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by Connie and Caroline | June 01, 2011


Success has a trap: sometimes the strategies, actions, or style that makes you successful stop working. You continue to rely on what you did in the past because you have evidence that it did work once, even many times – gee, maybe you just aren’t trying hard enough. But you can’t put in a screw with a hammer. Sometimes you have to change the tool you are using. If you over-rely on the same management approach, same communication style, or the same things that got you this far, you may just not get any further. So if you feel stuck, consider the possibility that your success strategy has topped out.

Your role may be too different to rely on what you did before. This happens a lot on the career path to leadership. What works for a star individual contributor is different from a good manager and is different still from a good leader. The circumstances are different. When you are an individual contributor, you have just yourself to motivate, organize, and ensure you get the job done. When you manage, you have others to coach, train, and corral. You have a budget and timing. You have colleagues, vendors or consultants to convince. When you lead, you have followers to engage. You have a vision and strategy to communicate. Each role has different circumstances, which require skills you might never have used before. Do not assume that what you got you your promotion will enable you to succeed in the new role.

Your circle of responsibility may expand to where you need to be more flexible in your communication style. Success often means working with more people – more customers as a business owner whose product or service takes off, more staff as a manager whose responsibilities increase, more constituents as an individual contributor whose scope expands. It will become more likely that you will need a broader array of communication skills to interact with a wider variety of people. You might be a very direct, decisive manager whose small team responded positively. Now you have a bigger team, and some need a more nurturing, encouraging approach. You can wait till they “get” you if they ever do, or you can adapt to meet them where they are in their development.

Your past success strategy may be irrelevant to your new circumstances. I’ve heard several successful entrepreneurs comment on how success in their business required a completely different approach than success in school. As a business owner myself, I agree. For me, the structure I had as a student with its clearly defined schedule, curriculum and challenges (whether tests or research reports) is no comparison to the frenetic, unpredictable nature of running a business. There is some overlap but little in my book. As a formerly successful student, I had to discard some of my reliable tricks of the school trade.

What can you discard? This doesn’t mean you have to become a whole new person or never refer back to past successes, but check your assumptions about what works. Maybe you are repeating activity or relying on a style or skill that is no longer working for where you are right now. Success in your goals means that you have risen to the challenge of the moment. It is the culmination of your strategy, activities, and style with your external circumstances. There are many variables to consider here. Don’t fall into the success trap of assuming it’s business as usual.

--Caroline Ceniza-Levine


Filed Under: Workplace Issues