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How to Help a Superstar Transition from Friend to Leader

By: Bruce Tulgan
This is Part 3 of 4 Part Series – Part 1   Part 2  Part 4

When they are promoted from within, it’s easy for young superstars to make the mistake that they already know everything and everyone. They already have relationships with everyone, and likely already have strong opinions about who’s who and what’s what.

But for your new young leader, those who were peers just the day before are direct reports today. That may include some people with more experience than the new manager, some who think that they should have received the promotion themselves, people with whom the new leader didn’t get along with beforehand, and people the new manager once considered “work friends.”

All of a sudden, the new manager has power and influence in relation to the careers and livelihoods of their former peers. They are the primary link between those individuals and the next level of leadership – perhaps that next level of leadership is you, the person who helped this superstar get promoted in the first place.

That is a huge shift, and it will radically change relationships between the new manager and their direct reports. If it doesn’t seem that the relationships have changed, that’s a signal that something else is very likely going wrong beneath the surface. Power changes relationships. That change must be handled with integrity and transparency, with diligence and rigor, with structure and substance.

Often, if left to their own devices, new managers in this situation will try to soft-pedal their authority: “Don’t think of me as your boss. I’m still just me. We work together. I’m just one of the team.” That is, until there’s a disagreement, or an unpopular decision needs to be made, or a new policy implemented.

When you promote a superstar and all of a sudden, they are the new manager of their old team, you have two choices: leave the new manager to figure it out on their own at the expense of the entire team’s success, or help them do such a good job that no one will doubt their status as the new boss.

As tempting as it might be for new leaders to pretend they are still just a member of the team, they have to accept that they are in a different role now.

  1. Ask them, “Which is more important to you?” If the friendship is more important, maybe that person really shouldn’t be the boss. Ask the new leader if they can accept the fact that their role as boss might compromise, or even damage, a friendship. Maybe they’ll decide that they cannot risk the friendship and thus don’t want to be the boss. But, probably not.
  2. Help them to establish ground rules that keeps the roles of “boss” and “friend” separate. A good place to start is for them to say: “Our friendship is very important to me. My job is also very important to me, and now my job is to be the manager. When we are at work, I need to be your manager. When we are outside of work, I hope we can try to leave that behind.”
  3. Remind them that being a good manager is the best way to preserve a workplace friendship. By making sure things go really well at work for everyone, managers have some control when it comes to “protecting” their old friendships. Minimize the number of problems, and they will minimize the number of potential conflicts in their personal relationships.
  4. Remind them they might have to accept that the parameters of their friendship have changed. Some new managers simply must recognize and embrace the fact that the work they and their friend have in common will become more and more the “terrain” of their friendship, as opposed to interactions outside of the workplace. That’s OK. With any luck, they will both find the work they share to be interesting and important.

As much as you try to help new leaders keep work separate from friendships, the boundaries won’t always be clear. Advise the new manager to take good care of the friendship by being a diligent, thorough manager, and hope that the friend will do the same by helping them do that to the best of their ability.

About the Author

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), , and It’s Okay to be the Boss (2007). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at brucet@rainmakerthinking.com, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website www.rainmakerthinking.com.


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