I was recently promoted and I am drowning. I am still supporting the person who took my former job while trying to get my head around my new job. My new team is huge, and I didn’t know any of them until I stepped into this job. I couldn’t get through my email if I spent ten hours a day trying. And that doesn’t include all of the stuff coming in on Slack.
My new boss has no time for me and clearly expects me to be able to hit the ground running, but I just can’t. I am supposed to get an assistant, but HR wants me to interview people, and I don’t have time. They have offered me a coach to help me—but again, I am supposed to talk to a few and choose one and I don’t have time for that.
My partner tells me I am headed toward burnout. I don’t think that is true. I’m not depressed or apathetic, just in way over my head. How can I get a grip? Any ideas you might have would be appreciated.
Need to Stabilize
Dear Need to Stabilize,
You have collapsed how you are feeling with reality. You are feeling like there is an emergency when there is no actual emergency. It sounds like you are in such a state of alarm you can’t think straight. And thinking straight is what you need to be able to do right now.
So the first order of business is to turn off all of the noise and simply hear your own thoughts. Turn off Slack. Close your email. Turn your phone off. If you work in an office, go to another part of the building. A client I worked with once used to go to the stairwell. If you work from home, go to a coffee shop or a park. Step away from your normal environment and go someplace where no one can find you.
Put an out-of-office message on your email that indicates you will be focused elsewhere for the next 48 hours, and if the sender of an email deems it critical, they can resend in a few days.
Now write down everything you need to do—everything from the biggest, most complex things down to the smallest, and then prioritize it all.
Then delegate. Anything that someone else could conceivably do is to be done by someone else. Presumably the folks in HR are good at hiring, so tell them to choose the best candidate to be your assistant. Presumably the people offering you a coach have a pool of highly qualified coaches for you to choose from—and, honestly, any decent coach will be able to help you right now. There is zero research that supports the idea that anyone has an appreciably better coaching experience when they choose their own coach. Have the folks managing the coaching assign you a coach.
Do not spend a single minute doing anything that somebody else can do.
Tell your replacement that you need seven days to focus on your new job, and that they should collect their questions to bring to you then. They can text you if there is a potential train wreck about to happen.
Your boss expects you to hit the ground running? I love that expression because it sounds like something James Bond does when he drops out of a plane. It is not a real thing. But when your boss has no time for you, you can only assume you are on your own and you will have to use your best judgment. Draft an email to your boss outlining what you think is most important and what you plan to focus on for the next thirty days. They may ignore your email. Maybe they will respond with “OK fine, go go go,” or maybe they will suggest some changes. They may suggest (I have seen this before) that everything is a priority, which would be a cop out. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority, so you will have to use your best judgment. Either way, you will have kept up your end of the implicit bargain by sending the email.
Getting to know your team is a priority. Once your new assistant is in place, have them set up 1×1’s with each of your new direct reports. Have them send you an email before their meeting in which they answer the following questions, (obviously you should edit these to suit you):
- What are the tasks and goals you are working on?
- What direction or support do you need from me on each of those tasks?
- What should you be doing that you are not doing and what is getting in the way?
- What is worrying you?
- What are you pleased about?
- What are your top strengths?
- What is your superpower?
- What do you want me to know about you?
- What do you want to know about me?
- What do you think I should know about your world, and about the team?
As you meet with each person, ask yourself what things are on your list that you might put on their list. You will probably be able to find a few things. Will they do it the way you would do it? No. Will they do it as well? Probably not. But they might do it better—and either way, it will be done. Done is better than perfect, at least for now. You are never going to be able to do everything yourself, so you might as well start getting things done through others right now.
Finally, remember that you were promoted because someone thought you were competent enough to figure things out. And I suspect that you will be, once your brain is available for use.
Nobody ever tells you that half the battle of senior leadership is choosing what to pay attention to and what to ignore. Stop. Breathe. Turn off the noise. Think. Breathe some more. Focus. Decide what you are going to do first, and what you will do in the next five days. Ignore everything else, for now.
You’ll feel much better.
“But what about the fallout if I make the wrong decisions?” you are asking. That may happen, but, well, then you’ll know, and you will learn from mistakes. I don’t know what your business is, but I am assuming that no bridges will fall down and no babies will die if you just take a step back.
Whatever ideas you have about how someone else would be doing way better in this situation are wrong. There is only you, right now, and it is up to you to take control.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.