Transitioning from peer to boss when you inherit a team, can be difficult.

From Buddy To Boss – Inheriting A Team Through Inside Promotion

Written by on January 22, 2014

Leaders are more likely to inherit a team than to create one – and in many cases, they’re also very likely to be promoted to lead a team of which they were previously a member. This comes with a litany of challenges, which can often be overcome through straightforward communication.

When a leader is promoted after previously being a member of a team, people who were once peers are now their direct reports – The relationships and the context have changed, and both parties have to adjust.

One of the biggest challenges for new leaders in this situation is how to start the conversation about the fact that the relationship has changed. Leaders need to think explicitly about what is different as they step into their new role, and what needs to change in terms of their relationships with their team members. One-on-one conversations can open the lines of communication and allow the new leader to address the changes, while figuring out the best way work with their former peers in this new context. These open conversations can accomplish 4 key things:

  1. Naming and actually recognizing the leadership shift, acknowledges that things are different, even though the same players are still at the table. The leader has to take the first step on this one, as the rest of the team may either be hesitant to do so or not see the need for addressing the change.  It also gives the new leader an opportunity assert themselves in a new way.
  2. This initial conversation often spills over into talk about defining responsibilities and outlining accountability, as well as what will be done differently and what will stay the same under the new leadership. Sometimes, it’s helpful to frame the conversation from the point of view of what the team wants to stop, start and continue in the new context.
  3. The conversation can revolve around the leader determining what needs to change in the team dynamic: What the relationship of the leader is to each individual member, while also taking into account the broader relationship between the boss and the team as a whole? This can open the door to a conversation about how team members would most like to contribute and what sort of environment they need to be at their best.  It can uncover a whole new set of capabilities just by having an explicit conversation about individual strengths and work styles.
  4. Finally, it’s also a good time for confirming the team’s values, its goals, the “rules of engagement” and who its members are accountable to which all goes a long way toward team members understanding the rules and their responsibilities.

During all this open and candid discussion about changing roles and responsibilities the new leader can allow people to shift their roles a bit, too, which may make for a more cohesive and productive team.

This pivotal conversation is also the time for the new leader to identify what’ that are non-negotiable. Leaders need to be clear on what can and cannot change. The leader should have the confidence to set the ground rules.

Internal leadership promotion comes with challenges, but with open conversations about roles and responsibilities the adjustment from peer to boss will go more smoothly. Explicitness in the initial conversation is a critical step that leaders often miss.