How to lead a team, when you used to be their peer: ‘Don’t be afraid of ruffling the feathers of people who were once your support team’

May 6, 2023, 8:30 AM UTC
“Don't be afraid of ruffling the feathers of people who were once your support team,” one CEO said
Tom Werner—Getty Images

Among the many advantages to climbing the ladder and bagging a big promotion, from increased accountability to (let’s face it) more money, there’s one major yet little-discussed downside: managing your peers.

You may initially think that getting on with your new-found reports like a house on fire sounds easier than managing a team of strangers, but think again.

Chief executives tell Fortune that in reality, stepping up and going on to lead your former work friends can make having conversations around their pay and performance especially awkward. 

Plus, it’ll be harder to gain respect as their boss after years of having after-work pints, or worse, sneaking off work to kill time together.  

But there are three things you can do before and after announcing to your peers that they’re about to be your subordinates to both soften the blow and mark your territory.  

Communicate changes well in advance

Over the course of 18 years, Nicola Downing has worked her way up from legal director to CEO at the digital consultancy, Ricoh Europe.

Looking back on that transition from team member to team leader, she told Fortune that the dynamic with her former peers “has evolved incredibly well”—but that much of that came down to good communication before she even started in the top role.

“It helped that the news of my promotion didn’t come as a surprise,” she added. “The credibility I had due to my track record and skillset helped, too.”

Various CEOs echoed that being transparent about the succession plan well in advance gives workers time to adjust to the idea of being managed by someone they’re currently working with.

However, for more junior promotions, it’s highly unlikely that a successor would be named in advance—even if between you and your current director, you know that you’re next in line to be promoted and take on the role. 

Instead, you can make it clear among your peers that you’re in line for a leadership gig by taking on aspects of that role well in advance. 

Chris Todd, CEO of the HR, payroll and workplace software firm UKG, said that he “intentionally” started the transition from president to CEO four years before taking the helm, by taking on several of his predecessor’s responsibilities and becoming more visible.

It was “unorthodox” at the time, Todd says, but the “thoughtful transition gave people, including my peers and those who reported to me, time to get used to partnering with me in a slightly different way.”

While you can’t back-date your visibility in the lead-up to announcing your promotion, you should start being transparent about how your promotion may change things going forward as soon as possible.

“Be honest about what is happening,” Downing advises, while adding that new leaders can make their former peers feel included in the journey by asking for their input on your vision.

Establish your new boundaries

While it’s important to slowly ease into the new paradigm shift and manage your newfound power over your former peers with kindness, it’s equally important to establish your new level of authority in the pecking order. 

That balancing act can be tricky.

The newly-appointed CEO of FutureDeluxe and Forever—the creative studio that creates visual experiences for the likes of Nike, PlayStation and Sony—James Callahan says going from a “very flat hierarchy without much definition between leaders” to a restructure which saw him take the helm has not been an easy transition. 

While he insists that you can still be friendly in your new role, “You need to set boundaries as a leader, not a BFF.” 

“Get comfortable with the fact that your peers may no longer be your mates,” he cautions. “Don’t be afraid of ruffling the feathers of people who were once your support team.”

Sigita Kotlere, CEO at the investment platform Nectaro, echoes that this includes not giving your buddies the favorite treatment—an aspect of stepping up which, she says, she regrets not being “more mindful of”.

 “While it may be tempting to maintain previous friendships or relationships, it’s crucial to treat all team members fairly and objectively since, by the end of the day, you work together to achieve a common goal at work—and you all should contribute with an equal amount of effort to that objective”

It took time to adjust but Kotlere says she established a “healthy dynamic” with her former peers by balancing being approachable and friendly with being professional, doubling down on her authority and making tough decisions when necessary.

Listen out for resentment

While you’ve been pulled up the rankings, CEOs told Fortune that the friends you’ve left behind may take issue with being less successful. 

Sri Kumar, CEO at the construction consultancy, Connico, warned new managers to “examine the emotions your peers may feel, especially because jealousy or resentment can be bred in those who feel left out of leadership promotion.”

If Kumar could go back in time, he insits he would have spent more time individually with his “long-standing peers to talk with them about their personal feelings surrounding the transition”.

In the long term, having a spiteful team member is much harder to manage and can have a ripple effect on the engagement of the wider team. Plus, whether or not their anger is justified, it’s now your job as their boss to rectify that and “build a culture of understanding and trust”, Kumar adds.

“Being a good listener is a big part of the picture,” Callahan agrees.

He adds that it might be worth reminding your ex-peers that you’re not bossing them around out of spite, but actually, you have a whole new team to report to yourself including investors and the board. 

But ultimately, the train has left the station and if your former-now-resentful friends don’t like it, then it’s time they hop off-board.

“If someone can’t get behind you in your new role, or they’re continually challenging you, it’s okay if they quit,” Callahan adds. “Fear of loss can’t lead your decision-making.”

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