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Opinion How to go from friend to boss overnight

How do you manage colleagues who are also friends?

A LOT CAN be playing on your mind when you first get that promotion. You personally may feel nervous and under pressure to deliver a result quickly. While concentrating on your success as a leader, you must deal with the added complication that these are your colleagues and friends that you are managing. There may be feelings of relief, anticipation or regret amongst your team.

  • Did someone else on your new team apply for your job?
  • Was your predecessor some kind of superhero and now you have a tough act to follow?
  • How do things work around there? Will your management style match the current culture?
  • They may not be used to taking direction from you.

There are many things to consider when you arrive. There are people that have been there for years before you got there, how are they feeling about your arrival? Are they delighted you are there? It is indeed possible that your arrival is eagerly anticipated like a biblical event, but the likelihood is that just like the rest of us you arrive into your new role to a bag of mixed emotions.

In spite of all these challenges there are a number of steps that you can take which can help you succeed with your team:

Establish the ground rules

This is no doubt a difficult situation. In fact, in many companies a person is promoted and moved to a different department to avoid this scenario completely, as it can sometimes end in tears. There are a number of perceptions and assumptions that exist among your team which need to be set straight. They may have expectations that life will be easier now, eg finishing early, later starts, having a friend on the inside etc.

Each person is different so a one-on-one chat is warranted:

  • Explain that you wish to maintain the relationships
  • Remind them that you are being asked to do a leadership role. There may be times when you must be the leader and make difficult decisions
  • Ask for their support.

Follow up

If setting expectations was all that was needed then the world would be a great and easy place to live in. Sometimes you will find that despite your chat, you may still see some unwelcome behaviour: talking across you in the boardroom, friends continuing to speak to you inappropriately in work, and so on. In these situations a follow up chat is needed to clear up the problem.

Balancing professional/social interactions

It has to be said that it takes experience and skill to be able to maintain an employee/boss relationship while still being able to have drinks and socialise with your team after work. How do you strike a balance between the two? Be sure to be consistent and have confidence in the reasons for your decisions and actions during work hours, irrespective of relationships with your colleagues outside of work. This will earn you a reputation of being a friendly and fair leader.

About you

What will be your leadership style? Are you going to lay down the law? Or will you take a look first?

The first is the Bull in a China Shop approach. A bull has no regard for its surroundings in the shop and causes untold damage. It will move as it pleases and whatever happens… so be it. ‘After all you cannot make an omelette without breaking a few eggs’. I do not recommend this style of arrival.

The second is the City Tour Bus approach. Just like a tourist you observe good and bad practises from the open top bus. This by far is my preferred style.

Do not assume you know everything at the outset. You need to take your time to see things in operation before passing judgments and suggesting improvements. Before your arrival life went on and perhaps it is not as perfect as you want it to be, but you cannot ignore that certain norms would have evolved and still exist – some good, some bad. Do not immediately disregard those work norms as they have survived for a reason.

Getting down to work

Once the relationship rules are established and behaviours adjusted, there are work issues to consider. It is at this point you apply your knowledge and skills. So what can you do? Don’t panic if you haven’t thought about all of the above factors. A heightened sense of “what is going on?” and constant one-on-one communication with your team in the early days can compensate for what you may have missed. Take your time when you arrive. Take your time and look around, you may be surprised at what you might find!

Robert Kiely is Director of Operations at PCH International in Shenzhen, China. Kiely has worked in the area of people management for over 20 years and has recently published a book on the subject, The Book that could Not be Written. His book is available on and You can follow him on Twitter @TBTCNBW.

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