What the Experts Say
“If you take a typical group of mid-level executives and ask if they’ve ever been promoted to lead their peers, 90% of them will say yes,” says Michael Watkins, the chairman of Genesis Advisers and author of The First 90 Days and Your Next Move. But being in good company doesn’t make it any easier. “It’s tough,” says Robert Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University and the author of Good Boss, Bad Boss and The No Asshole Rule. “The dynamics completely change. People start to watch you more than ever before.” Watkins agrees, “It combines the challenges of any promotion with the additional challenge of people having to recalibrate their relationship with you.” Here’s how to handle it effectively.
Signal the transition
In most companies, it’s someone else’s responsibility to announce your promotion. “If the organization has a good process for a formal changing of the guard, then people will know you’re now in charge,” says Watkins. But not all organizations do this, which means the task may fall to you. Of course you shouldn’t send an email with the subject line, “I’m the boss now.” But it’s important to make everyone aware of the transition. Talk to your current boss or with HR about how to manage it.
Tread lightly at first
You probably have tons of ideas about how to lead the team. But don’t introduce any major overhauls right away. You need to demonstrate your new authority without stepping on toes or damaging relationships. “You are walking a bit of an edge,” says Watkins. “You don’t want to come in as Alexander Haig and you don’t want to act as a super-peer either.” He suggests you identify a few small decisions you can make fairly quickly, but defer bigger ones until you’ve been in the role longer and have time to gather input. For example, you may set up a new schedule for team and individual meetings, or explain your new expectations for team communication.
Establish your authority
Demonstrating you’re in charge doesn’t mean making a show of your newfound authority. Instead take actions that establish your credibility and indicate how you’ll work as a boss. One of the best ways is to meet with your team, as a group and individually, to talk about your vision. “It’s fair ball to talk about your approach to leadership and how you plan to lead the group,” Watkins says. “This should be consistent with how people have seen you lead in the past.” In these meetings do as much listening as talking. Sutton suggests you ask, “What can I do to make you more successful?” This question shows that you’re in charge, but also conveys that you’re there to support your team.
Both Sutton and Watkins agree that you can no longer have close, personal friendships with your former peers. “You can’t continue to have relationships in the way you did before. This is a loss for everybody but it’s part of the deal,” says Watkins. If you do, you may appear to be playing favorites. Instead, you need to remove yourself from social interactions. When team members go out drinking, for example, it may be better to stay behind. You don’t need to become aloof and unavailable, but you may want to attend fewer social gatherings. “If you’re not feeling a little bit lonely and left out, that can be a sign that you’re not distancing yourself enough,” says Sutton.
Try out new personas
Because you need to determine new ways of interacting with your former peers, you’ll likely need to try a few things out. “Nobody is going to get it right the first time,” says Sutton. He suggests you try what INSEAD professor Herminia Ibarra calls “possible selves.” These are subtle variations in how you lead. By experimenting with different ones, you can figure out what works and what doesn’t. Sutton warns that you’re not drastically changing your personality, or your leadership style, but you’re prototyping to see what works for you.
Deal with the disappointed competitor
If one of your peers was in competition for the job, you have an added layer of complexity to address. “They’ve suffered a loss and they’re going to handle that in a typical way: they’ll be disappointed,” Watkins says. In some cases, you might just need to let the person adjust to the new situation. But it’s important to make it clear that you value him as an employee and that you plan to advocate for his development. You can say something like, “I understand you’re disappointed. You’re an important part of this team, and I’m going to make sure you have what you need to succeed.”
Make use of the advantages
Of course, there are some upsides to being the boss of former peers. Watkins notes that “you’ll know the politics of the organization better than an outsider. And, says Sutton, “you’re more likely to find someone you trust to give you feedback, and pull you aside and tell you when you’ve screwed up.” Leverage those existing relationships to ask for honest input.
Look beyond your team
During this type of transition, it’s easy to become overly focused on your former peers. But “don’t forget to deal with your new peers and your new boss,” Watkins warns. “There will be challenges there too and you need to be aware of the relationship reshaping that needs to happen.” Ask yourself how you can build credibility with new counterparts and how you can build a connection with your new boss.
Principles to Remember
- Take actions that demonstrate your credibility
- Make clear that you value any disappointed competitors and that you will support them going forward
- Ask former peers for honest feedback
- Start any major overhauls right away
- Maintain close, personal relationships with former peers
- Forget to connect with your new peers and your new boss
- Case study #1: Get them engaged
After three years as partner in the leadership-consulting arm of the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, Rusty O’Kelley was elected by his peers to become managing partner when the previous one left for another company. As a result, “I didn’t have to prove I was in charge,” he says. But “I still had to make people feel engaged and like they had ownership over the process,” he said. He started by meeting with every one of the 42 people in the practice — partners, principals, consultants, and admins — and listening to their concerns.
He then used an all-hands conference call to share what he had learned and what he thought the firm’s goals should be for the year. “I wanted to signal that I cared about everyone’s opinions,” he explains. Based on the input he gathered, he also made some changes to key processes. For example, he moved to a centralized staffing model in which he became the final decision-maker, and he instituted a more open process around business development.
Rusty says that his relationships with his fellow partners have changed dramatically, most notably in how often he communicates with them. In the past, he only spoke with partners when they worked on a project together. Now he consults them regularly. “There are occasions where I exercise my authority, but I always take their advice. I make it as collaborative as possible,” he says.
Case study #2: Show authority through competence
Four years into his job at a government educational agency in Louisiana, Scott Norton got a huge promotion. After a significant reorganization, he was moved two levels up into a newly formed role, managing 40 people including ten of his former peers and the managers of those peers, including his former boss. He started by talking individually with the people from his former workgroup, explaining how much he valued their work, and the role they played. Then he focused on gaining the trust of the broader team by working hard. “I believe that leadership doesn’t just come through position, it comes through competence,” he explains. People recognized how much time he was putting in on their behalf and how dedicated he was to the division’s success.
With his former boss, he took a more hands-off approach. “It was a very awkward situation,” he recalls. “I tried to stay out of her way while acknowledging the expertise she brought to her role.” After a short amount of time, she left the agency but not before Scott discussed the decision with her. “She said it was too difficult to stay under the circumstances and I certainly understood that.”
Later in his time at the agency, Scott got another promotion, moving from the mid-level role to an executive one. This transition he handled even better, building off his first experience.