How to Lead Former Peers

Have you ever received the good fortune of being promoted to the new leader of your team, only to find that life got complicated and edgy the moment you started? All of a sudden, your peers knew you as “boss” and not just their buddy. There’s a vast difference between the two.

What did you do in that situation? What should you do? Many leaders of former peers struggle at first. Some even go so far as to request a demotion in order to return to the way things were. There has to be a better way.

If you find yourself leading former peers, here are some steps you can take.

Address the Elephant in the Room

When you get promoted to the new boss, it’s a cause for celebration. But it’s also a cause for concern. Your old pals want special treatment. The rest want to be treated as equals. They probably doubt your ability to stay objective. Everyone will be waiting to see what happens.

The easiest way to address this situation is head on – in one of your first team meetings.

“I’d like take a minute to address the elephant in the room. I went from a peer to the boss. This means my level of responsibility has changed. It’s been a privilege to work along side of you and I’m excited to play a bigger role on this team.”

Acknowledge Prior Relationships

The quickest way to diffuse a tense situation is to acknowledge it directly. Your doubters will be forced to agree with you. So acknowledge your prior relationships in a positive way. Share how important they’ve been to you and how much you value them.

“It’s true that I’ve developed some strong relationships on this team over the time we’ve worked together. I wouldn’t be the professional I am today without your support. On a personal level, I value our relationship and the camaraderie we’ve enjoyed. I’m excited to be your leader, even though it means our interactions will need to be more inclusive of the rest of the team.”

Develop Relationships with New Team Members

Make it a strong point to reach out and get to know members of the team you have less of a connection with. Schedule group or 1:1 meetings. Make it a high priority to elicit their input. Find out what they are working on and ask specifically for their recommendations, concerns and personal aspirations.

“For those of you I haven’t worked with as closely, I need to tell you that you are as much a part of this team as everyone else and I value your contribution. I’m going to make it a point to get understand your work, recommendations, concerns and aspirations so I can be the leader you deserve.”

Set Clear Expectations for Everyone

Let everyone know what you expect from a relationship commitment standpoint – what you expect from them and what they should expect from you.

“I’m committed to working with each of you and supporting you regardless of how much we’ve worked together in the past. Everyone has equal “say” here and everyone will be held to the same standard.”

Ask for Input

It’s one thing to make a declaration, but in reality, that is only one-way communication. Teammates communicate with each other differently than they do with “management.” Go the extra mile to encourage two-way communication with your team. The moment they stop communicating with you, you’ve lost them.

“This is a big deal to me, which is why I bring this up today. But I want our ability to work together to be an open, ongoing discussion. If you ever feel that I’m not supporting you the way you need, will you let me know? We can fix anything if we’re open with each other.”

Repeat and Reinforce

It’d be nice if one interaction set the tone for the rest of time, but that’s rarely the case. What’s important must be repeated – often. Significant doubts often require multiple interactions to quell.

Of course, the most critical component is for your actions to match your message. This may mean saying no to happy hour with your buddies and insisting on a team event instead. It means being intentional about building new relationships. It definitely means listening and asking questions.

It’s never easy to lead former peers. But your organization wants (and needs) you to succeed. You were their choice to lead the team. The last thing they want is for you fail. But regardless of how supported you feel by your leadership team (they are busy, stressed and imperfect, just like you are!), your commitment to your new team is your responsibility.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, facilitator and author of the book Ignite Your Leadership Expertise. Click to download Nathan's free white paper: Nine Ways to Be the Boss Everyone Wants to Work For.