Joe stomped into the meeting room, slammed the door shut, and yelled at me, “How could you let this happen?”
He had just been fired by the company president.
I snapped back, “Me?? I’m not the one who didn’t show up and let the team down over and over again!”
He was angry, but I was frustrated and felt betrayed too. I’d put my credibility on the line to help him, but in the end he’d gotten himself fired.
What made it worse: for the last year, we’d been friends.
That all changed when I was given responsibility to lead the team.
Problems When Leading Friends and Former Peers
When we ask a group of new leaders about their biggest problems, this is always one of the most common.
It’s one of the most difficult challenges for most emerging leaders. We’ve even watched experienced leaders stumble when asked to address or lead a team of their peers.
In fact, it’s a Shakespearian dilemma: Prince Hal faces this challenge when he ascends to the throne and becomes King Henry V. His old drinking pals feel ignored and betrayed.
There were several problems that kept me from being an effective leader for my friend. You will likely encounter the same problems as you lead friends and former peers:
1) You want to be liked and accepted
Positional leadership, even when you are an outstanding Winning Well leader, means taking responsibility for decisions that not every agrees with. It means holding people accountable and it means that the group who you naturally want to like and accept you won’t always feel that way.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting other people to think well of you and have a desire to belong – it’s a very normal, human, and healthy value so long as it doesn’t consume you.
However, when you choose to lead, it will come into conflict with other values.
2) Your loyalty to the team and the mission
This is one of those “ANDs” that is so important – your friends may feel you’ve abandoned them, but you haven’t. You’ve added an important loyalty: to the organization, your team, and the mission.
Learning to balance both takes some work, but to your friends who don’t understand this tension, it can feel like betrayal.
3) Inconsistent behavior
In Shakespeare’s Henry IV and V, Prince Hal partied with the best of them – he drank with the renown lush, Falstaff, and nothing about his behavior said “leader.” Then he took the throne and treated his friends as if they were beneath his notice. He ignored them, tried to act “noble,” insulted them.
The problem was inconsistent behavior. The Prince wasn’t a leader when he hung out with friends. Once he became King and tried to act kingly, his friends were understandably hurt.
4) Unclear expectations
Conflicting and unclear expectations are the most common problem when leading friends and former peers. When you move from a peer role to a positional leadership role, some of your team may expect to get a “pass” on poor behavior, others may expect favors or special treatment, and YOU may be expecting your friends to work especially hard because of your friendship.
All of this leads to massive disappointment when you do hold team members accountable, you won’t do favors that would hurt the team, and your friends don’t show any special effort.
5) Not everyone can handle it
Some people are able to manage the tension between friendship and supervisor. In my experience, however, it is the exception, not the rule.
It takes a great deal of maturity for both people to be able do this.
Related: Leading Without Authority
Seven Ways to Lead Peers and Former Friends
My experience didn’t have to end the way it did. Early in my career, I didn’t know about the problem I’ve just described. The good news is that a few Winning Well leadership practices can help you manage the transition from peer to positional leader:
- Lead from where you are, before you’re promoted.
Leading from where you are, without a formal title, will often lead to you being asked to fill titled leadership positions.
It also helps to ease the transition. If your peers all know you as someone who:
- Sets an example
- Practices healthy friendship (where you hold one another accountable)
- Empowers others, and
- Already balances the mission with your role on the team,
then you won’t surprise them with radically different behavior when you change positions.
However, as a team member, if you are constantly critical of other people and your supervisor, it will be difficult for you to lead when you have a formal leadership role.
- Be clear about expectations.
This is the essential step in the transition to leading friends and former peers: have a “no diaper drama” conversation about the transition and your mutual expectations. In this conversation discuss these topics:
- Your commitments to your team and to the organization.
- Your management expectations.
- Your leadership values.
- Organizational mandates.
- Ask your peers to be honest about their concerns or expectations of you.
- Discern if there are where they feel you are being unjust.
- Be realistic about the times you will have to make decisions that are in the team’s best interest even if it conflicts with what you personally would like.
You want to prevent surprises. Your team needs to know where you are coming from. Don’t let it be a ‘gotcha!’ moment later on.
(Use the Winning Well Expectations Matrix in the free Winning Well Toolkit to help you have these conversations about expectations.)
- Clearly identify which role you’re playing.
This is difficult for some people because it takes a greater level of maturity in your thinking and relationships, but is very helpful for avoiding misunderstandings.
When you’re talking with a friend or former peer, clearly identify the role you’re in. Are you speaking as a friend or as their team leader?
For example: “As a friend, I am so sorry. That stinks! How can I help?”
“As the team leader, I can give you tomorrow to take care of your problem and then we will need you back.”
- Be clear, not perfect.
Be very clear about expectations, goals, and desired behaviors. You will never be perfect; so don’t try to act as if you are.
Your friends and former peers all know the ‘real’ you, so don’t suddenly try to act as if you’re perfect in ways they know you’re not. It’s fake and your leadership credibility will suffer.
It’s okay to be you. Take responsibility, be as clear as you can, and then:
- Apologize as needed.
Leaders often struggle to apologize, but it’s even more pronounced when a former team member is leading the team. Don’t let your insecurity and desire to be liked keep you from owning your junk, apologizing, and moving on.
- Weed as needed.
There are times when it just won’t work. For example:
A former peer continued to take advantage of our relationship and, despite my best efforts to clarify expectations and help him correct the behavior, nothing changed.
I had to be clear about the situation: “I want the best for you and I know this is difficult, but if nothing changes this will affect your employment.” He eventually took advantage of a second friend and supervisor and was fired.
You can’t control another person. Your job is to be the best leader you can be and give everyone on the team every opportunity to succeed. When someone isn’t interested in their own success, care enough to move them off your team.
- Get a new peer group.
Build relationships with other leaders, find mentors, and get coaching. There is nothing like a group of people who understand the challenges you experience and can share meaningful wisdom.
You can’t get this from your team. Over time, I built my own personal Board of Directors–people outside the company who I could learn from, confide in, and be accountable to.
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