Workplace Doctor: Big move beckons, but it’s a long way from comfort zone

I am a middle manager who after many years has been offered a big-time promotion. But I have a feeling it might not be the right move for me. What if I’m the next David Moyes? Should I stay in my safe zone? Can I say no? SI, Abu Dhabi

Stepping out of the background into the limelight is something that many middle managers will have to face if they wish to make the move up from management to leadership. David Moyes’s experience over the last few years gives every budding leader a harsh lesson on how not to navigate the transition from the stability of management to the uncertainty of leadership. To coin a well-known management term “what got him here certainly did not get him there”.

When Moyes left Everton in 2011, he was the third-longest serving manager in the Barclays Premier League. Yet he was managing a club during a period of relative stability. In the way a middle manager can drive results if they are allowed the time to develop their people and understand the market; he had the space to deal with pressures in a more measured way. Everton’s priority was to have a successful year – they were not hugely worried about survival, while there was also no expectation to finish at the top. He gradually established a stable and credible position in the marketplace. So ask yourself, are you stepping up during a time of stability or during a period of change and growth? Which one best suits your character?

While you may feel that you would be under pressure and may be exposed, you are not alone. It can be difficult to take a leap into the unknown, to try to fill what you see as “big shoes”, and many of us would struggle to make the same decision. Moyes later unsuccessfully joined Manchester United, the most successful club in English history, immediately after one of the well-known leaders in modern football – Sir Alex Fergusson. He stepped very much into the public eye and was under pressure to lead, inspire and deliver almost straight away, but said that he was not allowed time to succeed. He did, as you know, have problems, but that doesn’t mean to say that in a similar position, you could not do better. Do you believe in yourself and your professional skills? Clearly your manager does if they have offered you the role. Put plans in place to upskill yourself in these areas and make sure you have a strong network of support from those already on that level.

Adaptability and resilience are also key to taking on this new challenge. While Moyes kept failing to stand up to the task at successive football clubs, in Spain he also had to work in an uncertain cultural context – unable to speak the language and leading a very different style of team than he had experienced before. He was unwilling to adapt to an ambiguous situation, meaning he was underprepared, and kept encountering difficulties he lacked answers for. If you are aware of the issues you are likely to face, and make sure you learn fast enough to have a response prepared, you will already be much more likely to succeed than Moyes. Leaders who are agile in their learning, while being very aware of their strengths have a true competitive advantage.

To succeed in this big time promotion will require a combination of skill, character and good timing. As a manager you not only need to ask “if” you can step up, but also ask yourself “when” the right time is to step up is. Will you be leading during a period of certainty or leading into the unknown – both are very different tasks, suited to different styles of leadership. Will you be stressed to a point where you find it hard to do your job effectively, or do you think this could be a passing phase? Staying in the safe zone may be right for you, as may moving on, but only you can decide which will make you happier.

Doctor’s prescription:

A successful move requires the learning agility to learn ahead of the pace at which your organisation is changing and the resilience to recover from any setbacks and still move forward. Staying in your “safe zone” will not give you the opportunity to learn, nor will it build your resilience. Stepping outside of it will stretch you and challenge you beyond what you may already think you know about yourself. If you look deeply at yourself and if you feel the hunger for more, then maybe you should take this chance. If you feel secure in the comfort of stability, then maybe learn from David Moyes’ mistakes and stay where you are.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and consultant at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues.

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