• The transition from team mate to team leader – why so many get it wrong.

    The transition from team mate to team leader – why so many get it wrong.

    Posted 30/04/2013 By in MANAGEMENT With | No Comments

    The first thing I want to say about this particular transition is that it’s difficult…  perhaps even the most difficult entree into Management you can experience (and also one of the most common).


    Why is it so hard?  Why do so many mess it up and alienate their former team-mates?  Why do so many new managers attempt to assert themselves and then create pressure waves that reverberate for months.

    In short, I don’t really know.  I have some ideas but each case I’ve worked with has been different.  What I will endeavour to provide are some guiding principles, you will need to make your own decisions but hopefully these will help.

    1.  The desire/need to be known as “The Manager” is strong in new managers.  You’re excited, proud (perhaps a little nervous if you’re being truthful) and want to ‘make your mark’.  You also want a clear delineation between your former and current roles so you enthusiastically send out the all staff email formally announcing your new role and laying out your vision for the future.  Maybe you even have some platitudes in there about how much you ‘value’ your team.  Good in theory, poor in practice.  Why?  Well firstly, the transition from team-mate to Manager is not JUST one of new title.  Your team has preconceived notions of you having worked with you already.  If you haven’t told them you ‘value’ them as a team-mate and then do so in the first few days, well you’re going to come across like an ass.  The second is the psychological connections attached with your ascendancy – you’ve moved on, achieved more, aimed higher, and proven yourself ‘better’ than your colleagues by engaging in and winning the role.  Problem is, your first action also reinforces that message or belief.  Think of it like this.  Essentially you’re saying “Yesterday I was one of you.  Now I’m not.  I am your manager.  And I want you to know it.”  Suggestion.  Let time iron out a few of the kinks.  Spend the first few weeks just getting the feel of the role.  See what comes your way and respond to that.  Most importantly.  DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING.

    2. You want to make changes.  This is another strong desire and one I caution vigourously against.  Sure, change is necessary and things that have been bugging you for ages you now have the power (yes I used that word deliberately) to make changes.  How would you have responded if someone came in from outside and forced you to make changes to orient the work to their preferred way of doing things.  Managers, well good managers, are enablers.  They enable their people to do their jobs in the best way possible and run cover removing obstacles and providing support and direction.  Most managers, especially new ones, worry too much about what their boss thinks and so focus on re-organising things in such a way so that they are better able to meet their bosses priorities.  The real measure of your success is the success of your team.  So what if a report is not done on time if your team is performing above budget or targets?  Force them to jump through reporting hoops and you may risk lowering performance.  Sure, you’ll give your boss great reports on time, but how long will that look good for when sales or performance drops??  Suggestion:  put it to the team and ask them what needs to change.  If you choose to tell them then the unspoken message may be “I’ll make the decisions around here because I know best” or “You can’t be trusted to know what needs to change.” Or any number of not great variations on that theme.  Empowering your people to make decisions about how they get the job done is a great way to get the best out of them.


    3. Apart from the fact that you now have a new role, nothing much has changed.  If you were a natural leader in the team beforehand, then the team will be more likely to accept you in the new role.  Provided you don’t come in and stomp on everything that’s gone before (or on the relationships you had with them previously).  But apart from the new title, you didn’t immediately learn a whole new range of skills, you didn’t all of a sudden get smarter, or even know more about the business or organisation.  So don’t pretend you do as you’ll only be kidding yourself.  It’s expected that after some time in your new role you will have different access to information, organisational decisions and such, but not immediately.  It’s not the change that’s the problem, it’s the rapidity with which you make that change.  Managers are also reluctant to say they don’t know.  The reasons why could be a whole other post (and might be) but essentially I want you to know right now, that it’s perfectly ok to admit you don’t have the answer, that you don’t know or are uncertain.  The more honest you are the more likely your team will connect with you and provide the support you need.  If you pretend and fail, then you’re not showing your people you trust them and are also demonstrating a lack of insight, or humility or experience coupled with (and this is the killer) an inability to ask for help.

    If the team didn’t respect you or identify you as a high performer or natural leader beforehand then you’ve got an even bigger challenge.  Which means you need to take this even slower.  You need to let your behaviour demonstrate what you tried to say in your announcement email.  Keep in mind, your actions speak more clearly and more loudly than your rhetoric.  Consider this.  You say.  ” I value you….” and then announce that you’re introducing new ways of doing things or that you’re going to spend time with staff to see what they do and how they do it, and you’re really saying something quite the opposite.  My advice.  Ask them what they need from you.  Talk about the sort of manager you think you would like to be and what that looks like to your team (after all, they’re the ones whose opinions matter in this case).  You need them to trust you and you won’t do that by sheer will power alone.  Trust takes time to build and seconds to erode.  You want them to trust you, you need to trust them and the only way a person can become trustworthy is to be given the opportunity to be so.  Let them manage their work for awhile, don’t make sweeping changes (or even small ones), don’t parade around in your new role or wield your new authority immediately.  Let things come to you in their own time.  If you’ve inherited a high-performing team (lucky you) then it will continue just fine without you asserting yourself.  If it’s a low performing team, keep two things in mind.  One, you were a member of that low-performing team and two, what does it matter if it carries on for a few more weeks while people get accustomed to the change in your role.  Use this time to listen, listen and listen.

    4. Relationships – changes in relationships require re-negotiation.  Period.  A relationship is any interaction between two or more people and like it or not you’re in a relationship with your staff.  And it’s changed.  A one-sided renegotiation of that relationship is NOT likely to produce the results you want.  In terms of high-performing relationships both parties needs must be met in a mutually beneficial manner.  Mutual benefit is not derived from you telling alone.  You need to hear as well.

    5. Friend or Manager?  This is tricky, most of the good managers I know care about their team but are not friends with them.  Sure, they’re friendly and may even socialise with the team in a work context but they’re not buddies.  The reason is that it’s just too hard to manage people when you have other relationships with them.  It also can create discord among the other team members with perceptions of favouritism.   The problem in this particular transition is that yesterday you were team-mates and the likelihood of friendships existing in peer to peer relationships are quite high.  Distancing yourself immediately is likely to create problems, taking too long is also likely to set up expectations.  Perhaps the most effective thing to do here is to have an open and frank conversation about how the nature of your relationship is likely to change.  Be honest and have the difficult conversations now.  Trust me, as hard as it may be, it is infinitely easier than trying to manage the performance, expectations or behaviour of your former friend down the track.  If you can’t have those conversations….. well we need to speak because that’s just the start of your Management foray into difficult conversations and the best managers are the ones who are able to have those conversations and still have the respect of their people.

    Remember, only yesterday you were one of them, think about how you would feel if what you are proposing or considering happened to you?  Empathy in this space is an admirable trait and will help you to understand what your people need from you.

    Please help me to spread the word by sharing.

      Sean is an experienced coach, speaker and facilitator who is passionate about improving the relationship between people, their work and the organisations they work for. If you want to get the most out of your managers, supervisors and their teams and think that work can or should be a rewarding and enjoyable component of a productive and meaningful life it might be worth a chat.

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