The long journey to the top

The path to leadership requires a complex set of development skills and, as our survey suggests, each step has its pitfalls. The World Business leadership development survey, sponsored by DDI.

by James Curtis, World Business
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Life at the top can be bloody and unforgiving. Promotion may bring with it plenty of rewards and, at the very top, the large financial packages for leaders of global companies are growing bigger. But the path to the summit is full of pitfalls, and managers who are ill-prepared or unsuited for the new roles they adopt along the way may fail.

Certainly, this is the view from the front line as revealed by a survey of 600 global managers from all tiers of management, conducted by World Business. Many managers find the transition into leadership one of the most emotionally fraught stages in their lives. The survey showed that one of the toughest challenges faced by global managers is 'navigating organisational politics'. A female marketing manager from Brazil told us: "Dealing with peers' and even bosses' envy is extremely difficult. We have to rebuild our notion that people are there to help. Sometimes they are there to make you fail."

The hard realities of life at the top were highlighted recently by the troubles at Hewlett-Packard. Patricia Dunn was appointed to chair the company in February 2005. Her run-in with office politics and the pressures of the job led to her dramatic fall from grace only seven months later. From the start, there was a serious difference of style and approach between Dunn and fellow director Tom Perkins, centred on their differing views of how to manage the board. In an attempt to stop leaks, Dunn is believed to have allowed a private security firm to use illegal means to obtain personal telephone records of the company's directors, as well as those of a journalist. She is now facing conspiracy and fraud charges with four others.

But before reaching Dunn's lofty position, a manager will have to negotiate a succession of markers, which, the survey suggests, can prove to be a long and emotionally exhausting process. They must undertake a journey that takes them from the office floor to the board table, but the passage is anything but simple and involves a complex set of challenges for the individual and their employer. Companies that manage the process smoothly can enjoy enhanced performance and profitability, while a disjointed and badly managed flow of talent can have the opposite effect.

In their book The Leadership Pipeline (2001), Ram Charan, Stephen Drotter and James Noel describe the journey a leader must take on their road to the top. The first critical stage of the pipeline, they say, is the move from managing oneself to managing others. This is followed by managing managers and then on to becoming a functional manager, a business manager, a group manager and, finally, an enterprise manager.

Each of these stages requires a fuller and more complex set of leadership skills than the one before, and each step in the pipeline has its own pitfalls. For instance, first-line managers often find it hard to give up their technical or professional roles, but they soon realise that they need to focus their energies on such things as planning and motivating workers.

Higher up, a business manager has to stop thinking like a functional manager and develop a more long-term organisational view. The enterprise manager finds they have to make a handful of decisions that will have a huge impact on the organisation. They need to reflect on these issues while ensuring the business meets its short-term performance expectations.


One of the clearest messages to emerge from the survey is that organisational politics is among the biggest hazards facing leaders today. Although businesses are supposed to be flatter and less hierarchical these days, it is clear that the apparent democratisation of the workplace has not consigned the age-old problem of office politics to history. Referring to their most recent transition into a leadership position, our respondents were asked which adjustments they found most difficult and how effectively they overcame the challenges.

Why is organisational politics such a minefield? According to Herminia Ibarra, chaired professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD, a key problem is that many people confuse 'politics' with the inevitable complexity that results from moving upwards in an organisation. "When you make the transition from a functional role to management, you need to work harder to identify who it is most relevant for you to deal with and who you need to bring in to the fold. It involves a lot of working the corridors, having meetings before meetings. It's easy to dismiss this as politics, but actually it is all about managing the complexity of a bigger role," says Ibarra.

Max Landsberg, a former McKinsey partner turned author and leadership coach, argues that flatter corporate structures have exacerbated the problem. He says: "Over the past 10 years, companies have become a lot less hierarchical, losing the old command-and-control structure. Nowadays, firms are more randomly networked, which makes it harder for an executive to know where to win support from, who to go to to help solve a problem and who the key people with influence are. In fact, organisations are less political, but as networks they are harder to navigate."

But this relatively benign viewpoint was not shared by all our correspondents. One male deputy chief officer, working in the transportation sector in India, reported: "Leadership transition in its wake brings not only increased responsibilities, but also the pressure to perform against all odds. You have to deal with peer pressure, the jealousy of colleagues and last but not least, the expectations of management."


Sandeep Balaji, business development director, Asia, Opnet Technologies

Transition: from people leader to operational leader

In several instances in my career, I have found internal politics difficult to negotiate and that has hampered my progress. If you have a strong internal network across the various business units and functional groups in an organisation, it's not so bad; but if you don't, it's much harder. In my experience, internal politics multiplies the bigger the organisation and the wider its geographical breadth.


There are differences in what women and men regard as the hardest challenges in making the transition into leadership (see above). Ibarra says women's greater need for confidence often means that they "are more likely to turn down assignments they feel they are not fully qualified for, while men assume they will learn what they don't yet know". She also says research suggests that women have more difficulty building informal networks, which in turn are an important source of confidence and support.

A female mid-level manager from China said: "It's rarely been about my technical skills. More than 80% is learning how to deal with people anew and strategising about the business from a very high perspective."

A female operational manager from the Netherlands stressed the importance of getting on with people: "It is all about who you know, not what you know. If your face doesn't fit, there is little you can do about it. Different company cultures can be the make or break factor. Distancing yourself from previous peers is expected by one company, and yet frowned on by others."


After 'navigating organisational politics', the second most difficult aspect of transition, according to our survey, is 'dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty'. It seems that for many people, promotion can feel like being thrown into an unknown world. Establishing new networks, both internally and across the wider industry, can create anxiety and uncertainty. The need to think on a more macro level creates a further mental challenge: making those big strategic decisions requires a very different use of time to hitting the targets and ticking the boxes of a more functional role.

The fact is that many aspects of a more senior role are hard to define. Ibarra says: "A lot of things can seem unclear. Much of the transition to leadership is about learning to be proactive and strategic. Doing the 'substance' like you used to do is no longer your role - you need to be looking at the bigger picture. The trouble with that is that some leaders - and some people around them - might view that, naively, as not 'work'."

Landsberg says: "As you get higher up, the paper on which you can draw your strategy gets bigger and blanker. And it's made harder as you get more freedom. It's a bit like being asked to write a poem, but not being given a subject to start with."

The fact that 'creating a new network' scores third highest in the things people find most difficult about transition underlines this. For many leaders, networking is one of the hardest skills to master. Being well-connected and having the ability to use those connections to your and your company's advantage is not only a daunting challenge, but a severe demand on a leader's time. Given the challenges involved in moving to a new and more complex role, it is not surprising that the majority of managers surveyed said that they would have made the transition with greater ease had they had more prior understanding of the mental shifts involved.

Ibarra says: "The mental transition into leadership often lags the physical one. That's why so many people struggle. They are taking an old mindset into a totally different role. It's not just a question of adding new competencies - going into leadership is actually about using your old competencies less and less."

Although nearly 50% of respondents reported that their companies prepare them extremely well for the mental transition, Ibarra says more support should be focused on psychological preparation. However, she admits: "There is a limit to how much psychological preparedness a company can do in the abstract before a person moves into a role - a lot of the learning inevitably comes from experience. You just have to hope that people get to understand the magnitude of transition before they derail."

A female banker from Australia pointed out the dysfunctional nature of upper management: "Senior positions in large organisations are not good for one's mental health. It's worth it only if you have a big ego. Paradoxically, it's enjoyable only when you have no ego."

Landsberg says the reason that an estimated 50% of new leaders don't survive in their new roles for more than two years is because they are under-prepared for the 'social journey' involved. "Figuring out the intellectual leap is something most companies have got figured out. But most employers and individuals underestimate the effort needed to make new networks. Moving into leadership is an intellectual journey, but it's a social journey too."


Promotion into a leadership position can be rewarding and fulfilling, but it can also be stressful. How does it stack up with life's other great pressure points, such as divorce, dealing with rebellious teenagers or moving house? Our survey revealed that promotion is the most stressful or challenging life change. The importance of 'home networks' to balance the stresses of work and career transition can be seen clearly in the important supporting role played by family and friends.

THE BALANCING ACT - PAUL ROSS, director, Caterpillar UK

Transition: from operational leader to strategic leader

The challenge is balancing the demands of personal development with your everyday role: the two don't necessarily align. In my case, I hold key positions in the sector, including sitting on a government advisory board and being president of a UK construction sector body. Both of those are relevant to my personal development and to the sector as a whole, and they both take up a lot of time. And yet they don't necessarily align to a day-to-day operational requirement. That has probably been the most difficult balancing act. An important realisation as I move up the ladder is that I can have a greater impact on the business by doing the corporate role, of steering, liaising and strategising, which involves becoming reliant on your direct management team. As far as that is concerned, you get out what you put in. You have to dedicate the time to build the strength of the team beneath you. If you are a senior leader, you have to leave the old role behind. Having said that, if you've been in an industry for many years and have built up a strong network of key individuals in the sector, then you'd be foolish to let those contacts drift. You have to have a balanced view of what's happening in the outside world.


Money is not the chief motivator for promotion, according to the survey. The main attraction for those seeking a move up is the ability to enact things quickly. Respect from peers is also highly important, although men seem to be less concerned about respect than women. Men are slightly more concerned about money.


Nowadays, progressive-looking companies see coaching and integrating new leaders into the organisation as vital in keeping and nurturing their best talent. Spotting future leaders early, helping them gain the right experience and mentally preparing them for the leap into leadership are among the areas that employers have attempted to improve, but how do their efforts rate with their staff? The survey revealed that while some good work is being done, many employers could do a lot more to help their rising stars.

Landsberg argues that the issue of 'support' in the leadership debate is a double-edged sword. "I think there can be an element of bleating on this subject," he says. "I think that true leaders carve out opportunities for themselves. The people who are not cut out for leadership tend to be more reactive, asking for support or taking the next step only when it is offered."

He adds that in his experience, support tends to follow a '70-20-10' pattern, where 70% tends to be in the form of on-the-job experience, 20% comes from relationships with mentors and 10% from formal training programmes.

- 55% said they spend more time 'managing internal politics' since their promotion

- Respondents found 'navigating organisational politics' particularly difficult, with 65% of respondents saying they found it either difficult or very difficult

- Slightly more women find office politics harder to tackle, with 66% saying they have been hindered compared with 64% of men

- Company politics is worse for younger leaders in transition: 62.6% of 35-45 year-old respondents saying they find it difficult or very difficult, compared with 42.8% of 55-65 year-olds

- 34% said they had not been able to overcome the challenge of organisational politics effectively

- Networking is considered the second most important skill, cited by 27.7% of respondents, after 'strategic thinking ability'

- Women think they are more inspirational, with 39.4% finding inspiring and motivating colleagues a difficult aspect of leadership compared with 45% of men

- Men find delegation harder to get used to than women, with 53% citing 'getting work done through others' as a key difficulty

- Men are more optimistic about how they overcame the challenges of adjusting to promotion: 25% of men said they overcame the challenges 'very effectively' compared with 19% of women

- More women than men said there were things they missed from their previous role

- The skills women think most important in order to make a successful transition are: strategic thinking ability 32%, confidence 29% and networking skills 26%

- The skills that men think most important in order to make a successful transition are: networking skills 28.3%, strategic thinking ability 28% and the ability to deal with complexity and/or ambiguity 26,3%

- Almost 60% said that having a better understanding of the mental shifts involved would have helped them in making the transition into leadership. The proportion was particularly high for women: 71%

- 49% of respondents said they needed a great deal of support to prepare for the mental shift required for each new transition they made

- Of all those surveyed, 65% said that dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty was either difficult or very difficult when making the leap into leadership

- Both men and women believe that the process of making a leadership transition is more challenging than dealing with divorce or separation, or becoming a parent

- 59% of all respondents rated leadership transition as a high or very high challenge, compared with 50% for stress and 42% for becoming a parent. Moving house scored 28% and managing teenagers 20%

- Women and men put these challenges in the same order, but women find each a bigger challenge, with 63% saying leadership transition is very challenging compared with 57% of men; 58% of women point to stress as a challenge compared with 47% of men

- 19% of people overall said their latest promotion had had a negative effect on their personal life; 61% said it had been a positive factor

- Women feel the detrimental effects of promotion harder: 33% said promotion had had a negative effect on their personal life and 49% said it had been positive

- When asked who had helped them most in moving into their current level of leadership, most people put 'family and friends' at the top of the list, with 35% of responses, versus 'external advisor' 28% and 'colleagues and peers' 23%

- 61% of women said the most rewarding aspect of the transition to leadership was a 'greater opportunity to make things happen'; 42% said 'respect from my peers' and 25% said 'money'

- Of male respondents, 64% rated 'greater opportunity to make things happen' as the most important factor, with 40% citing 'respect from my peers' and 26.5% 'money'

- Money gets less important the more senior you become: 22.5% of C-level leaders said it gives them the most satisfaction compared with 26% of junior mangers

- 48.5% said their company had provided the mental support they needed to make their transition 'extremely well', but 34% were less complimentary, rating the provision of mental support by their company as either bad or very bad

- Although people look to outside sources, particularly family, for most support, internal support networks are important: 23% thought 'Colleagues and peers' the highest internal source of support, followed by 'boss' 22%, 'internal coaches' 11% and 'human resources' 1.5%

- 56% said it would have been easier if there had been better role models within their organisation; 46% would have found it easier with more formal training and education

- Of all respondents, 36% said their companies are only partially effective at developing leaders before their next promotion. Women expressed more dissatisfaction, with only 38% rating them as adequate or better at supporting new leaders compared with 50% of men


Transition: from individual contributor to people leader

I first heard of mental health in the context of leadership and senior management at INSEAD from Manfred Kets de Vries, who has done extensive research on leadership. He made a comment that the reason there weren't more women in senior management was because they soon realised that these positions were not good for their mental health. As a professional woman with 18 years' experience in investment banking and management consulting, I have observed many bright, talented women opt out of the fast track as other interests in their lives take priority. Top management positions require long hours and total devotion, and women have too many outside interests. What most commentators fail to note is that not only are there very few women who make it to the top, there are also very few men. It is a very competitive world out there. Leadership offers social prestige and money, in addition to power. The tendency is for those who value those attributes to fight for them ferociously. Most women probably conclude eventually that it is not worth it. Funnily enough, more and more professional men are reaching the same conclusion.


1. Managing self to managing others: First-line manager; planning, assigning work, motivating, coaching and measuring

2. Managing others to managing managers: The first management role where the leader needs to select and develop first-line managers, and learn to think more strategically

3. Managing managers to functional manager: Responsible for a function, but must also be able to understand the wider business and create new networks with managers from different functions

4. Functional manager to business manager: Shift focus from making a function work to increasing profits; create a more long-term strategic mindset; more time for analysis

5. Business manager to group manager: Needs new skills: evaluate best strategy for capital allocation and deployment; development of business managers; build the portfolio or collection of businesses within the whole

6. Group manager to enterprise manager: Must become a long-term visionary thinker; develop operating mechanism to deliver quarterly success while developing clear, long-term strategy; will need to spend time thinking about a handful of key decisions

The Leadership Pipeline: how to build the leadership-powered company, Ram Charan, Stephen Drotter and James Noel, John Wiley, 2001


Navigating organisational politics 65%
Dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty 65%
Creating a new network 55%
Getting work done through others 50%
Managing high-risk decisions 48%
Giving up my reputation as an expert 47%
Engaging and inspiring employees 44%
Thinking strategically 39%
Learning to lead across borders 37%
Representing the corporate line 33%

Strategic thinking ability 29.0%
Networking skills 27.7%
Ability to deal with 26.2%
Influencing skills 24.9%
Confidence 24.2%

Leadership transition 59%
Stress 50%
Family issues 48%
Becoming a parent 42%
Health issues 34%
Getting married 31%
Moving/relocation 28%
Divorce/separation 26%
Managing teenagers 20%

Communicating 80%
Team-building 76%
Influencing 69%
What motivates you?
Making things happen 62.8%
Respect from peers 40.9%
Perks and travel 28.6%
Stimulation 28.6%
Boost to self-esteem 27.0%
Money 26.2%
Helping others 20.3%

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