How to Lead Former Peers with Authority and Respect

Have you ever found yourself facing the delicate task of transitioning from being a peer to leading your former colleagues? I recall vividly the experience of being promoted to manage someone I had once worked alongside. Let’s call him Rick, because, well, that was indeed his name – and likely still is.

Rick and I were both managers, each responsible for different departments within the media conglomerate I was working for. When a leadership vacuum opened due to the departure of our division’s president and general manager, Rick and I naturally eyed the opportunity. To my surprise and, I’ll admit, a bit of shock, I was chosen for the role.

My initial approach to leadership resembled what I imagine a young bull’s attempt to lead a herd – a brash display of authority. But hey, I was only 25 at the time.

Avoiding the Hard Conversations

The initial transition wasn’t easy. I steered clear of directly managing Rick or offering constructive feedback, fearing it might jeopardize our friendship. Regrettably, this avoidance allowed issues to simmer and fester. Rick began neglecting tasks and missing meetings, which inevitably began to cast a shadow on our team’s performance.

In hindsight, I realize that I was grappling with a sense of insecurity and challenge.

The Evolution: Three Steps to Successful Leadership

After some trial and error, I devised a three-step process that paved the way for effective leadership in such circumstances:

1. Set Clear Expectations

Transparency is paramount. From day one, outline roles, responsibilities, and your managerial approach. Address the inevitable shift in dynamics head-on.

I initiated a candid conversation with Rick, outlining the need for clearer guidance and feedback as his manager. We both understood the importance of defining our new roles.

2. Prioritize the Team

It’s crucial to place the team’s welfare above personal friendships. Resist favoritism stemming from past camaraderie.

I admit I hesitated to offer Rick constructive feedback that could improve his performance. However, I realized that prioritizing the team’s success required addressing the issue.

3. Develop Your Leadership Style

Effective leadership balances compassion with decisiveness. Aim to foster collaboration rather than solely commanding authority.

Involving Rick in problem-solving endeavors fostered trust while addressing concerns with a firm hand was also essential. It took time to find equilibrium.

When You’re Promoted Over Several Peers

If you’re promoted to lead a team of several former peers who felt deserving of the role, it magnifies the awkwardness and tensions. Others may perceive favoritism if the reasons for your promotion aren’t communicated.

For this scenario, additional measures come into play:

  • Transparency and Context: Clearly communicate the criteria and process behind your promotion to allay speculation.
  • Acknowledgment and Listening: Privately address any disappointment among your peers and offer a platform for them to share their viewpoints. Empathetic listening can go a long way.
  • Individual Validation: Recognize each team member’s unique skills and contributions. Emphasize their worth.
  • Equity in Opportunities: Avoid showing favoritism in distributing responsibilities and opportunities.
  • Shared Credit and Celebration: Highlight the strengths of each team member while sharing credit for accomplishments. Celebrate the collective effort.

The Path Forward: Leadership as a Process

Leading former peers demands emotional intelligence and discipline. However, with patience and perseverance, you can transform an initially awkward situation into an opportunity for growth.

Ultimately, this experience led me to become the leader my colleagues needed, aligning with the expectations of our organization.

Putting it Into Practice

Transitioning from peer to leader presents challenges, but can also be a growth opportunity. Here are some tangible steps to lead effectively:

  • Have an open discussion to align on role expectations and leadership approach. Be clear about needed changes.
  • Focus conversations on organizational needs and team goals versus personal relationships. Don’t let relationships cloud judgment.
  • Involve former peers in decision-making to build trust. But address problems decisively when needed.
  • If leading multiple former peers, explain promotion criteria transparently to alleviate speculation.
  • Acknowledge and listen to disappointment privately. Then find ways to validate each person’s strengths.
  • Promote fairness in responsibilities and share credit for successes. Avoid perceived favoritism.
  • Develop empathy, compassion, and emotional intelligence to manage relationships delicately.

With commitment to transparency, communication, and empathy, you can turn an awkward situation into one that builds leadership skills and stronger team cohesion.

As CEOs, we confront critical choices – growth strategies, succession planning, employee engagement, leadership development…the list seems endless. The weight of these decisions can feel exhilarating, yet also stressful. And lonely.

Even though I started an INC. 500 company, I spent too many years trying to navigate it all solo. I’ve learned every CEO needs a community of peers who understand the unique challenges we face.

Peernacle is a private peer advisory group where leaders in southern Virginia come together and help one another to make better decisions and grow as leaders. If you’re looking for a community where you can gain insight from others who have sat in your seat, explore Peernacle group membership.