You’re 25 and you have just been made HR manager. Your peers resent you and your directors want results. So now that you are in charge how do you win their hearts and minds?
Promoting someone to the role of manager is a curious activity. You move someone who is good at their job into a role requiring completely different skills which they may not possess. And you pay them more.
Despite the rise of the “professional manager”, such moves are still common. They are one of the few ways of preventing valued staff from looking elsewhere for better pay and prospects.
Yet seasoned managers can easily forget just how difficult many people find the transition from peer to manager. The people who used to huddle around the coffee machine with you putting the corporate world to rights don’t seem quite so eager to open up any more. Should you still go down the pub with them, or would it be an invasion of their space? If you don’t, will they just think you’re stuck up?
For the new manager, this enforced change of identity is a major challenge. Neil Jones, now head of HR development at the Welsh Development Agency, remembers finding himself in this position when he was working in local government. He says three things changed when he was promoted.
“The first was the perception of my boss. Suddenly I was a manager, and his expectations of me were different. The second thing was the perception of the people below me – they had to look at me in a different way, but weren’t sure what the ground rules would be in terms of their relationship with me.
“The third shift was in my perception of myself. I think that’s often the most difficult and lonely shift to manage. You are caught between the great divide with one foot in the management camp and the other wanting to be with your former peers.”
Liz Mellon, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, ascribes this period of uncertainty to the need to balance distance with closeness.
“As peers you are all on the same side and making fun of organisational practices and so on, but when you are a manager, you have to stop joking about them and start gathering data and thinking about how you will make those practices better.”
But while establishing this distance you also have to create a new kind of closeness with your former peers.
“All followers need to have a relationship with their leader,” she explains. “You must have some sort of closeness so that people understand your values and standards.”
One of the main tasks is to establish trust, respect and support for you as a leader rather than a peer, says John Frost, director of design at The Leadership Trust.
“The key thing is to retain the idea that people follow you for who you are, not what you are. The fact that you are called a leader doesn’t win hearts and minds.”
Dr Binna Kandola, co-founder of organisational psychologists Pearn Kandola agrees that redefining your relationships is important, but difficult. He says the best way to redefine relationships is by focusing on structures rather than the relationships themselves. A good first step is to outline things such as how you will work and how often you will meet.
“Do it on a practical level,” he stresses. “The structures will support the change in relationships.”
Eric Parsloe, director of the Oxford School of Coaching and Mentoring, agrees, “Be yourself, recognise that the relationship is different, but don’t try to manufacture the differences. Concentrate on the basics of the job. Does everyone know what the objectives of the team are? Does everyone know their own role? Do they know how they are going to be measured? Do they know what is being expected of you?”
Redefining work relationships may be a simpler process by adopting this approach but socially it can be more difficult.
Jones recalls, “It can be difficult to know when to join in and when to step back. The social side is a big challenge for a new manager. In a work environment you have the parameters and authority but outside, those ground rules no longer apply.”
Like Jones, Mike Nicholson, now HR director for the Naafi, the provider of retail and leisure services to the armed forces, also found himself managing his former peers and had to deal with a change in the social relationships (see box). “I still met with people outside work, but it created an air with a little more formality to it,” he says.
Kandola says these changes are necessary, however. “If you bring people in too close and try to be part of the family, they will take liberties,” he warns.
Another common difficulty for new managers is dealing with people who think your job is rightfully theirs.
George Parker, now training and development manager for the contact centre management division of electronics retailer Dixons Stores, once faced this situation. “One of my colleagues who was probably more suited to the role had not applied because she was caught up with a family situation. I found myself managing someone with more experience and skills than I had. I wasn’t sure how I wasn’t going to manage it and was a bit fearful.”
Parker says the situation would have been much more problematic had his manager not warned him that the colleague would have applied had she been able to.
“The tip-off was good because it allowed me to meet the issue head-on in a one to one meeting. Thankfully we had a decent rapport anyway and she gave me a lot of support.”
Many people are less fortunate, however, and Kandola says real problems do arise. “I have known good mates both apply for a job. One gets it and the other is resentful and declares that he’s not going to make his life easy for him.”
One advantage of getting a response this overt is that at least you know where you stand. “It also helps to underline the fact that your relationships with your former colleagues are no longer the same,” points out Kandola.
What sometimes makes these situations particularly difficult for the first-time manager is the lack of confidence which can arise from finding yourself in an unfamiliar role. Although many people try to hide these feelings from their colleagues, Frost says honesty can be the best policy.
“Leaders find it difficult to admit to their fears, but fear can be seen as a strength. Retaining humility and being able to ask for help when you need it are key leadership criteria. One of the ways you can do that is by establishing an open, honest and mutually supportive environment.”
The Naafi’s Nicholson says he drew his confidence from the promotion itself. “The fact that I had been appointed showed me that other people had confidence in me, so I didn’t feel insecure,” he says.
Nevertheless, says Parsloe, most people do feel insecure and worry that colleagues will realise they don’t know what they are talking about.
“Access to a coach-mentor can be hugely beneficial because those fears can be articulated,” he says. “Part of our job [as coach-mentors] is to make people realise that these are normal fears and that people are rarely appointed on the expectation that they will fail. Still, people find it very difficult to shrug off the fear.”
Having a coach, mentor or simply the support of your manager can make a huge difference. Parsloe says that in his experience, however, few people have this resource. “Most people are left to sink or swim on their own. It can cause a huge amount of stress and short-term under-performance for the team,” he says.
Talking things through
Jones believes he was fortunate in having a confidante. “Although this person was not a formal mentor, it made a big difference having someone to talk things through with.”
It is a lesson he has not forgotten, and still has an informal network of “buddies” he calls on to provide an objective perspective on the issues he has to deal with.
Many of the difficulties that new managers face are the result of inadequate preparation by the organisation.
Sarah Davis, now an account director in the client services division of the marketing services agency Maritz, got a rude awakening when she was promoted to a new role of project director. Suddenly she had more than a dozen project managers reporting to her, many of whom felt the position was rightly theirs.
“Some of them would be very vocal in team meetings, bordering on obstructive,” she recalls. “I hadn’t managed a lot of people before. I had been promoted over my peers, and was expected to manage, motivate and handle developmental conversations with little coaching.”
Davis says she began to blame herself for the difficulties she faced.
“I felt frustrated in that I hadn’t prepared myself enough when I was trying to sell in new ideas and chided myself for not anticipating every objection that would be raised.”
It was demoralising. “You do start to question your own ability because you feel unsure and suddenly you are no longer involved in the same sorts of discussions with your peers. It’s difficult to see the way forward.
“I never regretted the promotion, but I did realise there was more to the role than anyone had thought. I was pulled out of the team environment to manage the team and I don’t think anyone had thought through the problems that it would cause.”
Neil Jones at the Welsh Development Agency believes such situations could be avoided if organisations paid more attention to succession planning. “The transition to leader could obviously be made easier by giving people development in advance of their promotion. Too often, organisations see leadership as an isolationist activity in which it is up to the individual to sink or swim. It can’t go on, certainly in modern companies where the quality of an organisation is defined by the quality of its leadership.”
Instead, what Jones experienced was something of a baptism of fire.
“My promotion coincided with being told I had to sort out someone’s under-performance. At a peer level, their under-performance had no bearing on me, but it became the first thing I had to tackle and it was a formal disciplinary situation.
“I expect many people find themselves in the same boat. Unfortunately, one way a manager can handle a problem is by promoting someone else and get them to sort it out.”
You’ve really changed lately, you know
People are often puzzled to see their new manager behaving in unfamiliar ways once they have been promoted. They seem to spend more time behind closed doors – often other people’s – and it becomes less clear what they are actually doing or thinking.
Welcome to the world of corporate politics.
“The further up the organisation you go, the more you have to deal with politics. You are in a role where you are protecting the people below you from other people’s competing and conflicting agendas. That is more true now than ever before,” says David Butcher, senior lecturer in management development at Cranfield School of Management.
“Former peers may find it difficult to understand that the new manager is dealing with these things, and can’t reveal things to them.”
Butcher says the idea that businesses work by making rational decisions in a transparent way is naïve.
“Many senior people aren’t just looking after themselves, but are committed to a particular point of view, emphasis or strategy and will argue the case, but they can’t do it in a debating chamber, so they do it behind closed doors, and lobby each other on aeroplanes.”
The idea that decisions are made at meetings in a transparent manner, in the presence of everyone is a myth, he says. Many decisions are made beforehand.
Dealing with the green-eyed monster
Mike Nicholson is HR director for the Naafi. The first crisis he had to handle when he was promoted from personnel officer to manager at one of the UK’s best known building societies was dealing with the resentment from a colleague who felt he had been passed over for the job. Here he explains how he handled the situation.
“It was quite a difficult situation. I didn’t want to alienate him and it really wasn’t up to me to explain why I got the job. I took the approach that we both had to face up to it, that those were the facts.
“He told me he wasn’t happy and although he wasn’t obstructive, he was obviously miffed. I tried to put the past behind us by saying, ‘You have a choice now as to whether you carry on or not’.
“We turned what was, for him, a negative into a positive by talking about his future career and his training and development needs, agreeing subjects and activities for him to carry out.
“From my own experiences, I would advise someone in this situation to show confidence and focus on the person’s needs, strengths, and abilities. Make sure they see that they too are getting something out of the fact you were appointed, for example, by developing them so that if and when you leave, they are in a stronger position to get your job.”