I am a new team leader – now what?

Janice had been a part of the project management team for five years. She was very good at her job and consistently worked with her team to bring projects to completion with excellence, on time, and often delivered beyond what was expected. She felt a sense of pride being a part of the PM team as they all seemed to share the same values and dedication to the work.

When the Director of her department moved to another position, she was offered her position which she was glad to accept. She felt confident that she could lead her team to take on more projects and deliver with excellence as they had always done. She felt she would have a short learning curve and that the department wouldn’t have any or much downtime because they all knew each other and were familiar with the projects that came their way.

There was only one problem, and it was a big one. The team that worked so well with Janice was suddenly reluctant to contribute, distant and suspicious. In meetings, there was much less collaborative thinking. When she asked for help on special projects, she had few takers. At the end of the month, she was discouraged and exhausted. She didn’t know how to make sense of the reaction she was getting from her team members, the team she thought she knew so well.

Something was wrong.

This is a scenario that happens in companies daily if not hourly.

What are you doing to make sure that transition is successful? It is one thing to have an advancement program in place. It’s completely different to have an advancement program that prepares everyone, not just the person being promoted to work together successfully. And, working together successfully, by your and your team’s definition, matters.

When the newly promoted leader is now responsible for leading their peers, the possibility of conflict can be high. People may not readily adjust to the person they have strategized with on projects, had meals together, or perhaps shared personal conversations, now being their manager or someone they now answer to.

Promotion is a whole team experience.

Traditionally, leaders are promoted without much attention to how to make it work for everyone. Consideration is given to upper management because they are getting a leader who can take on more responsibility. The person being promoted benefits by most likely an increase in pay, an increase in influence, and more ownership of the work or the projects.

However, here is what’s often missed with little to no consideration – preparing the rest of the team for the promotion.

What causes teams to lose their collaborative connection when a peer is promoted?

Here are a few things to consider:

  • The team had no idea the promotion was in the works. They only found out when the announcement was made.
  • The team is not clear about the new parameters of how they work with a peer as their new director.
  • They are not sure about the new lines of communication.
  • They wonder if their former peer is still on their side or with them; who are they loyal to?

These are all valid concerns. Promotion is an opportunity for growth for everyone involved.

To have a successful transition from team member to team leader the team needs to feel like they are a part of the process. Keeping them in the dark while not giving them a hint about what is being considered can cause confusion and resentment from the start. While you can’t share all the details, you can say enough to let them know what is being considered and how it might change the dynamics of the team.

This is a way to build trust as you are implementing change. Leaving team members out of the process can cause it to feel as if you have something to hide.

Take a proactive approach

While you are planning for the transition, schedule time to talk to the team altogether. Tell them what is important about the changes and ask them to continue to be a part of doing great work together. Be clear about your value for them and what matters to them.

  • Ask for their thoughts or contribution on how they think the change might benefit the whole department.
  • Ask them to share new ways they might be able to work together to strengthen the services they offer the company.
  • Lay out the ways they can connect with their peer leader and share the ways that may change the way they connect. No surprises.
  • Find out who else on the team may be interested in promotion or taking on more responsibilities in the company and share possible advancement pathways.
  • As the new leader, former peers won’t know what to expect, so be sure to tell them.
  • Redefine collaboration, responsibility, and expectations.
  • Be clear about the value of teamwork and how the new peer leader will be a part of the team in this new capacity.
  • Trust the knowledge of the team. Avoid being a lone ranger thinking that you must know everything.
  • When the new leader reaches out to include her former peers, she is signaling that she believes in their talents and that she wants to be connected to them, not leave them behind.

When it comes to change, especially promoting a peer to a lead roll or position, beware of the impact it will have on the whole department. Don’t assume it won’t matter to them. Change matters to everyone.

Outstanding contributors will be promoted. Sometimes that promotion is in the same department they have worked in with the same people. When this is done well, it’s a win for everyone but it takes the willingness to address concerns, build trust and respect the team members upfront and throughout the process.

Promoting from within can be a positive and strategic move while saving money and transitional downtime. Realize that promoting a peer to be a team lead will take intentional execution with the idea that it’s for the betterment of the whole, not just the one.

The successful transition from a team member to team leader can work well when trust is built, communication is clear and each person is valued.

To be effective, leaders need their team’s trust. How Leaders Build Trust, HBR

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