When employees take on leadership roles at new companies, they typically enter with a certain mystique. It’s likely that no one saw you in the early years, when you were green or made some big mistakes. Or, if someone who knew you then brought you to where you are now, they clearly think enough of you to understand how you’ve grown over the years.
But when you are trying to rise as a leader in the same company, getting people to take you seriously and treat you like the boss you are can be tougher. You may be overseeing former peers or even your former supervisors. How do you grow when everyone around you “knew you when”?
“People don’t have to limit their leadership development if they stay in the same company,” says Ben Brooks, CEO of PILOT, a tech startup helping people manage their careers. Being strategic and purposeful about your transition can help you adapt to your new role and ensure others treat you accordingly.
Yes, you want to make an impact and prove yourself, but if you come in like the new sheriff in town, you’re just going to turn people off, Brooks says. Instead, start observing, even if you think you know what needs to be done. “A lot of times it’s a little bit of patience and humility that actually has you look less like a power-hungry sort of person and more like a mature leader that’s assessing the situation and understanding what’s happening,” he adds.
As Christie Joyce rose through the ranks from designer to design director in charge of 100 people at custom publishing company N2 Publishing, she had to ensure that the people around her supported that ascent as well. In a small, growing company, a build-up of resentment or people who didn’t believe she could do the job would be damaging to morale and could actually undermine success.
So she started holding meetings with the former peers who reported to her. By holding regular one-on-one meetings and inviting them to share their feedback and concerns, she could address problems before they festered and give thoughtful, considerate feedback to help her staff grow.
During her meetings, Joyce asks questions of team members and invites feedback. That allows team members to share their opinions, but to also share their personal goals and aspirations. People want to know that you care about them, and they also want to know what they can expect from you, she says. “People want to know that they’re heard. Often, their ideas are better than what one person can come up with,” she says.
As Anthony Stephan, now principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP, has risen through the ranks, he is aware that people were watching. As a result, he’s careful about the energy he projects. If he appears frazzled or grumpy, that’s going to do two things: Ding their perception of him as a leader and possibly rub off on them, creating unpleasant interactions.
“There’s a great quote by [human performance expert Jim Loehr] and he talks about everything that we give energy to, we give life to,” says Stephan. By keeping the energy around him positive and focused, he projects a stronger leadership image, he says.
It’s not enough to have your peers see and respect you as an emerging leader–company leadership has to do so, too. When you’re given a new role, you need to rise to it and show that you’re taking the challenge seriously, Brooks says. If you’re not comfortable with some of your skill sets, enlist the aid of an executive coach or take a class to get the knowledge you need.
Similarly, if you don’t look the part in the way you dress and act, it’s time to adapt. It’s not about looking the same—it’s about showing outwardly that you’re prepared for the new responsibilities the role offers, which may include more client contact or otherwise representing the company. Management support for your new role will set the tone and show others that they need to take you seriously.
Sometimes, colleagues may be resentful or jealous of those in new roles. Stephan says it’s important to not take such things to heart. If you’re being undermined or your direct reports are rejecting your authority, that’s something to take up with your own supervisor. Otherwise, assume everyone has their process and let it go. He points to The Four Agreements as an influential book in helping him understand that everyone has their process, and that it’s not necessary to take someone else’s actions as personal affronts.
“I’ve got to be patient, I’ve got to realize that at the end of the day, I may have handled something a different way because of a certain level of professional maturity, but I’ve got to respect that individual, I’ve got to respect what they bring to the table, and I’ve got to be really patient before they’re ready to be able to contribute to the team,” he says.