Prepare to Ride the Rollercoaster  

Any journey of learning and development can be an emotional rollercoaster. The stakes are even higher when it comes to your career and your professional reputation. Research published by CEB revealed that as many as 60% of new managers either failed outright or underperformed during their first two years.

When you really think about it, it’s not hard to understand why so many people struggle during the transition from individual contributor to manager or from manager to executive. Here’s just a sample of the highs and lows that you and so many other upwardly mobile professionals have to navigate:

  • Euphoria of getting that coveted promotion
  • Anxiety that this could all blow up in your face
  • Gratitude that your hard work has finally been recognized
  • Self-doubt when you realize that the job is more difficult than you anticipated
  • Excitement that you get to make important decisions with big impact
  • A sense of loss that the relationships you used to enjoy with your peers changed when you became the boss
  • Optimism that you will have a positive impact on the organization and the people it serves

Sound familiar?

A key strategy to help make the most of this rollercoaster ride is to realize that this is a perfectly natural pattern. Once you accept that fact, it paves the way for you adopt a mindset that focuses on learning to ride the waves and getting through to the other side without losing your cookies in the process. 

Another equally important and effective strategy is to intentionally navigate the ladder of learning that takes you from unconsciously unskilled to unconsciously skilled. Let’s examine each of the four stages of that journey.[1]

Step 1: Unconscious Incompetence

Many of us start here. At this point, we don’t even know what we don’t know. For many aspiring managers, the job looks a lot easier from the outside. We may even believe that we can do a much better job than the folks who are currently in the role. When you’re not in the hot seat, things can seem a lot easier or less complicated than they actually are.

Sometimes, ignorance really is bliss. That bliss can lead to a confidence level (or bravado) that exceeds your actual abilities.  This is at the root of the proverbial saying that pride comes before a fall.  It’s important to tread carefully here and to navigate your new terrain with a generous dose of humility.

I hasten to point out that there is no shame in not knowing. The pitfall is in having hubris and not realizing that you need to learn the ropes. When we make the conscious decision to learn the ropes, we are then ready to step onto the second rung of the ladder.

Step 2: Conscious Incompetence

During this phase we acknowledge what we don’t know, and we resolve to close the gap. Think about learning to play a sport or a musical instrument. Let’s say your goal is to make your mark alongside the great cricketers such as Sir Vivian Richards, Gary Sobers or Brian Lara. Many moons ago, they had to start with the fundamentals – learning how to hold the bat; how to position themselves in the crease; how to keep their eyes on the ball etc.

When you are consciously unskilled, you know without a shadow of a doubt that you’re not in the same league as the greats! At the same time, you are motivated to put in the work to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to close the gap between where you are and where you would like to be.

You progress through this stage by seeking out knowledge and experience. And with that quest will come mistakes.  Each mistake is an opportunity to learn something new. One of the most important things that you can do for yourself at this stage is to seek help from those who are familiar with your new terrain. Seeking out a coach or mentor can help to minimize the stress and smooth out some of the more treacherous aspects of the rollercoaster ride.

Fortunately, we live in an era when knowledge is very accessible – for those who wish to pursue it. The thing is that knowledge without application doesn’t build skill or competence. That comes from doing – i.e., from applying the lessons learnt.

At the end of the day, the fuel that will power you through this stage is the determination to do the work that’s required to succeed. You then top the engine up with a generous portion of resilience so that you can pick yourself up and try again after the inevitable stumbles and the occasional falls.

Step 3: Conscious Competence

Once you consistently put in the hard work described during the previous phase, you will transition to the state of being consciously skilled – i.e., knowing that you have the required skills and diligently applying them to the task at hand. As you apply the lessons learnt in the previous phase, your confidence grows. You can now begin to look for opportunities that will stretch you even more – confident that you have the knowledge, the skills and the attitude required to succeed.

A word of caution here: being consciously skilled doesn’t mean that the struggle is over or that there will be no more mistakes. Neither does it mean that you won’t be challenged or that the rollercoaster ride is over. It means that you need to stay focused and keep sharpening your saw so that you are equipped to meet the new challenges as they arise. Complacency is the enemy during this stage of your learning cycle. Just ask the team of ‘superstars’ who didn’t make it to the playoffs, because they had their ticket punched by a team of scrappy underdogs.

Step 4: Unconscious Competence

This is the sweet spot. It’s like that feeling you get when you look around and take in the view after the hard climb that got you to the summit of the mountain. Taking in the scenery is effortless. The difficult terrain is in your rearview mirror. You have a sense of confidence and accomplishment – perhaps even euphoria.

Athletes refer to this stage as being in the zone. Here they accomplish amazing feats without having to break them down into their constituent parts. Picture Michael Jordan or King James driving to the basket. In that moment, they are not talking themselves through the fundamentals of dribbling, outmaneuvering the defense, aiming and taking the shot. Rather, they’re in the throes of a smooth, seamless, unconscious sequence of activities that has been drilled and practiced to the point that it has become instinctive or intuitive.

Attaining the heights of being unconsciously skilled is not a once and done phenomenon. It’s not lifetime membership to a select club. Rather, you have to put in the work to retain the designation. That’s why the greats often practice harder than anyone else – remember Kobe?

Another way to retain your status as unconsciously skilled is to devote time and energy to helping others climb the ladder to attain those same heights. That’s why the best mentors and coaches will tell you that they themselves benefit from helping others to learn and develop. As I say this, I recall interviews with Kobe describing what it was like to coach Gianna and her team and how her appreciation of the finer points of the game fed his soul and spurred his enthusiasm.

Closing Thoughts

While the primary focus of this blog is to help managers maximize their performance, the four steps that I’ve just outlined have a much broader application. That point is being brought home to me in a powerful way during my ongoing journey as an author. In particular, I know for a fact that the progression isn’t always linear.  I’ve gone from being consciously skilled in one area to realizing that I was unconsciously unskilled in another.


As you read this article, where are you on the conscious competence matrix? Lately has your progression been linear? Or do you sometimes feel like you’ve slipped back to an earlier stage? When that happens – and I assure you that it will – I encourage you to be patient with yourself and with the learning process. Remember always that your goal is progress – not perfection.



Please like, share and comment below.  For more practical tips on taking your managerial performance to the next level, pick up a copy of my book Managers’ First Aid Kit


Ambassador Joan H. Underwood is a senior management consultant and policy advisor with extensive experience in both the public and private sectors.

Professional designations held by Ambassador Underwood include that of a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) from the US-based HR Certification Institute, the Society for Human Resource Management Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP), Accredited Director (Acc.Dir.) and credentialed Master Trainer as designated by the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

She also holds the designation of an Erickson Professional Coach (EPC) and is a member of the International Coaching Federation (ICF).

Joan’s most recent professional accomplishments include certification by the Human Capital Institute (HCI) in Strategic Workforce Planning and Change Practitioner as certified by Prosci© Canada and the Change Management Learning Centre.

If you are looking for the resources required to help you take your management performance to the next level in 2021, click HERE to obtain a FREE SAMPLE from the book which is being described in editorial reviews as a “must have for new, aspiring and even experienced managers” – Managers’ First Aid Kit.

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