The Challenge of Moving From Peer to Leader

My forthcoming book, The 27 Challenges Managers Face: Step-by-Step Solutions to (Nearly) All of Your Management Problems (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, September 2014), is based on 20 years of workplace research, including interviews, surveys and focus groups with hundreds of thousands of managers in organizations of all types and sizes. Despite the diversity of people and situations, the same basic challenges come up repeatedly. In fact, more than 90 percent of the responses over the years refer to the same 27 challenges. What we call Challenge #1, the first of the "New Manager Challenges," is the challenge of being promoted to a position of supervisory responsibility over former peers.

If you are taking over a team on which you have been a member, it is very likely that you may have formed some friendships in the course of working together. Sometimes the friendship predates the working relationship. Either way, it can be hard to separate your role as the new boss from your role as friend. But that's exactly what you have to do. As tempting as it might be to pretend you are still just a member of the team, still one of the guys, you have to accept that you are in a different role now.

  1. Decide which is more important to you. If the friendship is more important, maybe you shouldn't be the boss. Accept the fact that your role as boss might compromise or damage the friendship. Maybe you'll decide that you cannot risk your friendship and thus you don't want to be the boss. But probably not.

  • Establishing ground rules that keep the roles separate. Say: "Our friendship is very important to me. My job is also very important to me, and around here I am the boss. When we are at work, I need to be the boss. When we are outside work, we try to leave that behind."
  • Be a good manager. Protect the friendship by making sure things go really well at work. Minimize the number of problems, and you will minimize the number of potential conflicts in your personal relationship.
  • Accept that the parameters of your friendship have changed. Recognize and embrace the fact that the work you and your friend have in common will become more and more the terrain of your friendship. That's OK. With any luck, you both find the work you share to be interesting and important.
  • Beware of coming on like a ton of bricks. Next to soft-pedaling authority, the most common mistake made by new managers promoted from within the team is coming on too strong. Start out strong, for sure, but also with maturity and balance.
  • Why not say this: "I've been honored to be part of this team. Now I'm honored to be the manager of this team. We all have existing relationships. Those relationships will change to greater and lesser degrees now that I am your manager. I take this responsibility very seriously. I am committed to being really good at it. I am hoping you will help me."

    Then it's time for a discussion about how you are going to manage the team and what you will expect from them. Explain that you are going to build a high-structure, high-substance ongoing regular one-on-one dialogue with every single direct-report; every day or every other day or once a week, depending on what makes the most with each person. Then schedule your next team meeting and schedule your first one-on-ones with every one of your new direct-reports.

    That would be a very strong start indeed.