Meet Dave. A brilliant sales representative who is not only well-liked by all his customers but is also known for exceeding his goals. After five years of this performance, the company asks Dave to interview for the Branch Manager position. They hope he can get the same results out of the entire team.
Flattered, Dave applies. It is more money, more exposure to company executives, and a clear advance in his career. However, he has no experience leading people, let alone leading his former peers.
The organization brings in others to interview for the job, but ultimately, Dave is selected to be the new Branch Manager. He spends time before his first day planning out what he will say to the team, how he will structure the work, and what changes he wants to make first. He rehearses what he calls his FDS (first day speech) and puts together a snappy presentation to go with it.
On his first day, Dave calls the team into the conference room, pulls up his slides and delivers the FDS. He tells everyone about his three big ideas for the work and informs them of their new assignments.
He ends his speech, and the team responds with silence. One member of his staff (who is also a close friend) starts to clap which then leads others to join in. When Dave asks for questions, no one responds. He closes the meeting.
Dave walks back to his office worried. He thought everyone would be excited and instead it felt like it all fell flat.
This story about Dave is a true one (with names and industry changed) and it represents one of the toughest leadership challenges to experience, the shift from buddy (or peer) to boss, the one leading former peers.
Dave had a rocky start, largely because he was not only going from buddy to boss, but was also going into his first managerial role, period. He made a common new manager mistake and embraced his new leadership role backwards. He focused entirely on himself and his own ideas instead of those of the team.
When new managers ask for a single piece of advice for transitioning into leadership, I pass on the guidance I received, “It is no longer about you. It is about them.”
New leaders struggle with this because they are often hired or promoted because of their experience, performance, and ideas. It only makes sense to focus on that. Right? Wrong.
Leading is about focusing on others.
This week we present three tips to make this Buddy to Boss transition smoother for all.
A leader is only a leader if they have followers. To have followers, people need to trust the leader, see their competence, and feel secure that the leader has their best interest in mind.
This means, when shifting out of Buddy and into Boss, take the time to build followership. This demonstrates respect and curiosity in the team’s ideas. The new boss can conduct one-on-one meetings and ask everyone the same questions. Sending the questions in advance will help everyone be prepared for the conversation. They can choose 4-5 out of the following:
What do you really like about your job?
What do you not like about your job?
What is going well? Share three examples.
What is not going well? Share three examples.
What ideas do you have to do something different?
What are three things we should improve immediately?
What skills and/or experience do you want to develop?
What is an example of an exciting or interesting project/article/initiative (whatever type of work is done) for you?
What should we start doing, stop doing, and continue doing?
What does having fun with co-workers look like for you?
The new leader listens for themes, takes good notes, and summarizes what they heard in a team meeting. This provides a solid starting ground for a team discussion about next steps and moving forward in this new dynamic of the former peer now being the boss. If these opinions don’t align with the new leaders’, that is ok. There will be time for their ideas later. By embracing the team’s perspectives, the new leader demonstrates respect for the team’s expertise as well as energy to work alongside them.
Separate Yourself, Establish Boundaries
“Do I have to “break-up” with my friends if I am now their boss?” It depends, but probably. The relationship will certainly change. The role of peer and leader is very different for good reasons:
Buddies who make the shift to Boss do well when they establish boundaries early in the transition. If needed, they call out the change in the relationship by talking about it. The new boss might say, “My role has changed now and that means our friendship might change too. I would like some time to figure out my new role.”
Another approach might sound like, “Because our jobs at work have changed, the way I socialize (or hang out) will change too. I want you to know that anything that happened prior to this job is in the past and not carried into this new role. It is a fresh start.” This might be important to call out if the new boss socialized outside of work or is informed of behavior that the team hopes will not be held against them.
In many cases, the new boss’s behavior will lead the shift in relationship. For instance, the new boss will naturally not talk about topics that are confidential, they will have to hold people accountable to performance, and may decline social engagements so as not to look like they are favoring some over others.
All of this will feel uncomfortable at first and that is ok. Discomfort is a part of growth.
Find a Mentor or a Coach (or both)
Leadership can feel very lonely at times. The first-year leading former peers is the hardest. The new leader may feel tested by some on the team, uncertain, and frustrated. In addition, they can’t lean on or confide in the team in the same way they did as former peers. Having trusted advisors is important to accelerate learning as well as provide the support needed. This is different than friends and family. Trusted advisors want to hear about your experience and answer your questions. Friends and family are not always willing and/or able to do that.
Mentors are people with more experience and are helpful for providing specific advice and guidance. An internal mentor within the current organization can be helpful for learning leadership dynamics and politics. An external mentor can be equally as effective because they are not influenced by personalities and strategies. They bring an outside perspective. For more specific guidance on finding a mentor, see How To Find a Mentor.
Coaches are helpful for building skills and shifting into a leadership mindset. The coach asks questions, listens, challenges perspectives, suspends judgement, notices patterns, and offers learning activities to help the leader think and act differently. This can be very helpful for transitioning from peer to leader. For more detailed information on coaching, see Coaching: What it is, when to hire, and when not to.
The Buddy to Boss transition is often not an easy one. However, as each day goes by, the boss will be seen more as the leader and less as a peer. Embracing the time it takes for that transition to take hold can be hard. But by building followership, setting boundaries, and working with trusted advisors, the transition can be smoother for all.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training, coaching, and professional development resources.