial position.
We had just met a group of employees from another company, and after we finished speaking with them, he turned to me and said, “You know, that was the first time you’ve called yourself the Head of Business Development.”
It really hit home for me, because it was true. I hadn’t been thinking of myself by my title, even though I’d been in that position nearly a year.
I think a lot of people can relate to that, especially those who were promoted internally and took charge of a group they were once a part of. The dynamic changes and not everyone adjusts immediately—and very few have a seamless transition.
It takes everyone a while to get their sea legs in their first managerial position. Here’s how to make the adjustment:
You have to give up what you were good at, and that’s okay
Most people are promoted to managerial roles because they were really good at what they did before. They were great at analysis, deal-making, operations, whatever their specific job. But now they’re being asked to work in a more abstract role—leading a group.
But leaving your job as an individual contributor can feel like losing your identity. You’re like the college athlete who wasn’t good enough to go pro. All your time was invested in one very specific activity. All your friends were teammates. You may have even received some recognition or accolades for your great performance—then you graduate.
Suddenly, the thing that was so closely tied to your identity doesn’t really seem to matter anymore. “If I’m not a (fill in the blank), what am I?”
The same thing happens when you get promoted into a managerial role. You may have the sense you don’t really know who you are, yet you’re still expected to have it all together and to take charge of this new situation.
The truth is, if you ever want to get better at something new, you have to give up the thing you’re focused on right now, at least to some extent. That’s just the price of trying to get better at something new—whether it’s a hobby or a new job.
It can be awkward and uncomfortable at first, but you will eventually get used to your new responsibilities.
You can’t be afraid to make tough decisions
A friend of mine, Jeb Keiper—CEO of Nimbus Therapeutics—told me about some advice he got recently from a board member before he took a new executive position. The guy told him, “When you’re an external hire, you tend to move too fast. When you’re an internal hire, you tend to move too slow.”
There’s always a sense of awkwardness when you’re put in charge of people you used to work with—when your identity in that relationship changes. Your conversation may be a little more direct. You’re telling them, “I’m in charge now. This is what we’re doing,” which is a dramatic shift from how they related to you before.
That awkwardness can lead people to move too slowly in
Many people are afraid of the pain of making tough decisions in a managerial role. They don’t want to be disliked. No one does. But you have to keep in mind that pain now is almost always better than pain later because problems get worse through inaction.
The ability to visualize the trouble you’ll be in later on if you don’t make hard decisions is essential if you want to succeed in your new position.
Get comfortable making the final call, which will take work
I can vividly remember when I had to get comfortable making the call as a physician.
I was moonlighting in the Barnes-Jewish Hospital’s emergency room near St. Louis, Missouri four days after I finished my medical residency. It was a rural area, probably 50 miles from the nearest major hospital. One Saturday evening, there was a pediatric poly-trauma that came in—a young 9-year-old girl who had been hit by a car.
There was an hour of frantic activity trying to stabilize her. About an hour later, the nurses and I converged at the X-ray illuminator to review the films. As we looked at the scans—seeing complex fracture traumatic injuries all over the body, shattered bones in certain places—I was looking all around me for the trauma team. In my last three years at an academic medical center, I could call every specialty from orthopedic to neurosurgery to pediatrics for instant assistance. There was none of that here, just me and the nurses.
It hit me at that moment. There was no attending physician to call because that physician was me.
Knowing the final decision is on you can be unnerving. I felt that way even though I had been trained for years to perform the job I was doing at that moment. But if you’ve just been promoted into a managerial position, you’re probably taking a job you haven’t actually been specifically trained for. It’s a leap, and that means you’ll have to learn as you go.
It will take work. You’ll have to spend time understanding your specific situation and mapping out what you should be doing in the first two years of that role. That might mean talking to mentors or seeking out advice. It could also mean reading up on your situation and journaling to get a clearer sense of what’s required of you.
It’s tough to come to terms with the knowledge you have the final call now. But if you can make your peace with it, you’ll have that moment when the switch flips, when you feel yourself changing from that individual who’s in over their head to a leader—someone who takes action.