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Executive Corner – Going from Peer to Boss

Michael Clegg | 02/01/2023

One of the most significant challenges for new leaders is going from peer to boss. Many struggles with the challenge of being liked more than respected. (Jump back to an article I wrote about being “Liked more than Respected”) In this article, I share tips on what each approach leads to.

The first point to understand is that you likely had teammates that interviewed for the role and are probably disappointed that you got the role instead of them. Competing with a peer can be a sensitive issue to contend with. Harvard Business Review (HBR) article shares three steps:

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4 Tips for Going from Peer to Boss

1.     Schedule a 1×1 with your direct reports and establish a new rapport with them. I frequently say that “Time is a Leader’s Currency” and that it is vital to use that time wisely. During these 1x1s, it is crucial to think about “connecting” with your former peer and not how you used to connect. Start with establishing trust that this is a partnership, NOT a dictatorship and that you genuinely want to understand their career goals and expectations. You’ll need to identify areas where they can help you in your new journey. Most leaders assume that they should have “ALL THE ANSWERS” when they should be asking “ALL THE RIGHT QUESTIONS.” People support what they help create. You can start the new relationship with a partnership in mind.

2.     Next is a team meeting. Culture and Connection start with leaders. The HBR article shares that a less formal meeting would be best, and following that meeting, have a social interaction. I like this suggestion, as long as the meeting has a real purpose. I think that purpose should correlate with a path you want to continue from the previous boss and a few change areas to fit your vision. Establishing your vision shifts some of the direction and gives you credibility. Please remember that you have already met 1×1 with the individuals and have a good idea of where the team would like to go. Your leadership response is to help paint the vision of how you plan to get there.

3.     Deal with any dissenters swiftly. Allow them to course correct. One dissenter can and will spoil the entire team, and you will fight an uphill battle.

I’m adding a 4th step and using my framework of Leadership2. 

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Leadership Square

4.     This framework will allow you to make sure that you move your leadership forward with a specific expectation that drives the behaviors needed for the desired outcome. This framework begins with an understanding that everything starts with Leaders. A leader’s job is to “Connect” with all their direct reports. It is only possible to inspire people with Connection. Simultaneously building “Culture.” Connection is the engagement and trust required for the team to follow you. Culture is the beliefs and values that set expectations for your organization. These expectations drive the behaviors that will get your team to the desired outcomes. 

If you use this framework, it will help guide you through steps 1,2, and 3 above. You will quickly identify any dissenters. Hopefully, you have developed your beliefs and values. If not, this MUST become Step 1 in this entire process. Culture is measured by what you tolerate as a leader. Without clarity around your beliefs and values, people will operate within their framework of what is acceptable. You can adapt some of your expectations as you meet 1×1 with the individuals on your team. If you struggle to define these expectations, reach out to a coach, or mentor you trust. Allow them to help you work through the process of developing these. These core values are necessary for you to succeed as a leader.

In companies with vital succession planning, it is common for your peers to have also been your competitor while interviewing for the role you were awarded. 

Early in my career, I was competing for a promotion with a good buddy of mine, Zach. We were the essence of accountability partners. We enjoyed the back and forth and wanted to cheer for each other’s success. We had lunch each week to discuss our challenges and successes. We learned from each other. Our company likes to promote from within. Zach had a different vision for leading the new team than I did. I know that Zach thought he was more qualified than me. It didn’t matter whether that was true or not. He was more technically competent, but the company wanted someone with stronger people skills and a different vision. He wanted to drive harder on the KPIs and process control. I thought those were important, too, but, in this case, our team needed to be more of a team, not a bunch of individuals. My message to senior leadership was to build a unity culture and a shared vision. I would identify the purpose of the individual members of the team and connect that with the overall team vision. 

In cases like this, you must work hard to reconnect with this person. In the case above, I spent much time with Zach. Specifically, he thought the technical areas of improvement would benefit the team. I got Zach to buy into my vision of unity and engagement. I used the relationship he and I had developed as peers and showed him that if all our team members could work as we did, it would make the process changes he wanted much smoother. I used Zach as a mentor to many new hires. It was a win-win. I didn’t want Zach to leave the organization out of disappointment. There was a good bit of resentment early on. I wanted to utilize his strengths and the areas he enjoyed helping develop new team members. We combined our vision to create a dominant market. I ended up being his most prominent advocate, and not too long after I was promoted, he was promoted into a different role.