A high school freshman was lamenting to his sophomore sister: “I’m worried about studying. Am I going to have to study this year?”

It reminded me of a retention study we did, trying to learn why students were failing the introductory engineering class. We assumed that the students with lower entrance credentials were the ones struggling, but it turned out to be those with the highest high school grades. The smartest students had not learned how to study in high school and now faced challenging material that required them to apply the skills they had never honed.

It’s not uncommon for those who are easily successful in one environment to struggle when they are promoted to another level. It happens from middle school to high school and from high school to college — but it also happens in the workplace. We promote good followers into supervisory roles and assume they have the decision-making skills to do the job, but they may not have developed them as associates. We put great team members in charge of projects without ensuring they have the leadership skills to be successful. We make a wonderful sous chef responsible for the meal even though they may not have been involved in any menu planning.

Moving to the “next level” — whatever that may be — isn’t just more of the same. Every promotion requires a new way of thinking and the application of a new set of skills. Pay extra attention to those whose path has been easy as small barriers may be their first, requiring explicit coaching in how to overcome them.

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