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From Colleague to Boss

From Colleague to Boss

How to Navigate the Transition

Just when you start to worry the promotion you wanted would go to an outside candidate, your boss offers you the chance to run your department. After years of long hours and hard work, you can address the problems you've been forced to endure and advance your vision for how the department might best operate. 

However, the transition from colleague to boss can often be fraught with interpersonal challenges and surprising demands. Internal promotions present unique dilemmas and opportunities that require careful negotiation in order to move from compatible colleague to respected supervisor.

Unlike advancing to a higher-level position in a new organization, you, your company and coworkers know each other's strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, you each know what you're getting into; on the other, you will need to reestablish working relationships based on your new roles and responsibilities. Expectations from colleagues, as well as your boss, may be unrealistically high, because you already know the organization and should therefore advance initiatives more quickly than might be expected of an outsider.

Even though you're an insider, it's important to mark the transition, focusing the department on its core mission and goals. Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, authors of First, Break All the Rules, say when managers start a new role, their needs are very basic.

They advise answering two initial questions:

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?

Change, even when considered positive, creates uncertainty and confusion. The essential first step is to address these questions and begin establishing yourself in your new leadership role. Consider the following suggestions as you focus on Buckingham and Coffman's advice to return to fundamentals:

  • Bring your department together to discuss the change. If your organization supports retreats, consider planning time away to begin the transition to new leadership. Otherwise, schedule an extended staff meeting. Inform the staff that the meeting's goal is to communicate information about the transition and discuss ways to ensure it will be positive.
  • Acknowledge this transition will be an adjustment for everyone as you adapt to new roles in the organization. Communicate your management style with your former colleagues. As much as possible, outline what they can expect from you as the new manager and what you expect from them. Be explicit, without appearing rigid or heavy-handed, in order to rely less on assumptions about your management style and to begin to communicate how you envision the department will run. Avoid any temptation to compare your approach to that of your predecessor. Rather, state your preferences and expectations, punctuating the change in leadership.
  • Share your vision for the department and support it with specific goals your boss has asked you to meet. Equally important, model from the beginning how you want the staff to work as a team. Let them have input into the transition by asking them to identify key changes they feel would improve the department's functioning. Listen to their suggestions and consider amending your plan to include their insights.
  • Be visible in your commitment not to play favorites. No doubt you will have established better relationships with some staff members than others when you were peers. Be keenly aware of fairly assigning new responsibilities and projects. Focus on establishing strong relationships with each key member in your department and rebuilding any strained relationships with your former colleagues.
  • Look for ways to advocate for your department and staff in order to gain the resources needed for full productivity. Focus on achievable goals that will send a message of support and communicate you have listened to their needs.

While being conscious of your new role, continue to be yourself. Chances are, you were promoted because you already demonstrate the experience and natural ability to be an effective manager. Your staff will be on the alert to see how you handle your new promotion. Take time to be authentic and accessible to them as you move into your new role. This investment will yield their respect, the critical underpinning to your effectiveness as you transition to management.

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