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The Most Important Career Decision of Your Life: Stepping Up to Leadership

By Rich Wellins, Ph.D.

Richard S. Wellins, Ph.D.

We recently surveyed over 600 leaders about their transition to a leadership role. We asked if they were pressured into the position or made a voluntary choice. We then asked how it turned out.

Before anyone decides to move up to a leadership position, they should consider one critical research finding: those who felt forced into the position were three times more dissatisfied with their role and twice as likely to consider quitting.

While not surprising, the number of leaders who feel compelled to take “that promotion,” even though it may be for the wrong reasons, is concerning.

I have asked dozens of leaders if they could go back to their old job as an individual contributor, but keep their leadership “perks,” would they do so? The answer was yes—in a heartbeat!

So, making the decision to lead is an important choice. Even more importantly, it is a choice leaders need to make for themselves.

Two indications for my advice:

  1. For HR or hiring managers: Be sure new potential leadership candidates understand what the new role involves, both the business and leadership components. Be sure those considering leadership positions do not feel coerced into moving up and are not penalized for saying no. Many organizations have put in place dual career tracks for both individual contributors and managers. We also feel it is prudent to deploy a leadership assessment to gauge both leadership skills and the motivation to lead.
  2. For potential leaders: We advise they look in the mirror and honestly answer some questions:
    • A leadership role can be stressful. Our past research showed that new leaders found the transition as stressful as raising teenagers or moving into a new dwelling. Are you ready for more stress? How do you handle stress?
    • How does your significant other feel about the choice? It might mean more pay.  It might also mean longer work hours and increased demands.
    • If you do decide to lead, is it for the right reasons? Great leaders are motivated by the ability to influence, the joy of building a strong team, and accomplishing goals through others. Bad ones make the decision based on the need for power, more money, or the desire to still get things done by themselves.

No, our goal is not to scare people away from taking on a new role that might be perfect for them. A great majority of those who take on the role, for the right reasons, find immense satisfaction as leaders. Many continue to move up the ladder. Many continue to take their teams, businesses, and yes, even the world to new heights. But we do feel the decision should be approached as a personal choice and given the same considerations as any critical “life decision.”

To learn more about what it takes to become a great new leader, take a look at our new book, Your First Leadership Job.

Rich Wellins, Ph.D., is a senior vice president at DDI.

Posted: 17 Jun, 2015,

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