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Navigating the Jump From Peer to Boss

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Of all of the transitions in your career, the most awkward ones occur when you make the jump from peer to boss. I lived through this several times during my career, and now I work with emerging leaders navigating these important and potentially treacherous steps. These tips will help you survive and thrive on the often lonely and dangerous road you take when you make the jump from peer to boss.

1. Accept that everything is different.

Sorry, but you are no longer one of the gang. The conversations won’t be as free flowing and your lunch buddies not as excited to have you tag along with them. You’re the boss, and everyone recognizes your ability to influence their experience in minor or major ways. Steel yourself for this cold slap of reality. Friday’s friends are Monday’s employees.

2. Don’t confuse smiles and congratulations with support.

Not everyone is excited about your promotion. I once left a job and firm I loved over my belief that the wrong person had been promoted into a senior leadership role over me. (In hindsight, I knew that I had to move to grow, but not getting the promotion felt like a vote of no confidence.)

If your team is filled with good, motivated individuals, there’s bound to be some jealousy or even animosity over your promotion. After all, like me, they likely believed they were the best person for the job. Don’t confuse the smiles and congratulations with commitment and support. You’re starting over in the credibility and respect departments.

3. Engage early with empathy and respect.

You’ve done your homework with your boss, and you understand your marching orders and objectives. Now, it’s time to connect with your team members and both ask and listen. Everyone is curious about what it means to have you as the new boss. Focus on the business objectives; acknowledge the momentary awkwardness of the new relationship and underscore your commitment to the business and team. Skip the head-shrinking discussions and keep the focus on the larger group or function.

4. Push the focus to the team’s operations.

I’ve used the 3-Question Meeting technique repeatedly to great success. Schedule a follow-on one-on-one meeting and share this three question agenda:

  • What’s working?
  • What’s not?
  • What do you need from me to help you and our team strengthen our performance?

This meeting is for your education and your employee’s opportunity to share their ideas, frustrations, and requests. Listen hard and resist the urge to co-opt the discussion.

I’ve found this meeting to be a critical component of moving beyond any awkwardness from the relationship change. It shifts the focus to what people care about in their working environment and arms you with valuable insights that might not have been as visible as a peer.

Plan on sharing the results of the meeting (without attribution) with the group at-large. A series of quick decisions on some of the easier issues will show goodwill. Placing the group in charge of fixing the bigger issues will earn credibility.

5. Schedule career discussions early in your second quarter.

It may seem counterintuitive to avoid the most personal of all manager-employee discussions for a few months, however, it is essential. Your focus must be on gaining awareness of operations, issues, and opportunities

You need time to assess the situation and better understand what’s working and what’s not. You also need time to begin matching your talent with your team’s objectives and priorities in the organization.

Put the professional development meetings on everyone’s schedule beginning sometime in month four of your new role.

6. Learn and use positive and constructive feedback daily.

One of the fatal mistakes of many first-time managers is avoiding delivering feedback. Lacking guidance on how to prepare for and conduct a proper feedback discussion, it is pushed off to a future date. Of course, that future date never arrives.

And don’t forget the positive feedback. Just make sure it is behavioral, specific, and business focused.

7. Practice extreme accountability.

Accountability starts with you. Get out in front of the big issues. Show your support for your team members. Hold yourself accountable to your commitments. (The 3-Question Meetings will offer ample opportunities for you to identify things you can fix. Remember, commitment is commitment, and everyone is watching.)

Be careful to avoid special treatment of star players or problem employees. It’s easy to fall into the trap of creating multiple sets of rules. Easy and wrong.

8. Avoid micromanaging at all costs.

Write this down: No one likes a micromanager. Repeat it daily. Don’t do it.

9. Be transparent about your agenda.

In reality, your only agenda should be on better aligning your function and team with your firm’s priorities and then striving to get the right people in the right positions armed with the right tools and processes. Preach and practice this daily.

I love gaining responsibility for a new team because I understand the formula for success. I understand the psychology of the team members, and I am cognizant of the reality that I will make changes in structure, process, and personnel shortly. But first, I have to navigate the start-up. It is possible to be too passive and too aggressive. The guidance above fits nicely in the category of “just right” for your first few months. Use it in great health.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.

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