“Be nice to those you meet on the way up because you will meet them on the way down,” is variously attributed to Jimmy Durante, Wilson Mizner, and even Walter Winchell.
Whoever said it had a perspective from which we all can learn. In my experience as a leader and as an executive coach, it is a topic that few people consider in the moment, yet it is a lens that is at once pragmatic and empathetic. It helps frame any person’s life journey and their career.
Most of us have experienced some type of promotion or an event that effectively moved us “higher” in a company or organization. One day we were at one level and the next we were someone’s boss or at a step that put us above our previous peers. It can be a bit unnerving sometimes, occasionally a rite of passage, and, sometimes – just sometimes – we can succumb to a feeling that we deserved the promotion while others did not.
In my experience, I think most of us experience all of these feelings. The key for each of us is to try to reconcile those thoughts into a realistic filter that provides a foundation from which to continue to learn and grow and remain effective members of a leadership team.
How do we approach those situations?
I always ask clients about how they feel about a promotion when it happens. It is often a fascinating series of questions and answers as we work together to help them build awareness about how to handle a new role. My own approach might include these questions:
“Congratulations! What are you experiencing as you talk about the new job?”
“What has changed for you?”
“I’d be interested in any challenges you feel you face.”
“How is it going with the people who used to be your peers?”
“What intentions do you have and what choices do you feel you can make?”
The answers vary and inevitably lead to others. I often help clients explore the challenges of not wanting to let go of old responsibilities, while trying to also assume the new role (which I call the “Marley’s Ghost of Leadership.”) Attempting to hold onto an old job while attempting a new one can send a lot of signals to subordinates, including lack of trust and a breakdown in communication.
Also, a number of clients struggle with being promoted ahead of peers or those who might be more experienced in the organization. It is not uncommon for these clients to be labeled as “whiz kids” or “shiny pennies.” They can contend with jealousy or judgment by others who might think they’re not worthy or capable of the new role. This can all add pressure and challenging expectations as they attempt to navigate the new role.
Other clients might try to disregard any messages from others and revert to just getting the job done and achieving more results in the new role. And while their achievements might continue, their relationships sometimes do not.
In any of these situations, as a coach I sometimes challenge people to help them gain perspective of the “promotion ladder”:
“So, you got promoted and you feel that people are labeling you or may even be jealous of you. What are the possibilities that you might once again be subordinate to them?”
“I can’t imagine that.”
“Do me a favor and think about it.”
“Well, it might be uncomfortable.”
“Why would it be uncomfortable?”
“A lot of people think I left too big a wake as I completed projects and assignments – and that I don’t give enough credit to others.”
“What might you do differently now that you thought about how others might see your performance and relationships?”
“Well, I guess it would be wise to connect with others and get to know them, work to give others credit – make it “we” instead of “I.”
“Effectively to be nice to others while you’re climbing the corporate ladder?”
“Yes, because you might meet them on your way back down!”
A smile and then a look of recognition can often follow.
The harsh reality for each of us is that whether it’s a job change, a demotion, or a retirement, we all experience a trip “back down the ladder.” If we’ve treated everyone with kindness, we can know that we have done our best to maintain and build relationships.
And after all, isn’t that what life is all about?
Dave Bushy of Boston Executive Coaches is an ICF-certified coach who was trained at the Gestalt International Study Center (GISC). He is a former U.S.Army officer and senior airline executive who works with leaders throughout American industry.