Ask Annie

Just got promoted? How not to blow it

April 1, 2011: 9:27 AM ET

Only one in 10 newly appointed managers have received any training for the role, a study says. Here's a crash course on acing a promotion.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I just got an unexpected promotion to head of my department. That's the good news (I think). The bad news is, the previous boss was asked to leave the company, because he just couldn't meet the always-changing production and sales targets that top management handed down -- partly due to a lack of resources, including a staff reduced by about one-third since 2008.

I'm excited about the opportunity to turn things around, but frankly I wonder if I can. The head of my division told me I'm supposed to "hit the ground running," but I'd like to take at least a couple of weeks to rethink some of what we're doing now. Would that be a mistake? Do you or your readers have any suggestions on how to avoid my predecessor's fate? —Mixed Blessing in Minnesota

Dear MBM: First, congratulations on getting promoted, which is even tougher these days than it used to be. Only about 7% of U.S. employees moved up in their organizations in 2010, according to a survey by human resources research group WorldatWork. That's a decrease from 8.1% in the years before the recession.

At the same time, other evidence suggests that your worries are well-founded. For instance, global talent management firm Development Dimensions International (DDI), whose clients include dozens of Fortune 500 companies from Avon (AVP) to Verizon (VZ), recently polled 1,130 newly promoted managers and found that most were obliged to "sink or swim": Only one in 10 had gotten any leadership training or coaching.

About 60% said they were learning their jobs through trial and error, and 42% said they had no clear idea of what was expected of them, or what success in their new position would look like.

As a result, a third of those surveyed said that they wish they hadn't been promoted, describing their first year on the job as "overwhelming." Notes Scott Erker, a senior vice president at DDI, "The stress of having to navigate a complex role with little support takes a toll on morale."

Since you mention that your promotion was unexpected, I'm betting you're among the 90% majority who received no training, so I asked a couple of coaches what they'd advise you to do now, starting with the question of how best to "hit the ground running."

There's no doubt that "your first 100 days in this job are critical," says Allen Moore, an executive consultant in the strategic management group at PDI Ninth House in San Francisco who has coached managers at 3M (MMM), Disney (DIS), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Merck (MRK), and many other companies.

Moore describes a tricky balancing act that all new bosses must pull off. "You need to score some early 'wins,' but without moving too fast," he says. "Be decisive, but also take a bit of time to make sure you understand why things are done the way they are now."

Identify a couple of positive changes you could make immediately. Then hold a series of meetings with the people who report to you and get their ideas on what else could be done to improve their chances of meeting those ever-changing targets.

"I've coached some new leaders who spent almost their whole first 100 days meeting with employees, suppliers, vendors, and customers, gathering ideas for possible improvements," says Moore. He urges you to "avoid the temptation to try and do everything yourself. As a manager, your goal is to build the capabilities of the whole organization." So let the whole organization help you.

At the same time, ask the people above you to spell out what goals you should be shooting for. "Don't assume you know what's expected of you," says Sharon Daniels, CEO of Tampa-based training and development firm AchieveGlobal.

"You need to understand exactly what your priorities should be. Then give higher-ups progress reports as you go along, and ask for confirmation that you're heading in the right direction," she adds.

Get this dialogue going right from the start, Daniels suggests, so that any mixed signals or potential conflicts can be sorted out early. Knowing what you're supposed to be doing may sound obvious, but the DDI survey found that many new managers are "in the dark about what it takes to be successful." That can't be good.

One further tip from Allen Moore: Take care of yourself. "One danger is burnout," he observes. "When you first step into a bigger job, there's so much to do, and with leaner organizations and fewer resources than in the past -- not to mention lightning-fast, 24/7 technology -- people find themselves working 20 hours a day."

Don't. "This is a marathon, not a sprint," says Moore. "So pace yourself."

Good luck.

Talkback: If you've been promoted recently, what has helped you succeed? What do you wish someone had told you before you took the bigger job? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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