Transitioning from Colleague to Boss

I shared a post today from BNET, The Rookie Manager’s Guide to Office Politics on Facebook and Twitter. The post provided solid tips for new managers. However, some took issue with the advice about managing the relationship with former peers. The authors wrote:

“If you’re managing former peers, now’s the time to put up some walls and keep the socializing to a minimum.”

Some read this as “dump your friends” when you become a manager. I do not believe that was the spirit of the advice but agree that it is important to set boundaries.

Early in my own career, I was in a management role without direct reports. I worked in the field with Sales Representatives and Managers who viewed me as a support to them closing new deals. I became friendly with many of my colleagues and six months into my job, I was asked to fill in for a sales manager on leave. Several months later, the change became permanent and I went from peer to “boss.”

I was still part of the team and truly believed that friendship and management were not mutually exclusive. I still believe that to be true but your relationship does shift and it is important to set boundaries right up front. I allowed my friendships to soften my actions and as a result I almost lost my job. One of my team members, “Doug” an award winning top performer had slipped in his numbers. We were friends. We talked and saw each other outside of work. I knew his family. We were both Christians and I had visited his church. Unfortunately, I allowed that to color my judgment.

My manager pushed me to take action, so I placed him on warning. Eventually, he was let go. I was heartbroken, but we remained friends. A couple of weeks after his dismissal he took action against the company demanding bonus money. His actions started an investigation that uncovered fraudulent actions. I was called in to my manager’s office and presented with the news, and questioned about the actions of my friend and former employee. I knew nothing and was vindicated but I was devastated. I had gone to the mat for a friend who had betrayed me and nearly cost me my job.

I did not become a tyrannical task master but I did learn a valuable lesson. At work, I had a job to do and my team and bosses were counting on me to step up and be a leader. I set new boundaries even while maintaining friendships that continue to this day (more than 10 years later).

We are human and it is difficult in the best of circumstances to transition from peer to boss. Your peers may be happy for you but there may some part of them that may naturally (and subtly) challenge your newfound authority. You do not have to become distant and rude, but it is important early on to help them transition to seeing you as a leader.

I learned the hard way, but you do not have to make the same mistakes.

If you are a new or even seasoned manager, I highly recommend 20 Minutes to a Top Performer by Alan Vengel. The book offers excellent insight into communicating and coaching employees. (Full Disclosure: The Author is a former client but I bought the book for myself and refer to it often, the above link is not an affiliate link).

  • Perhaps I’m misreading this post. A terminated employee files a complaint that launches an “investigation that uncovered fraudulent actions.” Did the fraudulent action stem from the organization or employee? If it is the former, the employee had every right to re-coup bonus money he perceived as earned. If it’s the latter, that’s the worst kind of betrayal.

    • Karen Swim

      Hi Jeff,

      Thanks for the comments and the questions! It was the employee who committed fraud and we did not discover his deception until he left the company and attempted to collect money that was not due him. It was a very ugly situation.