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Make the Move from Peer to Leader

One of the trickiest leadership transitions is going from peer to manager.

One minute, they are working shoulder-to-shoulder with colleagues and the next, they are the boss. Whether asked to step into the manager position or they intentionally applied for it, going colleague to leader of the team is hard for nearly everyone.

This is because the challenges experienced often have little to do with subject matter expertise or competence. People who go from “buddy to boss” were likely promoted because of their knowledge and experience. The challenges they face have much more to do with how they navigate the relationship change with their former colleagues.

I’ve seen some put on their “boss pants” and become nearly a different person. They become directive and well, bossy. Their former colleagues think they're on a power-trip. Others swing the pendulum the other way and put a higher value on remaining friends with their former colleagues resulting in a lack of accountability within the team or hesitant decision-making for fear of displeasing their friends.

Neither approach works. It’s a balance. Here are a few strategies to help anyone strike the right balance.

Focus on Building Followership

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. To do this, the leader must demonstrate that they know and understand the needs, strengths, weaknesses, and motivations of their team.

To effectively build followership, get to know the team. Here are a list of questions to ask that will help do this.

  1. What do you really like about your job?

  2. What do you not like about your job?

  3. What is going well? Share three examples.

  4. What is not going well? Share three examples.

  5. What ideas do you have to do something different?

  6. What are three things we should improve immediately?

  7. What skills and/or experience do you want to develop?

  8. What is an example of an exciting or interesting project/article/initiative for you?

  9. What should we start doing, stop doing, and continue doing?

  10. What does having fun with co-workers look like for you?

A new leader will benefit most by just listening and then summarizing what they heard. This approach 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.

Separate Yourself, Establish Boundaries

“Do I have to “break-up” with my work-friends if I am now their boss?” this is a common question. And, the answer is it depends, but probably.

The relationship will certainly change. The role of peer and leader is very different for good reasons. Check out the table below to see the difference between how a peer or colleague views workplace topics versus a manager.

Peers who make the shift to manager 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 is informed of behavior that the team hopes will not be held against them in the new leadership role.

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.

Mentors are people with more experience and are helpful for providing 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 also 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 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 will be smoother for all.

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