The Tricky Balancing Act When You’re Asked to Manage Former Peers

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What has really changed?

One day you are working with your peers as colleagues, and the next day you are their manager. Now what?

You are the same person as you were the day before, so what now makes you worthy of being in charge? Why should you suddenly be able to tell your peers what to do? And why would they listen?

This is a quagmire many people face – at every level.

It’s a different job

I think there is a tendency to over complicate this, or to look for the magic spell which suddenly gets everyone to behave differently and feel comfortable doing so.

The fact of the matter is pretty simple. You ARE the same person as you were yesterday. And so are they. And there is no magic spell.

But the other fact of the matter is that something has changed. You have not changed, but YOUR JOB has changed. And you need to start doing that new job.

This is where leaders often trip up. They think that the way to win their yesterday-peers over is to keep acting like a peer – “Hey, look, I haven’t really changed. You can still like me. I’m still one of you.

One of the many problems with the approach of acting the same to maintain comfort is that you are failing to do your new job.

Here is how I have always handled the step up to manage peers and how I advise other business leaders to do it.

1. Genuine, personal outreach – for most of the team …

Have a one-on-one meeting with each of your new, former-peer-now-reports and says things (in your own style) like the following:

Hey, yesterday we were peers, now I am your manager. I want to make sure I understand what is important to you.

  • What do you think is going well that we shouldn’t change?
  • What do you think we need to change or improve?
  • What do you think is most important as a team to accomplish this year?
  • Was there anything that you thought our former manager didn’t do that you think I should take a look at?
  • Help me understand what is important to you from a career standpoint.

Why do this? I have found this type of conversation to build tremendous support. You are not suddenly claiming an elevated status. You are admitting the reality that everyone sees, and saying that you want to know what people really think.

You are giving them a voice in the new outcomes you will lead and create as a manager. This engenders not only support, but a lot of grace, while you are figuring out what to really do!

… but a special case – for the person you beat out

For the one person (or the few people) you beat out for the job, you need to do a little more.

It can be a little awkward facing your recent competitors for the job, because in addition to all the other dynamics, this person might be kind of annoyed with you because you got the job they wanted. They might think they are more deserving than you.

But again, the worst thing to do is to shy away from the fact that you are now in the job, thinking that this might make the dynamic better. It won’t.

When I have been in this situation, I would take this person out for a drink or a meal and still ask all the questions above but add to the conversation things like:

I’d really like your support as I start this new job. But I can understand if you are thinking you need to do something else. And … I’d really like you to stay.”

It’s really important to say “I’d really like you to stay” (if it’s true) because sometimes the person who got passed over, is actually OK with it, but they know that you know they got passed over. So if you don’t say “I want you to stay,” they might think that it’s you who feels awkward to have them hanging around.

Or on the other hand, the person could indeed be angry, or feeling that the decision of management to select you was unjust.

What you might want to say

In either case here is what I say:

  • If you stay, I’ll do everything I can to make sure you don’t feel like your career is being limited by me.
  • I’ll support you to take on experiences that will set you up for your next promotion. I’ll always give you visibility. I’ll always be your advocate.
  • But all I ask is that if you decide you need to move on, that you tell me, and that we work on that plan together. Please don’t surprise me.

At this point, I’ve had people say:

  • I really want to stay, thank you.
  • I’m not sure I want to stay, but thank you. I’ll let you know.
  • I don’t want to stay, and thank you.

I’ve been totally surprised at the caliber of people who have been willing to keep working for me after I treated them with this kind of respect.

Starting with the truth of the matter and addressing things head on, is always better than acting tentative and hoping everybody else provides you the clues for how to act. Do your new job as the leader and start creating clarity from the get-go.

2. Win support and get smarter

Remember, even though you have not changed, your job has actually changed for real. You need to let go of the work you were working on, and figure out what the new, manager-level work is.

So first and foremost, stop doing your old job!

If you don’t do this, you will have no way of distinguishing your new job as the manager from your old job as a peer, and it will be difficult for your new team to see what your new job is and how they can support you. And worst case, it will look like you are competing with them.

The best way I have found to figure out what the new job actually is to ask everybody in your organization what they think is important. Have lots of one-on-one meetings and ask people what they think is going well, and what they think needs to change or be improved.

If you can’t talk to everyone because they are too many people, talk to a representative sample. Talk to as many people as you can.

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Just as an example, when I started a job with 150 direct reports, I spent the first two weeks having 80, one-on-one meetings.

Talking to everyone was the best start for me in that leadership position. It showed me the path forward, and let my organization know I really respected them.

Also, when I started my job heading HP Openview, there were about 3,000 people. I spent the first six weeks having business review meetings with every corporate and field team in the business. I would never start a leadership job without doing this.

The result: I got smart and I got a HUGE amount of support.

3. Make decisions

Having this high quantity (and quality) of conversations will give you the road map for:

  • What decisions need to be made;
  • What conflicts need to be resolved;
  • What things need more clarity;
  • What things need to be stopped, fixed or invented;
  • What things need to be communicated better;
  • What plans need to be clarified or resourced;
  • What people need to be appreciated or held accountable;
  • … and much more.

And guess what? All of these things ARE your what new job is.

One of the most important things you can do as a leader is to remove uncertainty. So find uncertainty, make decisions, communicate clearly.

Talking to everyone will help you do a great job at this. And as a new leader, showing that you have a clue, and are making good decisions is the best way to get your organization to line up behind you.

4. Be directive when necessary

Here is another area where new managers of former peers are often hesitant.

While listening, getting input, and getting smarter is a great thing, there are some times when as the leader you need to be directive. And that can feel uncomfortable.

(Will they listen? If they listen to me, great … but if they don’t listen, and then they don’t do what I asked … then I’ll actually lose even more credibility…)

Don’t fall into a confidence crisis. You don’t have to. You have the job.

You need to say, I’ve heard all of your input, and now I’ve made a decision.

Here’s what I need you to do: I want your input on the plan to get there and how to measure our progress, but I don’t want to debate the outcome anymore. This is the direction.

How to win support … and get smarter, too

A while back I wrote an article called Consensus or Command – Neither WorksThis article a helpful read for any manager who is facing the need to get a decision made and get the team moving. But for a new manager of peers, nervous about being directive, the answer is the same.

Resisting being directive because you feel uncomfortable being directive with your former peers doesn’t help anybody or the business.

Collect input to win support and get smarter. Then make a decision. Then be very clear about the decision and directive when necessary. That’s your new job.

And you’ll find that your new employees will respect that, especially if you’ve gone through the steps described above to respect them along the way.

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.

Patty Azzarello is the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group. She's also an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/business advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35, and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk). You can find her at patty@azzarellogroup.com .

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