When Promotion Comes Too Quickly

Tommy MacWilliam

CEO at Serenade



A company that I was with for or nine or ten months only was rapidly growing and needed more managers. One day, the Head of Engineering approached me, telling me that they believe I would make a great manager. I was surprised since I didn’t expect the promotion to happen so quickly.

In no time, I was managing people more senior to me. The company was small, most people knew each other, and managing people more senior to me, made some of them upset. Some argued I was underqualified and lacked experience, and even threatened to quit.

Actions taken

At first, I was somewhat anxious, which prevented me from doing things I should do as a manager. I felt that whatever I would do -- introduce a new process or hire someone -- I would be under harsh scrutiny.

My manager, who was a Head of Engineering at that time, told me that they were aware of what was happening and gave me the best advice -- to ignore the complaints and gossip, the same way they would do. They comforted me by saying that what mattered was what they, as my manager and my team, thought of me and not some random person on a different team.

That was a game-changing conversation because it empowered me to go off, do things and make mistakes. As a first-time manager, I would mess things up, but that would show that I was doing something and it was the only way for me to learn.

At the same time, I was trying to build credibility with my team as fast as possible. I was familiar with the technical domain, and I managed to identify easy wins and work on them first. Also, I was quite responsive to their, sometimes trivial, requests. For example, when someone from my team complained that their desk was too close to the window, I immediately went to a facility person and had their desk moved. Fixing these minor problems made me instantly gain their trust. I would keep track of all things people would ask me to do and do them diligently without ever dropping the ball. I started small and was steadily building on that until my efforts were racking up and becoming more apparent. Three months after I was able to move a desk around, I was able to restructure the team.

Lessons learned

  • Learn not to focus -- or even better, ignore -- distractions. What my manager thinks of me is important, what a manager of a lateral team thinks is important, but what a random engineer that never interacts with our team thinks of me is not important. Their complaints are distractions I learned to ignore. Learning to tease apart what opinions and perceptions matter and which not is a vital skill. As a new manager, I was wrong to believe that everyone’s opinion matters equally and that I should stress out over it.
  • Don’t view making mistakes as failure. A manager who is not making mistakes is the one who is failing. If you are not failing, you are not pushing yourself and your team enough.

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Tommy MacWilliam

CEO at Serenade

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsLeadership TrainingPerformance ReviewsFeedback TechniquesCareer Growth

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