Photo courtesy of Freepik.
Congratulations! You finally got the promotion you’ve been angling for. Yesterday you were a part of a team, today you’re the one leading! Now what?
In one of my previous jobs, I spent a long time with a concrete team, on the same level and working alongside them to achieve our daily and monthly goals. We were the manpower, getting the job done and responding to a supervisor throughout the day. After about two years, I put my name forward for a supervisor position, with the support of my peers. Once I got it, we celebrated together! These are my friends! They were happy for me! Until one person said, “I guess now we’re answering to you, huh?” And the mood shifted. A sudden realization that these people, who I laughed with and commiserated with, whose habits and shortcuts (some good, some bad) I knew well, were going to be answering to me come Monday. Suddenly, I became a part of the leadership we listened to, sighed at, sometimes rolled our eyes at, thinking they don’t know what it’s like out there doing what we do. How was I supposed to become a leader? How was I supposed to cross the line between friendship and leadership?
It can be tempting to reassure your team that you’re still you! Just one of the team! And while yes, your relationships still exist and you are just as you as you once were, things have undoubtedly changed. Being “just one of the guys” works great, until it doesn’t—during things like policy or procedure changes, undesirable conversations, disagreements, or holding someone accountable. Suddenly, you can’t just be a friend anymore, you have to be a leader.
It’s a seemingly complicated process. Sometimes it comes with resentment, friction, conflict, or a bit of rebellion. When navigating business hierarchies, there’s often politics to consider, and it can get a bit awkward. However, this is a growing phase, and doesn’t have to be uncomfortable or strained forever. Both you and your team are learning new dynamics and, while it will take some time, there’s a light at the end of this tunnel. Here are some strategies to make that transition smoother sailing and keep your friends friendly!
- Own Your Promotion You’ve been promoted for a reason! You’re demonstrating awesome leadership qualities, embracing new roles and responsibilities, and it’s time to live up to that. When you get promoted and are leading a team of your peers, you have two choices: behave in such a way that your peers will wonder why you got promoted instead of them, or own the process and do such a good job that nobody would question it.
- Celebrate, Reasonably You’re doing great, and you deserve to feel great! Go for a nice dinner, buy a new outfit, celebrate and do you. But play it cool. In some situations, the people you were in direct competition with for the promotion are going to be who you’re leading. Bragging or doing a victory lap might earn you a little less than polite respect and won’t start your leadership off on the right foot.
- Schedule Some Conversations Things are changing, and communicating transparently around these changes will help make them smoother for everyone involved. Schedule one-on-ones with your team and ask them, with genuine curiosity and positive intent, what they see your working relationship looking like going forward. Do they anticipate having conflicts over anything specific? Are there existing issues you can iron out with a conversation? Ask them about changes they’d like to see and what they’d like to keep going. Involving your people in conversation shows you value their opinions and want to be the best leader for them.
- Clean the Slate These are your peers. You’ve had candid conversations, lots of laughs, maybe a couple nights out, maybe some questionable decisions, maybe some sneaky days off. Don’t hold that over anyone’s head, and don’t expect the worst because you know of some past shenanigans. Remember, boundaries change when communication is between leadership and those they lead; you may know your best bud in the field stayed home to play the newest 2K release, but he used a sick day, and as the boss, it’s now your job to deal with that. Wiping the slate clean doesn’t mean ignoring when someone goes against policy, safety, or breaking company rules, but it does mean forgiving and forgetting what you may have seen in the past, and assuming positive intent from your team going forward.
- Establish Boundaries Considering what kind of leader you want to be will help determine what boundaries would serve you best going forward. In a new position, you might be included in more meetings, learn more about the company, or be privy to confidential information. By drawing a line in the sand between you and your former peers, you can maintain that confidentiality without feeling like you’re betraying a friend. If you don’t change your relationships at all, your leadership could come into question; friends won’t care if lunch breaks run long, but leadership will. Being completely buddy-buddy will also make difficult conversations (like disciplinary action) significantly harder and may result in conflict.
- Don’t Be Hurt When Things Change As mentioned, changes are going to happen. So, don’t be surprised when they do! You might receive fewer happy hour invites, conversations might slow around you, interactions might start to feel a bit stilted or more professional. Following those boundaries you set (see above) will affect these changes. You’re in a new work dynamic, and the people you’re leading don’t want to put themselves in a compromising position. Remember, this was you not too long ago! The relationships you had with your team will change, but as long as you communicate effectively, make everyone feel heard, and appreciate your people, the changes won’t be uncomfortable for very long.
- Make Changes Slowly One of the things I saw often in my previous job was people who were just promoted changing a million things at once. They finally got the power to lead changes and wanted to do it a) immediately and b) without answering to anyone. While sure, change is powerful and important, sometimes it’s not the right choice, and changing just for change’s sake can be a good way to alienate yourself as a leader. You were part of this team before. What worked well? What could be changed? Check in with your teammates and ask them these questions too. Offer your ideas and create space for your people to provide input. A teammate resistant to change might value the conversation to understand a new procedure that makes their life a lot easier in the field. A teammate with big ideas could change workflow for the better and be celebrated by leadership. By opening lines of communication, you can demonstrate to your team that you value their ideas and understand their trepidations. Creating change that is positive and considers everyone involved shows you’re the right person for this promotion.
Be open to conversations, constructive criticisms, and celebrations during this growth period. Your peers are still your peers, despite a change in dynamic, and good friends love to see their friends succeed! Leadership is a new look on you, and you’re learning to navigate it just as much as your team is learning new ways to interact with you. By being transparent with your communication, considerate of your team, and open to discovering new strategies, you’ll gain strong leadership skills, and your team will have your back.
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