Dear Dr. Graham:

I’m really excited about my recent promotion. I’ve waited and worked for it for a long time. The only problem is that I will now be managing my former peers, including “John,” who also interviewed for (and really wanted) my new managerial role.

How do I make this a smooth transition for everyone, including John? How do I go about managing my friends? How do I say what I need to say to set the right tone?

Newbie Manager

Dear Newbie,

Congratulations on your promotion! And congratulations, too, on seeking advice early on. There’s a lot you can do immediately to set the right tone. Here are five tips that have helped my clients in similar circumstances.

1.  Imagine the situation from your team’s perspective. In the excitement of taking on a new job, it’s easy to only focus on the tasks before you – on starting to prove that you were the right choice for the position. However, your first order of business is to attend to your team! Take time to think about your former coworkers’ concerns. How would you feel in their position — if one of your peers had become your manager? How would you feel if John had gotten the job instead of you? What would you want him to do and not do?

2. Don’t make immediate changes. As you observed the manager who came before you and prepared to interview for your new job, it’s likely that you developed a list of changes or improvements you want to make. But unless there’s a truly urgent issue, refrain from making any changes for three to six months. Here’s why:

A quick change could be insulting to your predecessor. That person may have hired you for this position and/or may interact with you again at another point in your career. Plus, any change will be jarring to your team, especially under these circumstances. Give your former peers a chance to get used to you in a supervisory role. Let them see that you care about them. This is especially important when dealing with people who have performance problems. If you immediately “manage” a poor performer, they may accuse you of being out to get them. It’s better to first gather information as a supervisor before taking action. You may learn things in your new role that you didn’t know before.

3. Address the Elephant hanging out with your team! Within the first two weeks of your new role, initiate a team conversation, saying something like, “Hey, I know it may seem a little awkward that the way we work together is changing. It feels a little strange to me too, to supervise people who are also my friends. Although some things may have to change since I’m in a new role, I want us to continue to work well together. I want to have open communication as we move forward.”

Then announce that you are introducing a transition meeting as the first step toward establishing open communication. If you work at a large company, an HR professional can facilitate this meeting. If not, you can do it on your own. A transition meeting provides a safe space for team members to establish expectations for working together. Some questions to pose may include: What is going well for our team? What do we hope to achieve together over the next year? What needs to change in order for us to achieve those goals? What qualities do you seek in a manager/ leader? What do you hope I will avoid doing as a manager? What qualities do I seek in team members? What are my pet peeves as a manager? Feel free to add any questions you believe will help your team establish a “new normal” now that the team composition has changed.

4. Address the Elephant between you and John. Schedule a private conversation with John in which you say something like, “I don’t want things to be awkward between us. My goal is to interact with you as I would hope you’d interact with me had you gotten the position. I value your experience and your expertise, and I will definitely be thinking about how those assets can benefit the team going forward.”

5. Adjust your boundaries. Regardless of how much esteem you have for your former coworkers, you can no longer have exactly the same relationships with them now that you are their manager. You may have to tell those you socialized with that you’ll be stepping back a bit to avoid being seen as having “favorites.” You can still joke around and have lunch with the group, but some managerial separation will allow you to have tough conversations if they become necessary. You have to do whatever it takes to maintain objectivity and fairness for everyone.

As you’re already sensing, becoming a manager over your former peers is a true challenge. But with careful attention to team dynamics – and by addressing the Elephants directly — you can dramatically increase your chances of success. Good luck. Enjoy your new role!

If you are ready to Lead at a Higher Level, consider joining my Facebook group to interact with me directly. If you know someone in a similar scenario as “Newbie Manager” that could find my suggestions helpful, forward this email to your colleague (Thank you!). You may also submit questions for me to address in future newsletters here.  

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