“The toughest thing about success is that you’ve got to keep on being a success.”
— Irving Berlin

You’re a successful clinician or manager. The executives in your organization recognize your success and ability to create positive change, and because of that, they have promoted you to a new leadership position.

How will you approach this new position? How will it be different from what you’ve done before? What will you have to change? And why change anything? Isn’t it logical to believe that you can just employ things that brought you success in your old position to bring you the same in your new one?

New leaders are often promoted because of their reputation for hard work and the respect they’ve earned from those around them. They are also there because the people who did the promoting see in them the potential to be great leaders. What many new leaders fail to immediately realize is that what brought them success in their former job is not necessarily going to bring them the same results in the new one. And that can mean significant professional change for a person.

According to renowned executive coach Marshall Goldsmith, much has been written about changing dysfunctional behavior in order to achieve success. But what about changing successful behavior?

“Not surprisingly, very little has been written on the unique challenges involved in helping successful people change,” Goldsmith says. “The entire concept is somewhat counter-intuitive.”1

It can seem counter-intuitive. Think about it. Why do you need to change if the ways you have done things in the past have made you successful? Doing what got you to this point should work just as well here, so you should be able to just gear up, get to work here and keep that ball of success rolling. Right?

Wrong. As Goldsmith is fond of saying, “What got you here won’t get you there.”

Why Change?

The answer as to why is simple. You are in a different place that runs differently, you have different people with different priorities, and even your priorities have become completely different. In case you haven’t noticed, I am putting the emphasis on the word “different.”

And perhaps the most important thing you need to consider is this: The executives who put you in this new position have much different (and greater) expectations for you than they had before, or you wouldn’t be where you are right now. Your challenge is to change your behavior in order to find success in your new leadership environment.

According to Goldsmith: “One of the greatest mistakes of successful people is the assumption, ‘I am successful. I behave this way. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way!’”
Goldsmith says this is a “confusion of correlation and causality” that may result in superstitious behavior—leaders being unwilling to change their behavior for fear it may “break their string of success.”

Realizing the Need for Change

Let me relate my own story of a leadership transition—not really a promotion—earlier in my career that tested my capacity to change.
When I was first developing healthcare-related educational conferences back in the 1980s, I was on my own, and literally “ran the show” from the ground up—handling the financial aspects, developing the educational sessions, choosing and making arrangements for the speakers, and handling much of the marketing and marketing materials. If that were not enough, I also coordinated all of the meeting planning activities, which included hotels, catering, session and exhibitor venues, and everything that goes along with putting together a successful meeting, both in advance and on the site. Whew! And I did it all with one clerical assistant. I was lauded for my skills and ability to keep on top of thousands of details to create successful national conferences.

Soon, my success had opened opportunities for the company to expand into more and larger events. However, as the conferences grew in number, size and scope, it became clear the job could no longer be done by one person and an assistant, and I needed a staff. What had brought me to my level of success was my ability to get my hands on a project, and have my “three brains” going all at once, managing innumerable details from beginning to end.

I soon learned that what had gotten me to where I was and had earned me the respect of company executives was not going to bring me success in my new role as a leader of four other people who were trying to handle more focused pieces of that whole big picture. For a while I resisted changing, and I had to have my hands on every task. The job soon became overwhelming, and I began to sense that I was getting in the way of not only my own success but the successful work of others as well.

The Time Comes to Change

Very quickly I learned that I had to change or fail. By trying to closely manage every task I was getting small wins and getting them quicker than I would from relying on others to do them. However, I soon realized that if I kept going down that road, I would eventually be racing a huge snowball that would run me and my people over. I could feel it on the back of my neck.

So I stepped back and asked myself, “What is different about this new situation from the one I found success in before?” The first answer was obvious—there were three new people and one seasoned assistant, all with different skills, who were there to help me do everything I was doing before, just magnified several times in scope. They were looking for me to give them direction in light of the all-encompassing big picture that I knew so well, but I was too busy trying to get down and dirty on the details.

The worst thing I could have done at that point, and the place I was heading, was to create four mirror images of myself and have them all doing what I used to do—everybody handling every detail.

Delegation: A Key to Success

It was time for me to be the leader and realize it was my job to delegate certain pieces of the overall picture to the best people to handle those pieces, and trust my knowledge and judgment to determine which pieces went to whom. Next, it was up to me as a leader to provide the big picture so they all understood what we were trying to accomplish, and how all the various tasks they were doing affected one another and the grand view of pulling off great educational events.

That big picture and my experience of knowing how to make it all happen were the most important things I brought to the table as a leader for those people. My ability to actually do those tasks no longer served me or my people in that new position.

Getting Back on Track

Once I got into that mode, I was back on the road to success. I let my people handle the details and began giving them greater and greater responsibility. I soon found myself able to focus on even bigger picture issues such as enhancing our feedback processes so we could improve our programs to attract more people, and developing pricing strategies that allowed more options for attendees and visitors, while increasing the profitability of our events.
And I even found time to close my door from time to time with employees who needed a little guidance on balancing their demanding home and work lives. And that’s how I eventually got to where I am now. But that’s another story.

When you begin a new leadership position, probably the best favor you can do yourself is to sit down somewhere and write down what you believe the differences are between the where you came from and where you are now.

Answer a set of questions, which might include:

  • What makes this position different from my past job?
  • What are the skills and traits that I already possess that will help me in this new position?
  • What are some of the skills and traits I needed before that might not be useful here?
  • What knowledge do I bring that will be helpful to the mission here?
  • What are my subordinates expecting me to bring to them?
  • What are my superiors expecting me to deliver?
  • Who can most help me succeed with the mission in this new position?

This last question is the most important of all. It’s likely that before you stepped into your leadership position, the answer to that last question was “Only I can.” You were the person who helped you succeed in your previous position because you were doing the detail work—caring for patients or managing systems. In your leadership position, that will no longer be the case, and that’s why “what got you here will not get you there.”

I often talk about the value of feedback, and this is another place where it is vital. Get out there and find out what needs to be done for success in this new position, and then find out who can best help you get each piece of it done. Find out what expectations have been set for you and what the apprehensions are about you among the people you lead. If you are uncomfortable gathering this sensitive information yourself, consider taking advantage of a coach to help you with the 360-degree feedback process.

Always keep in mind that in your leadership position it is the things you accomplish through your people that will bring you success in the future, rather than things you accomplish on your own.

Finally, you must realize that as you become a successful leader, you will be relied on more often as a coach and mentor for the people you lead. And that’s something that very likely was not on the list of what got you here.


1. Goldsmith M: “Helping Successful People Get Even Better,” Business Strategy Review, London Business School, Spring 2003.