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Dana WilsonIn the U.S. military, they call them ‘Mustangs’ – personnel who have advanced from the enlisted ranks to positions of leadership. Some of them have gone all the way to the top, winning general’s stars and recognition as history’s finest leaders. The same thing can happen in the business world. Outstanding men and women, rewarded for extraordinary efforts with promotion to a management role, have worked their way right up to the C-suite.

The military recognizes that a gap exists in the behaviours needed to succeed in the ranks and those required as a leader of others. Newly-commissioned officers are often sent to OCS (Officers Candidate School), which is essentially a development program designed to teach basic leadership skills. If you are lucky, your organization may have a similar program to help you get started as you move up.

However, depending on the size of your company and the current need, you may be thrown into ‘combat’ immediately with the hope that your innate personal style and life experience is all that is required. This may or may not be the case. We’ve all heard of the ‘born leader’ whom people seem to rally around automatically. But for most of us, the frontier between follower and leader is a minefield that can quickly cause failure.

One attribute all ‘Mustangs’ possess that makes them stand out in the first place is a keen knowledge of the realities of their workplace, whether it is the battlefield, a factory line, a retail position or an administrative staff posting. This often gives them an edge when dealing with a crisis situation or the need to increase productivity.

But research shows that internal leadership transitions are far more complex and challenging than one might realize. A significant number of those promoted within the same company will encounter difficulty and be at risk of failing. This is especially true when moving upward through a social layer.

Key challenges include understanding exactly what is expected of you in the new role, re-negotiating relationships with former co-workers, establishing influence with a new peer group, quickly justifying upper management’s confidence in you, rapidly acquiring new knowledge, and closing skill and experience gaps.

Research suggests that relationships are the most difficult thing to deal with. When a leader’s position changes relative to others (as when former peers become direct reports or former superiors are now peers) condescension, jealousy and resentment may occur. The reality is relationships are complicated. New leaders most often struggle to assume authority over a group of former peers. There may be relationships within this group that need forming, strengthening, re-defining, or repairing.

This is important to address because relationships are critical for getting things done. Persons promoted internally often have pre-existing associations with their new boss, peers, and direct reports and can leverage these to accelerate their integration. One potential danger is assuming that ‘knowing someone’ equals a ‘relationship.’ New leaders can overestimate the strength of a relationship or over-rely on their reputation to establish credibility with peers and others.

For those promoted to a higher level, adapting to a new political structure is also very important. While most executives in one study said they understood the politics, they still struggled to navigate them. Leaders who advance to a new echelon can underestimate how difficult it is to persuade others to support their goals and plans.

Many organizations have very effective processes for recruiting, selecting and integrating talent from outside the organization. Applying these proven procedures to internal promotions should also help the success rate of these transitions and accelerate the performance of promoted executives. The first thing Mustangs should do is ask their HR department to consider making these new hire programs available to them. If possible, assignment of an outside consultant or coach would be extremely helpful in making these valuable freshly appointed leaders make a mark quickly in their new role and continue the upward climb to the top.

Dana Wilson is a freelance writer.

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