“I’ve Been Promoted to HR Director. Now I’m Managing Former Peers & Friends Who Are Pushing Back. What’s Your Advice?”

Hi Alan,

I was recently promoted to HR Director. 

I’m now leading a team of HR managers, many of whom were my peers prior to being promoted.

Regularly, as peers, we’d go out for drinks, happy hours and game nights. I’m trying to establish myself as the new leader of this HR team, but often find myself getting pushback, not taken seriously or even being ignored in some cases.

I would love to maintain our relationships, as we share lots of similar interests outside of work. But is this even possible? This is my first time managing people. 

I have no idea how to approach this.

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First of all, congratulations on your promotion!

Being a new HR leader is challenging under any circumstances, and it’s doubly difficult when you’re managing people who used to be your peers.

But you’re not alone.

Most HR leaders face this awkward situation at least once in their careers.  And the top HR folks go through this many times as they climb the corporate ladder.  So it’s an important topic to address.

Going from buddy to boss isn’t easy.  But here are five helpful suggestions.

1. Recognize that the relationship HAS changed.

Don’t stick your head in the sand. Things will NOT be EXACTLY as they were before.

They know it and you know it.

This is primarily because an important part of your job now as their boss is to judge your former peers’ work and to make life changing decisions about their future.

For example, you’re now accountable for evaluating their performance and making decisions about their raises, promotions, work assignments…and influencing decisions about whether or not if they’re laid off or fired.

Also, you may now have access to confidential business information that you CANNOT share with them – potential restructurings, downsizings, mergers, budget cuts and other decisions that will impact them and their families.

That puts you in the position where you’re keeping secrets from folks you used to confide in.

And this means that maintaining that same old wide-open relationship you had before is difficult at best and impossible in most cases.

Of course, if you’re like everyone else in the history of HR, you’re thinking that this will be different for you. But the reality is that if you’re going to excel in your new leadership role you will need to make changes in the relationship.

What kind of changes?  Well, read on.

2. Be direct about your expectations.

Don’t underestimate the power of a simple, one-on-one conversation with each team member.

After your new role is announced, set up these one-on-ones.  Don’t procrastinate.

Be forthcoming about stating “our roles have changed” and talking through what you expect of your former peers.

I’m not suggesting you should strut your stuff like a peacock and act like a pompous jerk now that you’re the boss. There’s no percentage in rubbing people’s noses in your new leadership role, no matter how happy you might be in being put in charge.

But you MUST have these conversations.  In them, spend an equal amount of time discussing what THEY need or expect from YOU in order to gain their support.   

If you do this with openness and authenticity, quickly backing up your words with action, you will be on the road to gaining their trust and respect.

3. Don’t sidestep issues and be soft.

This is the hardest part.

You will need to hold your people’s feet to the fire if they choose to behave badly.

For instance, if you find yourself being ignored, you need to address that immediately and make it clear it’s not acceptable.

Along these lines, you might say: “Steve, I asked you to finish the turnover report by yesterday and it’s not done. What happened?”  And then follow up with, “I need you to complete assignments by their deadlines.”  Be calm, but clear and assertive.

If one of your former peers is repeatedly pushing back on your decisions, speak with them about it.

For instance, you might say, “I’m getting the sense that you’re skeptical of my decisions in general. What’s going on?”   Listen with an open mind and then respond that you’ll take it into account, but that you’re going to be making lots of decisions and that you expect that they won’t push back on each one…and that you’ll be making the final call.

If performance is falling short and a former peer who is now a direct report isn’t responding to your coaching and feedback, then you must take the same action you would with any other team member.

Again, I realize this is harder than it sounds. You need to remember as a new leader, everyone on the team is watching and if they think you are playing favorites you could lose the respect of the team and any chance to be an effective leader.

Often, resistant team members don’t have the courage to challenge you directly. Instead, they show passive-aggressive behavior with subtle body language such as turning away from you in meetings, rolling eyes, or disengaging from the conversation.

When that happens, start with a subtle response such as sitting directly beside or across from the person in the next meeting or walking around behind the person while you’re talking. If resistance persists, provide direct feedback in a one-on-one, by saying something like this:

“In the last couple of meetings, you have been sitting at the back of the room and only providing one word answers to my questions. I’m concerned that you’re not making the transition to me being the leader of the team. What are you willing to do differently to show you’re on board?”

If problems continue after you’ve addressed them, handle them the way you would any serious performance issue: by repeating your expectations clearly, explaining where they’re falling short and warning them what the consequences will be if you don’t see improvement.

4. Devote extra care with close friends.

When your new direct report is a long-time close friend, this can get sticky.

Yes, the same rules of thumb apply here: establish your authority, and discuss how expectations have changed.

However, in this case, it makes sense to honor that friendship by devoting extra care, openness and time to your discussion of how the relationship will be changing, and talk through the implications.

Be candid about how your own responsibilities and priorities have changed, and ask how your friend sees theirs changing as well.

Let them know they can count on you to support them being happy and successful in their role and ask for their loyalty in return, but make it clear that there won’t be any special treatment.

I recently spoke with a former HR colleague who had a close friend who was promoted to become his manager.

His new boss reached out over lunch before the transition, and they spoke for over an hour, discussing every aspect of what was going to change, and what would remain the same. They agreed to keep the lines of communication open. “As a result,” he said, “our friendship survived intact.”

Now let me speak from my personal experience.  It IS possible for the relationship to not only survive…but to thrive…in the long term.

Today, I have great, deep relationships with six former peers that all managed me when they were either HR directors, VPs and CHRO’s.

Now, we talk about anything and everything…and even those days when I reported to them.  Those are now some of the richest and deepest relationships I have.

So there’s no need to completely trash close personal relationships forever, though recognize the dynamics of the relationship will change in the short term.

5. Finally, upgrade your own leadership skills.  

As a new leader, you aren’t going to be perfect and you’re going to make mistakes, just like any manager…experienced or not.

And you need to show your former peers that you willing to learn, be flexible and make changes. Doing this will earn their respect and more importantly demonstrate to them you are a different person as a manager.

This means beefing up your skills on things like how to delegate successfully, give feedback and  establish a positive, but results-driven culture and so forth.

Those things are essential for any new manager, but especially when you need to establish your credibility with a team of former peers.

Here’s the takeaway…

When managing former peers, recognize that the relationship has changed, be direct about your expectations, re-negotiate friendships and further developing yourself as a leader.

That way, you give yourself and your new direct reports the best possible chance of a smooth transition.

Valuable team members will adapt and understand.

Those who don’t may need to find another place to contribute.

Onward!

Feel free to add your comments below by clicking HERE

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Want more tips and strategies to help you take charge and thrive as a brand new HR leader, then check out:  THE NEW HR LEADER’S FIRST 100 DAYS: How To Start Strong, Hit The Ground Running & ACHIEVE SUCCESS FASTER As A New Human Resources Manager, Director and VP.

About the Author: Alan Collins is Founder of Success in HR, Inc. and the author of a variety of best selling HR books including: THE NEW HR LEADER’S FIRST 100 DAYS.  He was formerly Vice President – Human Resources at PepsiCo where he led HR initiatives for their Quaker Oats, Gatorade and Tropicana businesses.

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4 Responses to ““I’ve Been Promoted to HR Director. Now I’m Managing Former Peers & Friends Who Are Pushing Back. What’s Your Advice?””

  1. Jan Says:

    Commendable advice. It is important to maintain peace as much as possible with everyone because it will be reflected in output. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Muhammad Tahir Says:

    Certainly! Position has change so more is expected. It shouldn’t be business as usual. Your peers should be made to understand that more devotion to work is required for you success.

  3. Ije Says:

    Thanks Alan,this came in timely.

  4. CAB Says:

    Alan: Thanks for the great article. Without a doubt, coming out of a peer group to lead that group is one of the most challenging things one can do in their career. It is definitely a change for everyone involved. Way “back in the day” when I was promoted out of a group of recruiters to manage the team, I had to place one of the recruiters on a written warning for meddling in a compensation issue that posed a clear conflict of interest. Three weeks earlier this person was my peer and a friend. Definitely a challenge.

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