How to Manage Former Peers

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Let’s talk about a potentially awkward situation. You get a new role and suddenly this means that you will now be managing former peers. How should you renegotiate your role after a promotion means that your colleagues are now your direct reports? One thing is clear – the most successful transitions start long before the promotion takes place.

Get a head start

When it comes to establishing credibility with past peers as their newly promoted manager, the trick is to not wait until you are promoted. At least, according to Jeff Lyons, Senior Vice President of GMM, Fresh Food with Costco Wholesale Corporation. “You should do it much sooner,” asserts Lyons, who added, “What you are doing today impacts your career in the future. If you want fewer challenges after you get promoted, establish a high level of character and integrity early in your career, and keep it consistent.”

For example, Lyons explains, “If you are one of those folks that took two-hour lunches when you were supposed to have one hour, and you then get promoted, then guess what — everyone that worked with you knows it!”

So rather than waiting for a promotion to happen, think first about what management style you’d like to be known for one year after you transition into leading the team, then challenge yourself to demonstrate those skills while you are working side-by-side with your peers. That way, when you are promoted, there will be no surprises: people will already know what to expect, based on their past experience of your planning, decision-making, communication, and collaboration skills.

If you’ve shown your peers that you aren’t supportive of their success and team cohesion, they will brace for the worst when they find out you’re becoming their boss – rather than showing you their best. Their reluctance to trust you in the new role, and your inability to regain their respect, could quickly derail your transition.

And after you secure the promotion, here are three steps that you can take to help smooth out the transition:

1. Establish authority

“You need to demonstrate your new authority without stepping on toes or damaging relationships,” says Amy Gallo, writing for Harvard Business Review. Make it clear that you own the role, without gloating, especially if your new direct reports include peers who feel slighted or were passed over for the role.

Step decisively into the role, from day one, by letting the team know that things have changed, and that you are now their manager. Ask if you can work with a higher power such as your manager, senior leader or your company’s corporate communications team to make an official announcement, and follow up by embracing your new job title with grace and professionalism.

2. Discuss expectations

Next up, don’t underestimate the power of a simple, one-on-one conversation with your team members. One of the most important steps you can take after being promoted to manage former peers is to have a conversation with each individual regarding how expectations have changed.

Jennifer Dimaris, Vice President of Channel Brand Management for Starbucks, has experienced being promoted, only to wind up managing former peers. She recommends having a candid discussion about the transition. “Sit down with those individuals and have a conversation regarding what this new relationship will look like,” she recommends.

Don’t procrastinate about setting up these one-on-ones. After your new role is announced, in fact, have them as soon as you can. Be forthcoming about stating “our roles have changed” and talking through what you expect of your former peers and, frankly, what they expect of you. Negotiate and, if necessary, re-negotiate those expectations. If you do this with openness and professionalism and show that you’re sincere, quickly backing up your words with action, you will be on the road to gaining their trust and respect.

3. Renegotiate friendships

It should come as no surprise that things get a lot more complicated when a former peer is also a good friend.

The same rules of thumb apply here: start before you get promoted, establish your authority, and discuss how expectations have changed. But if you have been close friends with the direct report, it makes sense to honor that friendship by devoting extra care, openness and time to your discussion of how the relationship will be changing, and talk through the implications.

Be candid about how your own responsibilities and priorities have changed, and ask how your friend sees theirs changing as well. Let them know they can count on you to support them being happy and successful in their role and ask for their loyalty in return, but make it clear that there won’t be any special treatment.

I recently spoke with a woman who had a close friend who was promoted to become her manager. He reached out before the transition, and they spoke for over an hour, discussing every aspect of what was going to change, and what would remain the same. They agreed to keep the lines of communication open. “As a result,” she said, “our friendship survived intact.”

The Takeaway

When preparing to manage former peers, a solid strategy to follow is to: start early, prepare to establish authority, discuss expectations and, finally, re-negotiate any friendships. That way, you give yourself and your new direct reports the best possible chance of a smooth transition.

Jo Miller

Jo is Founding Editor of Be Leaderly, CEO of Women’s Leadership Coaching, Inc., and creator of the Women’s Leadership Coaching® system, a roadmap for women who want to break into leadership. She has traveled in Europe, North America, Asia Pacific, and the Middle East to deliver keynotes and workshops, and counts being the only Aussie women’s leadership coach in Iowa among her unique “koalafications.” Learn more about Jo’s services at womensleadershipcoaching.com and follow @jo_miller on Twitter.

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