Preparing for a COVID-Era Opportunity: How to Handle a Promotion over One’s Peers

The Great Resignation has resulted in millions retiring or leaving the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic and, with that, opportunities for women engineers to earn promotions have increased. Yet, achieving that promotion can raise a new issue: How to introduce yourself as a team leader without alienating your work friends?

By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor

With so many people leaving the workforce, new opportunities for promotion are opening up. In November alone, 4.3 million people in the United States left their jobs. A few months earlier, back in September, the so-called labor force participation rate slipped to 61.6%, from 63% prior to the pandemic. The workforce exodus is not confined to the U.S., either, although it plays out for slightly different reasons from country to country. In the fall, The Washington Post reported that “The Great Resignation Goes Global,” citing reports of a significant number of workers in Europe leaving jobs and the labor force. 

Economists in the U.S. say it’s a combination of people fearing becoming infected by the coronavirus in the workplace, struggling to find adequate child care, and taking early retirement after rethinking their careers and family priorities. With stronger social safety nets and child care provisions, the disruptions in other Western industrialized countries may not map to the exact same reasons, but the trends are similar.

“Make it part of your core that you show appreciation for people. Then, if you can tailor assignments toward the appropriate communication or personality styles, that increases your chances of getting cooperation.” 

– Terry Suffredini, P.E., engineer and career coach, The Engineer’s Coach

And while women’s greater prospects for promotions are cause for celebration, what happens when you get promoted into leadership over your peers and longtime confidants?

Experts say the first step is to assess your leadership style and figure out the best way to reintroduce yourself to your peers with a positive, motivational spin. 

It starts with you

Successfully navigating a promotion takes both self-awareness and awareness of others.

“Make it part of your core that you show appreciation for people,” said Terry Suffredini, P.E., a chemical engineer who started her career-coaching business, The Engineer’s Coach, 15 years ago. “Then, if you can tailor assignments toward the appropriate communication or personality styles, that increases your chances of getting cooperation.”

Suffredini asks her clients to take a communications style assessment so they can identify themselves as one or more of the following:

  • Drivers. Their motto echoes Nike’s “Just Do It.” They want just enough information to make a decision, and then quickly act on it.
  • Analyticals tend to have a harder time making decisions because they want to be sure they’ve collected enough information. They’re concerned they’ll miss something.
  • Amiables are “tuned in” to how everyone else is doing. They will reach out and help if they see someone struggling. They don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
  • Expressives can make decisions, but they become bored easily. They need change, variety, and opportunities to come up with new ideas. They enjoy having fun during the process.

The four personality styles are based on the work of psychologists David
Merrill, Ph.D., and Roger Reid and have been used by many others.

Some people are evenly balanced among all of the personalities, while others can clearly identify with one or two.

The key is to be aware of your own style, identify those of your team members, and then give each team member assignments so they can flourish, Suffredini said. That’s particularly important because the different personalities also have unique ways of reacting to anxiety and pressure that can undermine your leadership.

“Figure out what the team needs,” Suffredini said. “People who feel they’re listened to, and their efforts appreciated, will get more done.”

Bonnie Davis, founder and partner at HuWork leadership coaching and consultancy, said she leads her clients — mostly high-tech professionals — in a timeline exercise in which they identify highlights and lowlights of their lives. The goal is to connect with your team in a new way by sharing more about your history and how you have developed your leadership style.

“You don’t want to introduce major changes right away. … Wait until you’ve got your footing and feel you’re starting to build trust in this new relationship dynamic.” 

– Loren Margolis, founder and CEO, Training and Leadership Success

“Most will include milestones such as graduation, getting married, having babies, or winning an award or a sports tournament,” said Davis, who started her firm 10 years ago.

The list could also include divorce, a trauma, or a significant loss. They ask, “What were the life lessons that I learned?” “Usually, it’s one or two life lessons that resulted, such as resilience, strength, open communication, vulnerability,” Davis said.

The next question: What legacy do you want to leave as a leader?

The newly promoted leaders match up the two with this question: Based on who you want to be, what are the life lessons that most map how you want to be remembered as a leader? And then ensure that legacy will become reality by making intentional decisions as a leader.

The following step is to define what a high-performing team looks like.

“Once you’re prepared, open a conversation about what excellence looks like to you,” Davis said. “Then bridge your ideas on excellence into a team conversation about what the team sees as gaps in becoming a higher-performing team. Ask the team members to collaborate and commit to what needs to be worked on.”

First, it’s wise to meet with each person who reports to you one-on-one — and refrain from charging in to save the day, the experts say.

“Be delicate at first,” said Loren Margolis, founder and CEO of Training and Leadership Success, a global leadership and development firm.

Plan a strategy, said Margolis, a leadership coach for the past six years and a faculty member in Stony Brook University’s Women in STEM Leadership program. 

Make it a priority to lead so that you resolve any practices that didn’t work well under your predecessor. “You don’t want to introduce major changes right away,” Margolis said. “You can make smaller decisions. Wait until you’ve got your footing and feel you’re starting to build trust in this new relationship dynamic.”

Step one: form bonds and set goals

Suffredini said it’s important to be clear about your expectations. “Sit down with each team member and set goals,” she said. 

But don’t show up with a big laundry list. “Keep the list short,” Suffredini said. “Avoid too many objectives for the next year.”

Then communicate each step of the way. “People should know all of the time how they’re doing,” Suffredini said. “It should not be a shock.”

That’s a huge difference from micromanaging.

Margolis said the one-on-one meetings provide an opportunity to form a closer bond with the people who report to you. “Explain that, especially if the person reporting to you is a friend, you need and want to recalibrate the way you’re working together,” Margolis said. “Things inevitably need to shift. Be honest. You can say, ‘I can’t gossip at the watercooler anymore, but here’s what I will do: How do I motivate you to do your best work? What can I do to make you more successful in your career?’”

“Bridge your ideas on excellence into a team conversation about what the team sees as gaps in becoming a higher-performing team. Ask the team members to collaborate and commit to what needs to be worked on.” 

– Bonnie Davis, founder and partner, HuWork

“Pre-emptively try to have open recalibration meetings,” Margolis said. “Ask your friend how she sees her responsibilities and priorities toward you changing.”

If your friends have lost out to you for the promotion and they resent it, take the high road. “There can be no special treatment, but you can say, ‘I’m grateful and honored that I get to be your manager,’” Margolis said.

At the same time, you can offer to help your colleague-turned-report to seek other opportunities, help raise their visibility with important projects, or have them take the lead on an important initiative.

“You earned the promotion because you are so good at executing, at managing yourself, at creating results,” Margolis said. “Now that you’re the manager, you’re responsible for creating the ecosystem that enables people to do their best work.”

“You don’t want to create ‘mini-me’s,’” Margolis said. “You don’t want the person to do [assignments] precisely as you would. It’s more about getting clear on the goals and the actions that your team members are going to take to get there.”

If you’ve ever felt like an impostor, stay alert that being promoted can be a triggering event — and you may react by trying to hold on tighter to control. That can cause the new leader to sabotage herself by comparing herself to others, obsessively mulling over a problem, or looking for data that prove she’s not good enough.

Margolis said she asks her clients with “impostor syndrome” to make a list of their qualifications to take over the leadership role. That way, she can focus on their capabilities.

Handling your first group meeting

When you meet as a group for the first time, talk about how you plan to lead. Stay true to yourself because your team knows you anyway.

“Think of the first group meetings as listening meetings, where you’re asking questions, taking notes, and doing what they are asking you to do, as much as realistically possible,” Margolis said.

Suffredini said, “You should ask, ‘How can I make you more successful individually and as a cohesive team? What processes are working well and not working well? How is communication working — or not?’”

“Keep in mind ‘servant leadership,’” she said. “You’re not there to be authoritarian. You’re there to help and guide.”

“They’re looking for someone who will listen, who encourages me, and who recognizes individual contributions in front of other people.” 

“Some people don’t get praise anywhere else but from their boss and their peers,” Suffredini said. “You generally can’t pay people enough to truly motivate them.”

For a related discussion, please see the Life and Work article in this issue, “Thriving on Both Sides of the ‘Great Resignation.’”

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