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9 critical rules for managing former peers when you get promoted

Just promoted to administrator from within the ranks? Congratulations . . . and beware. It’s not easy to manage former peers. Friendships have to change, and so do whatever hard feelings the new administrator had with other staffers. And relationships aside, about two thirds of the staff now reporting to the new administrator think they should have been given the job. Here are nine strategies for being successful as a staffer-turned-manager.

1 Lay the cards on the table

The first necessity is to take care of the relationships with former peers—both friends and foes. Those relationships have just changed, and the new administrator has to start anew with everybody. Meet with staff and address the issue outright, albeit with a theme of working together to help the firm reach its highest potential. Couch the invitation as “I’d like to meet with you to let you in on some of the things the partners have told me about the firm’s goals.”

With the friends, point out that the promotion has brought with it a duty to be fair with everyone. All it takes is a simple sentence: “I am still your friend, but I have to be fair and not show favoritism.” That message will likely have to get reiterated from time to time. If the old habit has been to have lunch every day with a group of friends, it’s probably best to break the pattern and tell the friends that to continue is to show favoritism.

With the foes, be humble but sincere. Acknowledge the friction, but explain that everybody has to move on: “I know there’s been friction between us, and I suspect my being promoted is as uncomfortable for you as it is for me. But despite the challenges we have faced in the past, I want us to go forward in a way that’s professional and productive for the firm.” Speak slowly. Doing so shows both humility and sincerity.

Some people may not be willing to talk at all. Others may get argumentative. But many will be willing to start the relationship anew on a good footing. Whatever the response, however, don’t take it personally. The goal is not to get a pat on the back from the former peers but to ensure that everybody works together peacefully and productively.

2 Deliver on the promises

From there the job is to build credibility, and several factors come into play. One is to deliver on promises, whether to partners or staff. If there’s a promise to finish a project by noon, be on fire to do it immediately. Don’t be even a minute late. If a roadblock appears, acknowledge it. Explain what’s happening to the person who’s waiting for the project. That’s excusable. What’s not excusable is to promise to do something and then have to be reminded to get it done or forget about it entirely.

It is possible to score extra points in this area. The secret is to under-promise and over-deliver. If the managing partner asks “when can you have this project completed?” set a deadline for a day later than it will likely take. Then deliver it a day early. The partner will be delighted.

3 Keep quiet about the absent party

Get more credibility: never to talk about somebody who isn’t there to hear what’s said. When Staffer A comes in complaining about Staffer B, end the conversation before it starts. To listen to one staffer who has a whine about another staffer spells disaster. Whatever is discussed will be repeated, and eventually word gets around that the administrator listens to gossip.

Instead of hearing the one side, ask “did you talk to B about this?” And if the answer is no, “Well, I’d like you to do that first, because I don’t like to talk about someone who’s not in the room. That’s unfair.”

Then offer to help: “let’s bring B into the office and we can sit down together to work this out.” Chances are A doesn’t want to go that route and will figure out a way to resolve the issue. Hearing that response a few times, staff realize the administrator is fair. What’s more, they’ll make an effort to solve their own problems.

4 Give behind-the-scenes reports

Yet more credibility comes from explaining the why of decisions that affect staff. Taking command and control doesn’t establish authority. The only time that’s appropriate is in an absolute crisis. An edict with no explanation can lead to serious misunderstandings, because people by nature are vigilant and paranoid. Suppose Staffer A has too much work and Staffer B doesn’t have enough, and without saying anything, the administrator shifts some of A’s work to B. With no explanation, A sees that as an indication of failure and assumes “I must not be doing my job” while B wonders if the extra work is some type of punishment.

5 Own up to mistakes

Another credibility builder: Own up to mistakes—fast. Whether the mistake affects the partners or the staff, ignoring or denying it is an indication that the administrator is hiding something and can’t be trusted. And waiting too long to admit to it says the administrator has been trying to sweep the matter under the carpet and thus is a coward. Mistake recognition is especially important with staff. People like it when the boss screws up. What’s more, when the administrator admits to mistakes, it’s easier for them to do the same.

Admission alone is not enough, however. There needs to be a plan to correct the error and prevent it from happening again. If it’s a wrong hiring decision, for example, a good reaction is “I may have made a mistake in hiring A. She doesn’t have the skills to do the job. However, I am going to work with her to bring her up to speed. And in the future, I will require applicants for that position to take a skills test.”

6 Keep confidences

Respecting confidentiality is another essential for establishing credibility. Suppose a staffer reports that someone has been stealing printer cartridges. Don’t automatically report it to the partners. That staffer has come to the administrator in confidence and there needs to be respect for that person’s privacy. If the matter needs to be brought to the partners, say “I need to tell the partners about this, but I would like to get your okay to do that.” And if the staffer doesn’t want to get involved, respect that: “I will do my best to keep you out of this.” The outcome: Staff come to trust the administrator, and the administrator finds things out sooner.

7 Always listen

And then there’s the credibility that comes from listening. When someone comes in with a problem, prepare to listen instead of talk. Many managers don’t understand that when people have problems, they don’t want to be talked to, they want to be heard.

That calls for active listening, or responding with questions that indicate a sincere interest such as “here is what I think your issue is. Is that correct?” The other person now has an opportunity to clarify: “No, that’s not really the problem. The problem is X.” Never jump into action until that other person asks for action. Many people just want to be heard and are quite happy to leave saying, “thanks for listening.”

8 Stand up for staff

Another rule: stand up for staff when the situation warrants it. Suppose a partner is angry that a secretary hasn’t completed a project and wants the administrator to reprimand her. The administrator knows the secretary didn’t complete the work because she was out for the past two days with a seriously ill child.

If that secretary is a good and conscientious employee and if the circumstances were beyond her control, there’s a duty to defend her. Tell the partner what has happened. And then tell the secretary about it: “Partner A was upset that you didn’t complete the project. However, I know you’ve had a difficult time with your child, so I took the liberty of telling him about it. I don’t want him to think your work is anything but excellent.”

9 Be the customer servant

The final necessity: Recognize that management is a huge customer service job, and the customers are the staff. The main responsibility is to make the office run smoothly, and that means taking care of issues quickly and well. Any time a staffer makes a legitimate request, it’s poor service to wait two or three days to fulfill it. If an immediate response isn’t possible, tell when it will come, perhaps “I can’t get back to you with that until tomorrow. But if this is a crisis, let me know.” If the former administrator didn’t do that, the new administrator has just become a hero.

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