The route to a successful career is becoming more complex, marked by more frequent transitions and is more meandering, according to new research from global talent management consultancy DDI. However many employees are not receiving significant financial reward for making difficult changes in role.

According to the global survey, only around one in ten leaders made the jump for additional money; in fact just over half (56%) of role changes and promotions in Europe result in increased compensation, compared to 54% in the global data. Around a quarter (25%) of individual respondents and around 9% of top-level strategic leaders in the survey actually took a pay cut. It seems something other than financial reward is fuelling the ambition of leaders today.

And whatever is motivating leaders to progress must be powerful; over a third (34%) in the overall global data in DDI’s Leaders in Transition: Progressing Along a Precarious Path report feeling frequently frustrated, anxious or uncertain during the transition up the career ladder. Yet despite this struggle, the last person they go to for help is their new boss. When asked who has helped the most in their move only around a quarter of overall respondents (27%) cited their new manager, with slightly more turning to their old manager for support (30%). Instead, it seems people turn most to colleagues and peers (58%) and family and friends (46%) for support during a transition between roles.

So what did leaders actually struggle with? The survey of 870 leaders who had gone through a promotion or transition found that increased ambiguity is the challenge they struggled with the most, with 42% in Europe citing this as the biggest adjustment. At the heart of this lack of clarity, respondents cited wrestling with a lack of guidance from their manager, vague job descriptions and unclear expectations as adding to this.

The challenges do not end there. Getting work done through others, navigating organisational politics, and engaging and inspiring employees were all in joint second place, with 33% of European respondents naming these as problematic issues with a promotion. This final challenge is new to the list since DDI conducted a similar survey seven years ago, reflecting the problems leaders are facing motivating their teams about the future of the business as the volatile economy recovers in many parts of the world.

The frequency of promotions and changes also appears to be on the rise. Of the respondents who had experienced a transition at work in the past three years, over two-thirds (64%) had received one or two promotions.

Simon Mitchell, UK General Manager and Marketing Director at DDI, comments: “Today’s leaders and managers are often under greater levels of pressure, and being asked to deliver far more with smaller teams than their predecessors. As the world changes, traditional career paths are being altered, and more leaders than ever before are transferring to another location as part of their promotion, increasing the complexity and difficulty of the transition.”

When asked what would help most in making the move to a new role or position, respondents cited a more structured development plan (42% in the global data, 31% in the European data). An additional 31% in both the global and European sample opted for more formal development to strengthen interpersonal or leadership skills. Overall the survey indicated that 90% of organisations have the opportunity to improve “transition satisfaction” by increasing the quality of their preparation through development.

Mr Mitchell continues: “Clearly organisations need to do far more to prepare and support their employees as they go through the critical period during a promotion, which we know is incredibly stressful. Managers are often overwhelmed by the increase in responsibility and workload that comes with this. The key to supporting people going through a promotion more successfully is preparing them in advance to know what to expect. Leaders and managers at different stages in the career ladder need different kinds of support, and a different mix of skills to help them be productive and effective. It’s encouraging to know that the skills leaders are calling for can actually be learned.”

Leaders moving to the first level of leadership (those managing teams of people who are not in turn managing anyone else) found that strategic thinking and network creation skills served them best. Operational leaders, on the other hand, believe that engagement and delegation skills were most helpful in facilitating their transitions. And, strategic leaders, meanwhile, benefitted most from political and decision-making skills.

The report also finds that those who were not expecting a promotion are more likely to be satisfied after it, compared to those who knew in advance that a change was afoot. But those who were forced into a role change were more likely to consider leaving and took longer to achieve expected productivity.