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We Were Peers, but Now I’m Your Boss: 5 Tips for Navigating Relationships When Climbing the Leadership Ladder

By Perry Holley | July 26, 2023
We Were Peers, but Now I’m Your Boss: 5 Tips for Navigating Relationships When Climbing the Leadership Ladder

When I was coming up at IBM in the 1990s, it was very uncommon for someone to be promoted to a leadership position on the team where they were already working. A promotion almost always included a move to a different part of the business and often to another city. People would say IBM stood for “I’ve been moved.” Well, times have changed. It is very common today to have leaders feeling the challenge of becoming the team’s boss where they currently work. The team of peers they had one day became a team of subordinates the next. This poses some interesting dynamics.

By far, the number-one thing you can do to make it easier to one day become the leader of your peer group is to develop your influence with that group in advance. Leadership is influence, not your title or position. If you have low or no influence with your peers and then get promoted to lead them, there will be problems.

5 Lessons When Going from Peer to Boss

To overcome the challenges of being promoted to lead a team you were once a member of, consider these do’s and don’ts.


What to do: A critical first step if you are promoted to a leadership position on your existing team is to examine how you see yourself. If you show up and try to remain as “one of the gang” and don’t see yourself as the team’s new leader, you will set yourself up for failure. You absolutely must see yourself as the leader of the team. Embrace a leader mindset.

What not to do: The worst thing you can do is develop an “I’m the boss” mindset. The team will watch what you do with your new power. If you view this new position as “power,” you will reduce your influence and the team’s engagement level.


What to do: Realize this is potentially uncomfortable for everyone on the team, not just you. Relieving this discomfort starts with you. Talk about it with the team. Engage in an open discussion about the new working environment. Listen to the team.

What not to do: Do not act as if nothing has changed. If you expect people to “get over it,” they won’t. You should assume that some team members will wonder, “Why you? Why not me?” That question is the responsibility of whoever promoted you. Everyone on your team should know where they stand with you and in relation to possible promotional opportunities. Leaders can do a lot to prepare teams for the next promotion by ensuring regular career-based discussions with each team member. There should be no surprises.

However, while it is not your problem to explain why it wasn’t them, you will have a greater chance of increasing your influence and team engagement if you open up with the team and talk about the new environment.


What to do: Embrace your role as the leader. Think like a leader; talk like a leader; and walk like a leader. You communicate the organization’s mission and vision; you communicate roles and responsibilities; you set a standard of performance; you set clear expectations; you hold yourself and others accountable for performance.

What not to do: Avoid the temptation to be “super-teammate.” I have seen people get promoted from being a salesperson to being the sales manager. Because they could not embrace the role of the leader, they resolved themselves to be “super salesperson,” taking on not only their old sales territory but also everyone else’s sales territory. You must make the shift from being a soloist to becoming the conductor of this orchestra.


What to do: Most likely, when the team was your peers, you had good relationships with most of them. When you become the boss, it will be tempting to treat these relationships differently. Some may even expect you to “be different” now that you are the boss. Don’t be different! Be you! The greatest thing you can do to maintain and grow relationships on the team is to be authentic and true to who you are. Just because you became the boss doesn’t make you better, smarter, or better-looking than you were before you became the boss, so just be you.

What not to do: Avoid allowing someone on the team to be too familiar with you or yourself to be too familiar with them. I was once on a team where the boss hired a friend to join our team. When this friend of the boss came into a team meeting or other gathering, he would chest-bump the boss and call him by a nickname. Everyone else on the team observed this over-familiarity and felt like an outsider to this apparent close, insider relationship. This had an engagement-reducing effect that could have been avoided if the boss had established boundaries for behaviors at work with people with whom he had a close relationship.


What to do: Holding others accountable and having crucial conversations can take on a different feel when they’re with people who used to be your peers. In fact, many leaders will avoid difficult conversations entirely versus risking conflict with someone on their team. Leaders must balance care with candor to ensure difficult conversations are not completely pushed off or ignored.

What not to do: Don’t avoid having a difficult conversation with someone who used to be a peer, thinking it will get better. John Maxwell teaches that if you exhibit all care with someone and no candor (straight-talk), you create a dysfunctional relationship. And, if you are all candor but no care with someone, you will create a distant relationship. No one wants to be around someone who is all straight-talk and no care.

Being promoted to a leadership position is a great honor and recognition of your influence with others. Don’t let that reward be less just because your new team is the old team where you used to work. Embrace a leadership mindset and take your old team to places they didn’t think were possible.

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