Sorry, you just got promoted: why an apology and leadership development are a must.

Juanita sits in a boardroom in a leadership discussion with a staff member. She wears a white business blouse and her trademark red glasses. Juanita is the staff member. We are looking over the staff member's shoulder towards Juanita. 'Sorry, you just got promoted' appears in written text to the right of the photo image. Leadership development training. Leadership discussions. Professional development.

When people are told they are being promoted at work, it typically comes with congratulations, a pay increase, and a title bump. There are two critical elements almost universally missed during these conversations. The first is an apology – “Sorry you just got promoted”. The second is a sincere commitment to quality leadership development.

Why is an apology warranted?

Any time a person steps into a more senior role, they must improve their leadership skills to maximise success – for themselves, their team and the organisation. It takes effort, work, personal and (often uncomfortable) professional reflection and change – hence the apology.

Why should every promotion come with a sincere commitment to quality leadership development?

It’s a smart strategic investment.

Over two decades of experience in senior leadership roles and consulting with organisations in various sectors, industries and countries struggling with underperformance has taught me this is a universal truth.

Unfortunately, quality leadership development seldom comes hand-in-hand with promotions. Common reasons I’ve heard for this strategic misstep revolve around seeing leadership development as an expense and not an investment, or old-school thinking, expressed in phrases like ‘we don’t have room in the budget for expenses like that’, ‘they can learn on the job like I did’, ‘they’ll either sink or swim’, ‘why invest in someone so they can leave’, or the rose-coloured glasses sentiment – ‘it’s been working up until now’.

I can now spot leadership development challenges within organisations within the first 20 minutes of an initial consult, often within the first five.

“My team has no work ethic.”

Man in suit facing a laptop with one elbow on his desk uses that hand to cover his eyes with his other hands raised open to the ceiling in a gesture of frustration. Underdeveloped leader. Frustrated leader on video call.

Red flags you have an underdeveloped leadership issue

Red flag phrases that reveal an organisation has people in leadership roles who haven’t received adequate quality training to be leaders include:

  • “My team has no work ethic.”
  • “My staff are lazy.”
  • “I can’t get my staff to do what they’re told.”
  • “My team don’t listen.”
  • “My team doesn’t understand why what we do is important.”
  • “We never hit our deadlines because the team are too busy bitching.”
  • “My team spend more time in HR making complaints than they spend doing their jobs.”
  • “It’s faster for me to do it myself than to try to explain it to them – they’d just get it wrong.”

No blame. Just the power and impact of leadership development.

It’s important to note that this is not a blame game blog. I have yet to meet board members or executive or senior leadership teams who have intentionally set out to limit their organisation’s success by not investing in leadership development. More commonly, they have yet to realise the power and impact of this smart, strategic investment, or they are carrying on behaviours modelled by previous leaders, be it in the same organisation or at former companies where they have worked.

Sometimes, senior leaders will initially assure me that they do indeed provide leadership development. But after a couple of quick follow-up questions, it becomes clear, in many instances, that they are talking about ‘management’ training, for example, how to use rostering software or write reports.

Leadership training and management training are vastly different in content and purpose. Just as leadership and management are vastly different capabilities and skills.

Leadership training focuses on how to lead. It includes such critical knowledge as the difference between leadership and management, the role of leadership in achieving personal, professional and organisational goals, and how to communicate and behave in a manner that inspires, motivates, and champions teams to achieve their goals and mission – because that just became their job (sorry!).

In short – developing leadership within your team delivers results.

Every leader needs it. Some need it more urgently than others.

Leadership development is necessary at every promotion stage, from the first promotion to crew trainer or team leader to becoming Chairman of the Board for the first time.

However, it is especially critical for people promoted based on their strong performance in their current skills-based role (and sometimes their years of service) but who have never undertaken any significant quality business or leadership training.

Put simply, they are great at what they’ve been trained to do and spent months or years performing and perfecting (which makes sense). But we promote them and expect them to be leaders despite never being taught how to lead (or, for that matter, what leadership is).

You can find examples of promotions without appropriate leadership training in every industry—great nurses, teachers or social workers with minimal leadership training supervising whole units, departments or programs. Talented tradies who are great on the tools find themselves leading entire teams. Brilliant graphic designers, engineers, IT techs or academic professors are promoted to leadership roles with zero training on how to lead.

Assumptions used to justify promotions without leadership development

Decades of consulting and leading have taught me that these types of promotions to leadership roles are made based on the assumptions that:

  1. people who are good at their skill-based roles will be good leaders in that field – (failing to recognise that leadership is its own critical skill set),
  2. people will ‘grow into’ leadership via some magical combination of psychic osmosis and on-the-job experience,
  3. the leadership examples new leaders have experienced themselves previously (or currently) are good examples of modern, evidence-based, high-performance leadership they can mimic and reapply
  4. switching overnight from being someone’s same-level peer and work buddy to their supervisor is easy (even in situations where the former peer or peers were also in the running for the promotion), and
  5. The new leader can work on becoming better leaders in their own time if they need ‘extra help’ to improve and get it right by ‘investing in themselves’.
  6. They’ve already been in leadership roles for years / decades.

These assumptions are (wildly wrong) detrimental to the individual leaders and the organisation. They set a lot of potentially solid future leaders up for failure, and they set companies and organisations on a trajectory for strategic underperformance, poor workplace culture, and more HR (or people and culture, should you prefer) problems than any organisation wants.

My journey to the leadership development solution

It’s important to note that in most instances when I have identified (and reported) a gap in leadership development as a major challenge for an organisation – it was not (in the minds of those hiring me) what I’d been brought in to do. It (somehow) almost always came as surprising news.

Typically, I would have been engaged to head up strategic planning, market development, merger and acquisition prep, or significant corporate negotiations, which people regarded as distinctly separate to ‘HR’ issues. My early assessments regarding leadership capacity always led to an awkward conversation where I needed to say – I can do all the things you’ve asked for, and we can develop an ingenious, innovative and sophisticated plan – but it will fail (or underperform), at implementation because you have underdeveloped leaders throughout your organisation.

I would typically highlight a few pieces of data they have given me themselves, such as high leave levels, rising mental health days, high staff turnover, increased recruitment costs, and a failure to meet critical project deadlines and then explain the linkage between leaders who haven’t been trained to lead, and these detrimental impacts.

The first time this ever happened, many years ago now, the response from a board member to my frank initial assessment was to ask if I was recommending that all the low-level managers and supervisors should be (sacked) replaced with trained leaders. I remember raising both hands into the air and making dramatic stop gestures. I suspect it looked like I was a hostage negotiator, showing I was unarmed and calling for calm.

Juanita sits at a board room table in a white business blouse and red glasses. She has both hands raised, palms forward to someone sitting across from her that we can only glimpse from behind. Her hands are making dramatic stop gestures and her lipsed are pursed as though she has just said the word 'nooo' with dramatic emphasis.

‘Absolutely not.’ I replied calmly but sternly. ‘There is nothing about this that cannot be fixed. But you need to invest in training people throughout your organisation in how to lead. They can then develop and lead high-performance teams to implement the audacious, big-picture strategies you want us to give them…”

And then, after a dramatic pause on my part, “…unless you plan on doing all 300 jobs yourself.”

After a very long and awkward silence, with board members exchanging glances around the table (one of those rare moments where I wonder if I’ve been too frank too fast), he blustered a reply:

“But how long would all that take? We have big targets to hit and deadlines to make.”

My reply was simple. “Well, I can’t fix everything overnight, – but give me people in leadership roles in groups of 12. I need two half days, a week apart, with each group, and I’ll give them a leadership 101 masterclass that will teach them what leadership is and give them all the essential practical tools to walk out of that room and start doing it dramatically better than they currently are. I’ll tell them everything they should have been told the day they got their first-ever promotion (along with the apology).

Also, this will help you achieve your goals, not hinder it.

The ‘Sorry you just got promoted’ intensive leadership development sessions.

Since that day the professional development of team leaders, supervisors and managers in how to lead has become a regular part of my work with clients. It links in seamlessly with my public speaker coaching work, because, as I often tell my clients, some of the most important pubic speaking and strategic communicating you ever do might never be on a stage – it might be in house, to your team, every day.

In recent years, I’ve made the leadership sessions a stand-alone professional development training option for companies and organisations looking to give their leaders an intensive, fast-tracked giant leap in their leadership skills as a group exercise. It’s not uncommon to receive feedback that we’ve advanced the development of their leadership skills across the organisation by years (or decades) in just seven hours per group.

Historically, the stand-alone professional development training was officially called Leadership 101 or Leadership Masterclass (based on the client’s preference). Still, one of the very first slides was emblazoned with the title ‘Sorry, you just got promoted’, and that’s what I always call it once I’m in the room.

I explain to participants – that this is everything the person who gave them their first promotion, whether 15 minutes ago or 15 years ago – should have told them about what leadership is (and is not) and what it means to lead.

It is one of the most rewarding professional development intensives I offer. I can watch the light bulb moments when people determine the type of leader they want to be (casting off what they might have walked in as) and discover the practical tools to make that happen. People tell me they are better leaders as a result of the training, and organisations tell me how their teams and overall organisation have reaped the benefits of a new culture of skilled leadership.

If you see (or hear) any of the red flags I listed above in your own organisation, or if you need to empower the leaders throughout your organisation to inspire and motivate high-performance teams to implement your audacious goals – yesterday would have been a great time to message me about group leadership development intensives. The only better time is today.

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