Making the move from peer to leader

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

As leaders, we all face a few challenging, tension-filled moments. Making people redundant was the one that always felt worst to me. Hopefully, most of us don’t have to face that one too often. There are many other leadership situations that have less significant consequences but can still make us feel awkward or anxious. I was reminded of one of those this morning — the transition from peer & friend to leader.

Consider this situation…You’re the leader of a relatively new team. Together you’ve delivered great results — and the reward for those results is more work and a bigger team. In designing your new structure you’ve made the conscious decision to promote internally, giving one of your best performers the chance to step up into a new leadership role.

Initially, everybody’s happy. You’ve appointed someone you trust into the new role. The promoted team member feels recognised for their efforts. The rest of the crew (who really like their new leader and recognise their talent and hard work) feel good about working in a team that creates opportunities for internals rather than hiring from the outside.

Sounds great (almost idyllic) — and it is until something goes wrong. It could be a performance issue with one member of the team, a disappointing result in the team’s culture survey or even missing the budget for the month. Whichever scenario we’re talking about, it’s time for your new leader to tackle a hard conversation with their friends…oops I mean their team.

This is where the transition from peer & friend to leader can get really tough — especially if the changed dynamic hasn’t been acknowledged and planned for. So, if you’ve got a newly promoted leader in your team (or you’re about to appoint one) here are my top tips for helping them to make a successful transition from peer & friend to leader.

I recommend encouraging your new leader to:

1. Design the leadership mindset and behaviours that will bring out the best in their new team. This is a constructive planning exercise intended to help them make the mental leap from their old role to their new role.

2. Acknowledge the change from peer to leader, ideally as early as possible. The key is to explicitly and openly discuss with the team how working together might change. They may not know exactly how the change is going to work — that can evolve over time — as long as they end the conversation with the expectation that they can come back to it later. Don’t worry, if this wasn’t done at the very beginning, it’s never too late to encourage your leader to talk to their team about it. Sometimes examples of things not working provide an easier way to get the conversation started.

3. Remind the team about “different hats” they might be wearing at different times. It’s unrealistic and frankly not very much fun to think that being promoted to lead your peers means giving up on having a laugh or a drink with them. Having said that, depending on your work culture and context, it might mean having to explain new or different behaviours in certain situations. Or topics that are now “off-limits” on social occasions. This is a chance for your new leader to reinforce their leadership values with their team.

4. Ask for what they need and expect from the team. Just like your new leader will need to instigate some changes, they may also want to ask their team to do some things differently to recognise and respect the change in their working relationship.

5. Anticipate the conversations they find most difficult and seek support from you (and/or others) to help them prepare for those conversations. If they aren’t able to anticipate (which is often the case for early-career leaders), encourage them to seek out perspectives from mentors who have faced these challenges in the past.

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