How to Make the Peer-to-Boss Transition

Getting promoted is a thing to celebrate! But when you get promoted to boss on your own team... the transition can be hard to make. Modern Mentor answers a listener question about how to gracefully transition from peer to boss.

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #665
The Quick And Dirty

Gracefully transitioning from peer-to-boss is totally possible! Here are 5 strategies that will serve you well:

  1. Own the awkward
  2. Harness a collective excitement
  3. Pick a low-hanging fruit
  4. Invite feedback
  5. Establish shared norms
Today we begin with a congratulations to Modern Mentor listener Sylvie! She’s been promoted. But there’s a catch and she needs some advice. Here’s how Sylvie described it to me in an email she sent to modernmentor@quickanddirtytips.com:
“Hi Rachel. I’ve been on an account management team for 3 years. We’re a small team and sometimes it feels like family. Our boss left the company a few weeks ago and I’ve been promoted into his role. I’m so excited—I’ve been wanting the new challenge. But now my colleagues—my friends—have become my direct reports, and I’m their boss. I want to be successful in the role, but I’m worried my team will resent me or just not see me as a leader. How can I step into this role and make it a win for everyone?”
Sylvie, thanks for the question, and congratulations again. I’ve been in your shoes, and I’ve coached others through similar transitions. So let’s talk about some strategies you can use to build trust and credibility and deliver some amazing results through your team.

1. Own the awkward.

This situation isn’t uncommon. But it can be awkward. And the worst thing you can do is try to hide or ignore that reality.
So start by just putting it out there. Let your team know you’re so excited about the job, but this is a big change for everyone, and it’ll take time to adjust to the new dynamic.
What are you most uncertain about? Maybe you’re worried they don’t think you’re ready for the job, or that your friendships will fade. Let them know what’s on your mind and invite them to do the same. 
A shared sense of discomfort is something you can all watch for and manage together.
I was 27 the first time I landed in this situation. I spent my first few weeks in the role just pretending the awkward away. Which is vaguely like ignoring a gentle case of appendicitis, assuming it will just pass. Until the appendix bursts. In other words, not a great idea.
Finally, one day I pulled the team together and said “Hey. This is a weird moment for me and I’m sure it is for you too. I’m uncomfortable suddenly being the boss. We’ve always been peers and I have a lot to learn about how to do this well. I want to hear what this feels like for you—let’s just put it all out there.”
We ended up having a great conversation, laughing together for the first time in weeks. But we also articulated some of our biggest concerns and anxieties which allowed us to address them together.
So Sylvie, start there. Fly your awkward flag and invite your team into the conversation.

2. Harness a collective excitement

You’re excited about the new job, and surely you have ideas. But likely, so do they. And one of the most powerful tools in the leader toolbox is listening to what’s on their minds. What has them excited? What projects would they love to take on, what experiments do they want to run?
I think about my 12-year-old. Try talking to her about how school is going or what she’s reading, and you’ll get a death stare. But ask her how her basketball team is doing, and you’ll see her light up. That’s how you start a conversation with her.
The point is we love to talk about what excites us. Give your team the space to present some ideas, and really listen. You don’t have to put every experiment or project on the immediate to-do list. But you do want to leave them feeling heard and appreciated. Let their enthusiasm open the door to conversation.
And you'll likely end up putting a few of their ideas into play. 

3. Pick a low-hanging fruit

Remember that incredibly annoying thing you all used to complain about? Like the monthly dashboard your previous boss wanted to be filled out? Or that weekly 90-minute team meeting that dragged on without purpose? Or the way you all never quite felt recognized for your ideas and contributions?
Find something that was a known pain point for the team, and just fix it. Be an early hero. 
Tossing out or streamlining that dashboard, establishing a simple practice of recognizing everyone’s top 3 achievements of the week—these are changes you can implement simply and quickly.
Small, early wins earn you trust. And trust is the foundation for high-performing teams.

4. Invite feedback

Remember the first time you got on a bike or put on rollerblades or baked chocolate chip cookies? Also, remember the scrapes, bruises, and small kitchen fires you had to contend with shortly thereafter?
We rarely get things right the first time out of the gate. The beautiful thing about moving into a leadership role is that you don’t need a helmet. And you don’t need to wipe out to learn how to be great. Your team is there to help shape your approach. But it’s on you to ask, listen, process, and respond. 
Early and often, ask your team what you’re doing well, and where you have space to improve or evolve. Of course, it’s great to know what’s going well. But the real insight is in the critical. And the way to unlock the critical is not to ask “Hey, is there anything I can be doing better?” Because the easiest answer there is a simple “nope.”
A better approach is this: “Glad to know what I’m doing well. I’m new and imperfect and I know there are things I can improve on. It would be helpful if you could give me 2 to 3 things I can focus on in service of growing my leadership capability.”
That small shift—from asking if to asking what you might improve is often the key to insight.

5. Establish shared norms

And finally, there is no one right way to be a team—there’s only the way that works for you and your team.
I recently coached a leader who would spend two hours each Sunday getting himself organized and shooting emails to his team so they were ready to hit the ground running come Monday morning. For him, this was a strategy he believed was setting everyone up for success.
Turns out, when I spoke with his team, they interpreted these Sunday emails as signals that he thought they should be working. And they resented him for it.
The leader was mortified to learn that his intent and their experience were so mismatched.
He’s shifted his approach so now he schedules emails on Sunday to be sent on Monday. Simple fix, but only able to be achieved because a conversation happened. 
The key is to understand which norms serve your team, and which deliver negative impact. Invite your team members to share their preferences around communication, meeting norms, how they like to receive feedback, how they best collaborate, etc. And offer insights in return.
Capture and share the key ideas with the whole team so you’re operating in the zone that keeps everyone on track.
And Sylvie, there you go. I hope this feels like a helpful start. The Quick and Dirty Tips team is all rooting for you!

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.