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Navigating the Tricky Transition From Peer to Manager

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What would you discuss in your first meeting as new manager and your first one-on-one with employees if promoted within group of co-workers?—Anonymous

One of the more difficult transitions in professional life is being promoted to manage a group in which only yesterday you were a fellow team member. The discontinuity in the team’s relationships can greatly improve the work environment, send the organization spiraling downward, if your prior peers undermine you in your new position, or land your group’s performance somewhere in between. How can you navigate the tricky shoals of shifting from peer to manager, especially in the early going?

Congratulations on your promotion. It indicates that you were successful in your prior job and that upper management perceives that you have potential to be a leader. Yet learning how to be a manager is not as easy as it may seem. Now you are formally responsible for your team and how it engages with the rest of the enterprise. Indeed, perhaps the most difficult challenge about entering management is adopting this enterprise perspective.

Before meeting with your team members, meet with your manager, mentors and other managers with whom you have pre-existing relationships to begin learning the ins and outs of the position from those who have gone before you. Ask them how they navigated the transition from peer to manager. Ask how they avoided mistakes and, if they didn’t, what they would do differently. You might also want to discover what is fun and rewarding about being a manager as well as what are likely to be your biggest challenges. The more you learn vicariously from others the more likely you will avoid early fumbles.

Next, meet with your team members one-on-one. Think about asking four questions:

1. Ask about their expectations of you. Asking is easy, listening and understanding is the hard part. Use open-ended questions. Check in every minute or so by rephrasing to ensure that you understand. Make them feel like they have all of your attention. Asking about their expectations will signal that you care and their opinions matter, which is a first step to building trust.

2. Ask about their expectations of the entire team. What has gone well from their perspective, and what can go better? How can the team’s performance improve while making the job more interesting and the team better? With these questions you are signaling that you want to resolve issues and barriers that might make jobs unpleasant while improving performance.

3. Ask them what makes for a great manager and a poor manager. You might think that you already know what your co-workers might say or that they will not answer seriously. Asking the questions signals that you want to learn from them and that you are willing to strive to be a great manager. You might be surprised by their responses.

4. Express your appreciation for meeting with you and for their responses. Explain that you are learning and will need their support. Ask if they will be willing to support you in this new position. A “yes” response is a commitment you can draw on later. A response of “sure” or “OK” might indicate that the lack of commitment, which is important to know upfront.

Don’t expect to know how to be a great manager right from the beginning. Let your superordinates and subordinates know you are eager to learn and you will think carefully about how fulfill the responsibilities entrusted you.

Duce a mente

(May you lead by thinking)

Jackson Nickerson is the Frahm Family Professor of Organization and Strategy at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, the Associate Dean and Director of the Brookings Executive Education, and a Senior Scholar in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. An award winning researcher and teacher, Jackson specializes in leadership, strategic and critical thinking, leading change, and innovation. While in a prior life he worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he now advises government agencies, not-for profits, and for-profit businesses on ways to improve performance. He is the author of Leading Change in a Web 2.1 World.

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