Leading Former Peers: 27 Tips, Tactics, and Techniques

Recently I asked my subscribers to describe some of the leadership challenges they were facing.  One topic that kept coming up was leading former peers.  One respondent wrote that he had gone from “being one of the guys in the office for the past 18 years to being their director.  They (and I) are all a bunch of strong-willed and experienced people.  How do I lead them?

This is a great question, and I’ll do my best to answer it in this post with 27 tips, tactics, and techniques you can employ to lead your former peers effectively.

Leading Former Peers

Common Problem, Uncommonly Difficult

According to Michael Watkins, Chairman of Genesis Advisers and author of The First 90 Days, this is not an isolated problem.  “If you take a typical group of mid-level executives and ask if they’ve ever been promoted to lead their peers, 90% of them will say yes.”  So if that describes your situation, you are in good company.  But just because it is common doesn’t mean it is easy.

How do we go from “one of the gang” to “The Boss,” and from taking orders from the manager to giving them to our friends?   And importantly, what will get them to listen to us without our having to resort to the power card, “because I said so?” 

Just as there are many who have dealt with this issue, there is no shortage of ideas about how to handle it.  So I thought I’d start by scouring available sources to see what they can tell us, and then offer a few ideas of my own at the end.

Peer Leadership – Before

Let’s start with what is possibly the best way to make this whole process easier:  re-looking how we act before we are named to take charge.  As Jo Miller from Be Leaderly points out, we shouldn’t wait for the promotion to start thinking about how we want to lead; the time to start leading is now. 

It can help to picture what we would want from our team in the future, and start demonstrating those qualities in the here and now.  Being a team player, sharing information, growing competency, following policy, staying professional, showing respect to all – it will be a whole lot easier to ask these things of our teammates if we have an established track record of acting this way ourselves.

On the other hand, if we make a practice of taking extended lunch breaks, padding the travel claims, feeding the rumor mills, laughing at off-color jokes, leading passive-aggressive resistance to authority, or letting disrespectful language slide, it is going to be much harder to get it to stop when it’s our turn at the helm.  

If we want to succeed in leading our former peers, we need to lead by example while they are still our current peers. Click To Tweet

Even without a formal title, if we are already showing that we are invested in the success of the organization and our teammates, it will be much easier for all of them to accept our move up when the time comes.

Once It’s Decided

Once the decision is made and we step into our new role as leader, there are plenty of things we can do to help the transition along.

Mark the occasion.  As I mention in an earlier post on leading your friends, it can be an immense help if there is some event that clearly marks the transition to formal leadership.  Even better is if it is presided over by the person who appointed us.  It’s a great way to officially recognize the start of a new chapter, and a chance for them to endorse our new position and encourage support.  It doesn’t have to be fancy, but a few words from the boss to the team can go a long way to getting started on the right foot.

Be clear.  It’s OK to be a little humble about stepping up, but don’t let that cloud people’s understanding of what is happening.  As Phil Kendall at RotaCloud counsels, “it’s important that you state the date from which the change will take effect and use the actual job title you’ve been given.”  Saying something vague like, “I’ll be taking over for Bob soon” leaves the door open for misunderstanding and future conflict.

Mentally reframe.  Our role has changed.  Before, it was all about our own production.  Now it’s about other people’s production.  Before, people issues were fodder for break room gossip; now people issues are our issues.  Our “production” is all about how effectively we can coordinate the actions of our teammates, get them the resources they need, and help overcome obstacles to be successful.  As Adrian Granzella Larssen says, our number one job now is “to help other people accomplish [their] tasks in an outstanding way.”  

Meet the people.  Expect to spend a lot of time communicating during the transition period.  Peter Baron Stark recommends first meeting with each teammate individually.  During the one-on-one time, the goal is to demonstrate our interest in each member of the team, find out what their concerns are, and ask for their support.  Ask about their personal and professional goals, what’s going right, and obstacles they are facing.  Another good question to ask might be along the lines of, “What areas do you think I should focus on right away?”  

Be ready to listen.  As Walter Lippman at Forbes says, “Listening is one of those “soft” undervalued management skills.  In the aggregate, managers tend to do too much talking and not enough listening.”  As a new manager of former peers, the danger is that we think we already know what’s going on when we actually don’t.  If we start with the assumption that we don’t know everything we need to, we’ll learn more, and gain the trust of our teammates faster.    

In leading former peers, the danger is that we think we already know what’s going on when we actually don’t. Click To Tweet

Leading Former Peers - Elephant in the roomName the elephant.  The change of role is going to feel awkward for us, as well as for some of our teammates.  And like the proverbial “elephant in the room” we may be hesitant to acknowledge it.  But as Sarah Hobbs at Talent & Potential recommends, we should be up front about it.  Pretending that the feeling doesn’t exist just sets a bad precedent, while being honest sets a strong positive example for how we want to deal with other issues on our watch.  Most people will be fine with it; they just want clear, supportive leadership.  Name the elephant, ask for their support, and then move on. 

“I know this may feel a little awkward, and I really value our friendship, but there will be times when I’ll have to make decisions you may not agree with.  Please understand it’s not personal.  Can I count on your support?”  

Deal with the disappointed.  It may be that we weren’t the only ones hoping to get the promotion, which means there could be lingering resentment or jealousies out there on the team.  It’s best to address these, too.  One way is with smart delegation (see below).  Jessica Powell also suggests giving them some space and time to get used to the new arrangement.  At some point they may run into difficulty, and that’s the time for us to show our worth by stepping in to add resources or reduce obstacles to help them succeed.  

Realign relationships.  Career expert Vicki Salemi points out the fact that we can’t be both buddy and boss.  Gossiping around the water cooler one minute and then giving performance feedback or signing off on pay issues the next is a hard sell.  We are now authority figures, so it’s time to adjust the tone of our relationships with others.  As we meet individually and collectively with our teammates, we have to make it clear we are still there for them, but it has to be for all team members, not just the ones we were close to.   

In leading former peers, we have to recognize that we can’t be both ‘buddy’ and ‘boss.’ Click To Tweet

Focus on respectJack Walston of Resourceful Manager adds helpfully that the new relationship focus has to be more about respect.  As a friend, we might let it slide when someone is late, does shoddy work, or ignores policy, but if we allow that as a boss, the team’s respect for us will fade as quickly as our own frustration will grow.  The end-game now has to be earning everyone’s respect, even if that means calling our friends to account when they step over the line.

Adjust the boundaries.  With the change in relationships comes a change in boundaries.   As Robert Half recommends, we might need to cut back on social routines like that daily lunch we had with one of our co-workers, because it may give the perception of favoritism.  Instead, consider making it a habit to ask each teammate to one-on-one lunches.  

Give them space.  Part of adjusting the boundaries is to giving the team some space.  People need a place where they can relax without the “boss” around, and like it or not, that now means us.  Writing for Harvard Business Review, Amy Gallo suggests that when the team heads out for the ritual night at the bar, it might be better to stay behind.   “You don’t need to become aloof and unavailable, but you may want to attend fewer social gatherings,” she says.   As a simple test, she adds that if you’re not feeling a little bit left out, then you are not distancing yourself enough.     

Get a new peer group.  One way to fill some of that social space we’ve just created is to do what David Dye at Let’s Grow Leaders suggests:  get connected with a new set of peers.  “There is nothing like a group of people who understand the challenges you experience and can share meaningful wisdom.”  Cultivating relationships with others at this new level of leadership can be immensely helpful in many ways, from plugging into informal communications channels, to learning how others have resolved problems we are likely to face, to understanding the interpersonal dynamics at this next level.

Seek their help – Everyone knows that we aren’t magically endowed with wisdom the moment we stepped up to a leadership position.  Pretending that we suddenly have all the answers will damage our credibility.  Liane Davey counsels that it can help to ask for assistance in a genuine way that makes your direct reports feel valuable and engaged.  Asking questions and listening closely demonstrates we still value what they have to say.

Delegate intentionally.  It’s likely that with the personnel adjustment, reallocation of tasks will also be necessary.  If so, it can be smart to let our teammates have some input about where those duties go.  Writers at Lighthouse expand on this to say that this can also be a great olive branch for someone who is disappointed that they didn’t get the promotion.  Giving them a project or responsibility that they are excited about can help ease the pain and show that we have their interests at heart.

Leading Former Peers – A Few More Thoughts

Here are some other thoughts that didn’t necessarily surface on my search results page, but I think can help make the transition go more smoothly for everyone.

Change something soon.  It doesn’t need to be something big, but it helps if it is noticeable.  A physical or procedural change that occurs when we step into the new position will help others recognize that something is different.  One area could be with meeting agendas.  We can cover the same ground, but shuffle the sequence to show that we can.  Later, after talking with our team, meetings schedules and agendas may be a place to re-visit for more substantive changes.

Leading Former Peers - Moving Out 2Move out.  Another helpful change can be relocating ourselves.  The physical adjustment can help mark the transition, while putting a little space between us and the rest of the team reinforces the sense that the relationship has changed, and makes it easier to develop a little professional distance.

Don’t go overboard.  Go easy on the changes at first.  Abrupt, sweeping alterations can be counter-productive.  People like stability and a say in what goes on around them; lots of sudden changes can disrupt patterns, raise stress, and build resistance.  Approach major changes with caution, take the time to meet with each person first, get their ideas on where to focus, and then start making adjustments gradually.

Let the best idea win.  It’s easy to succumb to the idea that as the leader, we have to know what to do, and that someone else with a good idea somehow diminishes our authority.  But that mental framework prioritizes ego over efficacy.  To lead effectively, we have to focus on what is right, not on who is right.  We’ll gain the respect of our former peers a lot faster that way.

The smartest leaders are able to prioritize efficacy over ego. Click To Tweet

Pass the credit.  Another way to help our former peers get comfortable with our leadership is to look for opportunities to pass along the credit when something goes well.  When we show that we’re not going to take something that they have earned, they will be more willing to support us as leaders.

Take the hit.  Coupled with passing the credit is absorbing the blame for when something goes wrong on the team.  Of course, within the team we’ll learn lessons and make adjustments, but when outsiders want to start pointing fingers, a quick way for the team to see the benefit of having us as leader is when we step in as a protective buffer. 

My team, my responsibility.”

Be humbly assertive.  Acting with humility is a good thing, especially if there was more than one worthy candidate for the job we ended up in.  But humble doesn’t mean being wishy-washy.  In solving problems, we should continue to ask questions, get input, involve teammates where we can, but leading former peers well requires a clear decision at the right time.  When that time comes, don’t ask for permission to decide; make the call and press forward. 

“Thanks for the input, everyone. 
This is a tough problem, but here’s what we’re going to do, and we need to work together on this…”

Grow a thick skin.  As former peers, we have seen each other at our best and worst, so it may be that everyone is feeling a little bit exposed.  One way they may respond is to get defensive or complain.  A common refrain may be, “Well, that’s not the way that [popular previous boss] would have done it.”    It may be best not to take these comments personally.  They are trying to figure it out, just as we are.

Stop doing your old job.  Make no mistake, with the new responsibilities comes a degree of personal unease.  In our old job we were comfortable and knew where we added value.  The temptation as the new leader is to hold on to some of that because it is easy and comfortable, and maybe we were the best at it.  Perhaps, but it is time to let go, train someone else to do it so that we can focus our time and energy where they need to be – on our teammates.

The comfort zone for a leader is often somewhere outside their comfort zone. Click To Tweet

Confidentiality is key.  Trust is critical and very easy to lose.  Something we overheard in the break room and repeat to others may once have seemed harmless, but the same thing coming from our mouth in this new position of authority can get us into hot water very quickly.  To build trust Ramona Shaw reminds us to “Never share other employees’ information with a friend,” and to “Never vent to a friend who is also your direct report about work.” 

Build the network.  I want to revisit and expand on this idea – the value we bring as leaders of our teams comes in part from our ability to synchronize what we do with what is happening outside the team.  To do that we have to get quickly connected to a new, broader network.  Whether it’s other leaders at our new level, suppliers, customers, the boss, or people who can help us solve problems, these connections that our former peers don’t have will reinforce our value to the team as its new leader.

Leading Former Peers – The Takeaway

Leading former peers is a common but challenging problem.  I hope some of the above will be helpful in navigating those difficult waters as we (and our teammates) struggle with the transition.

One thought that may help tie all this together is to re-look the way that many people approach this problem.  Most of us are likely to go into this wondering, “How can I get them to follow me?” But as Bobby Powers at The Startup points out, that may not be the right question.  The reason for that is that the focus is wrong – it is inward, on ourselves. 

The better approach is to focus outward on our teammates, and ask, “How can I help my team members do their jobs and attain their goals?”  When we focus on enabling our teammate’s success, we are likely to find that we have begun to answer that first question without ever having to ask it.  

A final advisory:  With any change in leadership there will come a test, likely several.  Not of academic knowledge, but of power and authority.  The tests may come in a variety of forms, and may not even be done consciously, but how we respond to them will either enhance our ability to lead the team, or make it infinitely harder.  In a related post I break down what those challenges may look like and ways we can constructively respond to them. 

But for now, if we keep our focus on asking that second, better question, and work to help our teammates succeed, we’ll probably get through ok.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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