We Were Peers, but Now I’m Your Boss – 5 Lessons When Going From Peer to Boss

When I was coming up at IBM in the 1990’s, it was very uncommon for someone to be promoted to a leadership position on the team where they were already working. A promotion almost always included a move to a different part of the business and often to another city. Well, times have changed. In the coaching work I do now with leaders, both first-line and those higher in the organization, I often have leaders feeling the challenge of becoming the boss of the team where they currently work. The team of peers they had one day become a team of subordinates the next. This poses some interesting dynamics.

5 Lessons When Going From Peer to Boss

1.       Get Your Mind Right

What to do: A key first step if you are promoted to a leadership position on your existing team is to examine how you see yourself. If you show up and try to remain as “one of the gang” and don’t see yourself as the new leader of the team, you will set yourself for failure. You absolutely must see yourself as the leader of the team. Embrace a leader mindset.

What NOT to do: The worst thing you can do is develop an “I’m the boss” mindset. The team will be watching to see what you do with your new power. If you view this new position as “power,” you will reduce your influence and reduce the engagement level of the team.

2.       Open Up

What to do: Realize that this is potentially uncomfortable for everyone on the team, not just you. The way to relieve this discomfort starts with you. Talk about it with the team. Engage in an open discussion about the new working environment. Listen to the team.

What NOT to do: Do not act as if nothing has changed. If you expect people to just “get over it,” they won’t. You should assume that there are some members of the team that will wonder, “Why you? Why not me?” While that is not your problem to explain why it wasn’t them, you will have a much greater chance of increasing your influence and increasing team engagement if you open up with the team and talk about the new environment.

3.       Know Your Role

What to do: Embrace your role as the leader. This means that you think like a leader, talk like a leader, and walk like a leader. You communicate mission and vision; you communicate roles and responsibilities; you set a standard of performance; you set clear expectations; you hold yourself and others accountable for performance.

What NOT to do: Avoid the temptation to be “super-teammate.” I have seen people get promoted from being a salesperson to being the sales manager and because they could not embrace the role as the leader they resolved themselves to be “super salesperson,” taking on not only their old sales territory but also everyone else’s sales territory.

4.       Balance Relationship & Boundaries

What to do: Most likely, when the team was your peers, you had good relationships with most of them. It will be tempting when you become the boss to treat these relationships differently. Some may even be expecting you to “be different” now that you are the boss. Don’t be different! Be you! The single greatest thing you can do to maintain and grow relationships on the team is to be authentic and true to who you are. Just because you became the boss doesn’t make you better or smarter or better looking than you were before you became the boss, so just be you.

What NOT to do: Avoid allowing someone on the team to be too familiar with you or you being too familiar with them. I was once on a team where the boss hired a friend of his to join our team. When this friend of the boss would come into a team meeting or other gathering he would chest-bump the boss and call him by a nickname. Everyone else on the team observed this over-familiarity and felt like an outsider to this obvious close, insider relationship. This had an engagement reducing effect that could be avoided if the boss had established boundaries for behaviors at work with people with whom he had a close relationship.

5.       Balance Care & Candor

What to do: Holding others accountable and having crucial conversations can take on a different feel when you are facing it with people who used to be your peers. In fact, many leaders will avoid difficult conversations entirely versus risking conflict with someone on their team. Leaders need to balance care with candor to make sure difficult conversations are not pushed off or ignored completely.

What NOT to do: Don’t allow a situation to fester with someone who used to be a peer thinking it will get better. The only thing that gets better with age is wine and cheese. Most everything else, including tough situations at work, will only get worse with time if not addressed. Leadership author and speaker John Maxwell teaches that if you exhibit all care with someone and no candor (straight talk) you create a dysfunctional relationship. And, if you are all candor, but no care with someone, you will create a distant relationship. No one wants to be around someone who is all straight talk and no care.

Being promoted to a leadership position is a great honor and recognition of your influence with others. Don’t let that reward be less just because your new team is the old team you where you used to work. Embrace a leadership mindset and take your old team to places they didn’t think were possible.