Hindsight is a wonderful thing. If there is one word I wish I could have whispered to myself in my early 30s, it would be: "wait". My career was progressing nicely. I was smart. I was ambitious. I had a proven track record as an editor. I had learnt to manage other editors. So when presented with the opportunity to take on my first leadership role, assuming responsibility for a bigger team and for people doing jobs that I hadn't done myself, I jumped at the chance.
Six months in came the realisation that the technical and managerial skills I had learnt to date were simply not enough to prepare me for the leap I’d made. Nothing bad happened on my watch, but it was not comfortable and, looking back, I know I could have done a better job – and contributed more – if I’d had the emotional maturity to make more of the opportunity I’d been given. It’s hard to admit, but, in short, I was promoted too soon.
Moving on in a career is all about moving out of comfort zones and tackling new challenges. But in publishing, as in other industries, not enough attention is given to the crucial issues of when and how. For me, it was not a matter of aptitude (I’ve done plenty of leading since), but of timing and a lack of support. I have seen time and again in publishing an almost perverse pleasure taken in the 'throw them in at the deep end' attitude, where the cream will apparently rise to the top, and asking for help, support or feedback is seen as a weakness. Had I turned down my promotion all those years ago, I would never have enjoyed the same reputation ever again.
There is a wealth of evidence to support the view that moving successfully from being a manager to taking on a more strategic senior role requires a very different type of personal development: the ability to master what Daniel Goleman calls 'emotional competencies'. Being at the top of your game as an editor or publicist does not mean that you’re ready to motivate and develop a wider range of staff, deal well with conflict or regulate your own emotions when under stress. Developing these competencies takes time and experience, and involves shifts in awareness and behaviour that need to be tested and practised, preferably in a supportive environment.
I have a lot of sympathy with the pressure to promote the smart, ambitious and accomplished people publishing so readily attracts. It’s natural that many of these exceptional people conquer the technical and managerial aspects of their work so early in their careers and are hungry to move up – or feel they must to progress their careers. And why not simply let these very capable people continue to learn on the job, as they’ve always done?
The trouble is that putting people into positions of authority too soon without the right levels of emotional maturity and support brings two very serious risks.
The first is that 'too much too soon' can take a very personal toll on individuals, who then tend to 'lean out' or even break down. Careers are undermined and talent is lost.
The second is that we grow a generation of leaders who carry on regardless and never develop the broader skills, self-awareness and insight that so often make for inspirational leadership. This tends to reinforce a sense of continuity: if I made it and 'it was good enough for me', then what’s the problem? The problem is that this feeds the temptation to promote people who look and feel a bit like ourselves rather than take a broader or more diverse view of accomplishment, success and potential.
And we all know the issues of diversity that our industry faces.
Is it time to break the cycle? Not by looking at diversity as a series of initiatives and outreach activities, but by taking more time to develop future leaders open to different ways of thinking, different ways of working and who can combine the very best publishing with a new and exciting style of leadership.