How Do You Handle It When You’re the Boss and Not the Peer?

Posted 02.24.2010

Ursula_burns In case you missed it, there was a terrific profile in the Sunday New York Times on the new CEO of Xerox, Ursula Burns. The article, and her quotes within it, focused on one of my favorite topics, leadership transitions. There’s a lot of valuable perspective and advice in the article. I want to pick up on one particular aspect in this post. How do you handle it when you move from being a member of the team (no matter how big) to the leader of that same team? 

The setting as described in the Times is a Xerox sales meeting in Orlando with several hundred reps.  Burns is “an old friend to many of them, and there are plenty of hugs to go around for the people she’s grown up with during her 30 years at the company. But there is also a new distance, a new curiosity about what she will do, given that she is no longer just Ursula. She is Ursula M. Burns, the C.E.O.”

That passage describes in a nutshell a phenomenon that many leaders experience at least once if not more in their careers. Whether it’s expected or not, you end up leading people you’ve worked with for years. Earlier today, I was interviewing two women who are senior executives in the financial services and pharmaceutical industries for the upcoming second edition of my book, The Next Level.  Both of them offered some great advice on how to lead people who used to be your peers.

Here it is:

Call it out:
  When you take over the top job, be up front about your agenda and what you think the organization needs to accomplish. Don’t be reluctant to say what the priorities are and what you think will need to happen to meet them.

Go one on one:  The executives I’ve talked to about moving up note that some of your former peers will be all in immediately, while others will hold back. Go one on one with the ones that you don’t think are with you. Talk about what’s going on and what it will take to make it work.

Remember that it’s different:  In the Times profile, Burns said, “The accolades that I get for doing absolutely nothing are amazing… The real story is not Ursula Burns. I just happen to be the person standing up at this point representing Xerox.”  That quote sums up a lot about how things change when you hold the leadership role. Pay attention to what you say and how it lands. One of the executives I interviewed told me that soon after she was named senior VP of R&D for her pharma company, she attended a meeting with a group of her former peers.  She said to a colleague she hadn’t seen for months, “Wow, you still work here?  Good to see you.”  She meant it as a joke and everyone took it that way.  Everyone except him that is. After the meeting he stayed back to ask her if everything was OK. She was surprised he would ask and said of course it was. His response was,”When the head of R&D says something like that it makes you think.”  His response made her think. She’s much more careful with her sense of humor now.

That’s a short list of tips for leading folks who used to be your peers. What would you add to the list?  What’s challenged you as you’ve made moves like this?