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Are you ready for the surprising challenges of senior leadership?

Any time you move up the career ladder, there are new challenges to overcome, such as learning to handle extra pressure or scrutiny, navigating professional relationships, and gaining the skills needed to nail your latest position.

But once you start climbing from a mid-level leadership role to a senior-level leadership role, there’s another round of potential hurdles that may take you by surprise.

Here are some of the more common senior leadership challenges to look out for, and some practical advice on how to meet them head on.

The new power dynamic

If you’ve been promoted in the past, you’ll perhaps already understand the tensions that can arise when you’re suddenly in charge of colleagues who may also have become friends.

However, when you make the transition to a senior leadership position, this can further upset the status quo, advises Dr Andrea North-Samardzic, a lecturer in Deakin’s Faculty of Business and Law.

‘Having to navigate the personal and the professional is something that people can often find to be a significant issue if they are progressing within that same organisation,’ she says. ‘Sometimes it’s jealousy or sometimes it’s just the power dynamic has shifted.’

Bear in mind that while in your previous position you may have mostly been looking out for the needs of your team, now, you might be tugged in two directions: by the team and by the company.

So what’s the best way to deal with any awkwardness or unrest caused by your upward trajectory?

‘It’s just putting things on the table and talking to colleagues and friends, and acknowledging the elephant in the room,’ Dr North-Samardzic says.

‘Saying, “I don’t want anything to change” is naïve. Things will change.’

Seeking out support

In the early days of your leadership transition, it’s easy for self-doubt – or ‘imposter syndrome’ – to creep in.

Even if you don’t feel like you’re ready, if someone believes that you are, then believe in yourself,Dr North-Samardzic advises.

‘This is where having support through peer and senior mentors is really important because they can provide you with that really great, external check to give you that self-assurance and confidence that you do deserve to be there.’

If you don’t have a mentor in your own organisation, search out other professional networks where people at similar levels can share their experiences, struggles and knowledge.

‘The more senior you go, the more people are less likely to tell you the truth because of that power difference,’ Dr North-Samardzic says. ‘So having people to talk to who aren’t directly related to the organisation is a really good thing.’

'Saying, “I don't want anything to change” is naïve. Things will change.'

Dr Andrea North-Samardzic,
Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University

Adjusting your skillset

It’s a strange fact of working life that often the better you get at your job, the less likely you’ll actually be doing it on a daily basis.

‘The more senior you get, the less you’re actually doing the role that you initially trained for, and the more you will have to have broader people-related skills, which can take time to develop,’ Dr North-Samardzic says.

‘And if you come from a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industry where the softer skills tend not to be part of training, that can feel like an added challenge.’

Undertaking a Master of Business Administration (MBA) is one way to upskill, but any kind of professional development is likely to stand you in good stead.

Dr North-Samardzic says non-traditional learning can also be surprisingly helpful. For instance, she took an ‘improv’ class, so she could get used to thinking on her feet as a lecturer.

Alternatively, she says someone going into a management position could join a sporting team on a weekend and take on a team captaincy role.

A different focus

Another thing to remember: Dr North-Samardzic says the higher you go in your career, ‘the less it is about you’.

‘The more senior you get, the more you need to be thinking about how you can help others progress in their career and also broader strategic issues.’

Rather than directly managing people and projects, you’re also likely to be taking on a wider leadership role and working to empower your team.

Pulling together people with different expertise from varying parts of your business or organisation can also prove that you’re on your game.

Dealing with extra pressure

Unsurprisingly, a fancier title and a more generous pay packet usually come with more responsibility.

‘Generally that’s why they pay you more, to deal with more headaches,’ Dr North-Samardzic says.

‘If we’re talking about becoming a more senior leader, there’s always going to be more pressure. There’s always going be more scrutiny. There’s always going to be more stress.’

This is why building peer support with others at a similar level is key to overcoming those common leadership challenges.

Keeping an eye on your own welfare should also be another priority.

‘You may want to make a really strong impression by working super hard in the new role, which is great, but make sure that you’re not doing that at the sacrifice of your own health and wellbeing,’ Dr North-Samardzic says.

Itching to make that next career move? Here’s how to tell if you’re ready.

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Dr Andrea North-Samadzic
Dr Andrea North-Samadzic

Lecturer, Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University

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