When Friends Become Direct Reports

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By Ken Chapman, Ph.D
Ken Chapman & Associates, Inc.
Changes are difficult for many workers to accept, but when your status as a friend and coworker changes to that of team leader, the switch can often strain even strong working relationships. That is what one team leader soon learned after her promotion.
“It seemed as though my people thought I had a disease,” recalls Robin Hiler, senior lead coordinator at Frito Lay, Inc. in Dallas, Texas. “The minute the announcement was made that I had been promoted, most of my coworkers did not look at me in the same way anymore. The trust factor was gone because I was no longer ‘one of them.’”
Hiler came up through the ranks. She started with the company seven years earlier as a general clerk. “Having been in the same position for as long as I had, I developed a lot of expertise. I understood the organization and understood the big picture. So I was the logical choice when the team leader’s position opened.”
Hiler says she was thoroughly prepared for the responsibility of being a supervisor. What she was not prepared for was the reaction of some of her colleagues.
“My closest friends, of course, were supportive and congratulated me, but I encountered a lot of animosity and jealousy from others. Some people did not want to have anything to do with me or felt they could not come to me anymore. Others saw my promotion as an opportunity — an inside track to getting what they wanted.”
Eventually, Hiler not only survived the transition to team leader, but succeeded in earning the trust and support of her direct reports. Looking back on the experience with the wisdom of hindsight, she believes there are specific steps you can take to minimize the suspicion and resentment that frequently occurs when friends become direct reports.Find a Mentor
Shortly after moving into the position of team leader, Hiler discovered that while her previous track record might have caught the attention of upper level managers, it did not mean much to her colleagues and direct reports. She had to prove herself all over again. And in some cases, that was difficult.
“I sometimes felt that my efforts were being undermined,” Hiler declares. “For example, if I had an idea, I would encounter a great deal of resistance to it. I often had the feeling that the resistance was due less to the idea itself than it was the idea-giver — me!”
“Consequently, I responded by becoming hotheaded or argumentative. It did not take me long to learn that this approach was not effective. I lost some coworkers who could have been beneficial to the department.”
To avoid this kind of reaction, Hiler encourages team leaders to find a peer they can trust or a mentor. You need an objective point of view. And you need someone who can give advice and support when the going gets rough.
But Hiler warns that you had better be prepared to accept constructive criticism from your mentor. You will probably receive a lot of it. Hiler credits several managers for “taking her under their wings” and helping her focus on how to approach people with her ideas.Part of a Team
“When I became a team leader,” recalls Hiler, “I had to learn to become less of a worker and more of a leader. In a sense, I had to separate myself from the rest of the group, yet maintain a close relationship with it. I must admit that I wanted to be the same as everyone else, but I knew that I really could not be. I was not ‘one of the guys’ any longer.”
But Hiler learned that even though you are not a worker, you are still a member of the department — a part of the team with an important job to do. “I try to mold the group into a team in our weekly meetings. I use these meetings to review what went right or wrong the week before and to evaluate how we are performing as a team.”
“If any of my people report that there is a problem, I push up my sleeves and get right into it with them. Even though I am the leader, I consider myself a part of the team. And so should you.”
Providing leadership for the team is the lion’s share of your job. Hiler insists that team leaders lead best by example.
“One of the best ways to lead your people is to become a role model for them,” advises Hiler. “Do as you preach. For example, if you expect people to be on time, then you had better be on time yourself. I am the first one in and the last one to leave in my area. I would not ask my employees to do anything I would not do myself.”Involve and Empower
Reflective of both her personal philosophy and that of Frito Lay, Hiler believes that the people she leads—her people—are the ones who determine how successful her department will be. This is why she regards her job as one of coordinating the department’s activities and helping her employees implement their ideas. Accordingly, she regularly involves team members in decision making and planning.
In response to a recent period of excessive overtime, for example, she turned to them for recommendations: “What happened? What steps can we take to correct the problem, and how can we avoid this in the future? These are the kinds of questions she poses to her people. And her team members usually have sound answers. Often, all they need is an opportunity to express themselves.
Hiler also encourages her employees to take advantage of career growth and training opportunities. “We try to develop every worker’s potential,” she says with pride. “We believe that our employees are our next batch of managers. And I am proud to say that most of our people are prepared to take on the role.”
Hiler is the first to admit that it is not easy when friends become your direct reports. “But you hold the key to making your new relationship work,” she concludes. “You must be patient and try to understand your employees’ feelings and reactions. In time, with perseverance, you will be able to put the title of ‘new team leader’ in the background and become known as ‘our team leader.’”

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For over 30 years Ken Chapman & Associates, Inc. has been making a measurable difference in the corporate cultures of American businesses and in the lives of their employees. KC&A’s value equation is “Committed to People, Profit, and More.”

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