In this series, we present BetterUp coaches with realistic scenarios that we commonly encounter (and struggle with) in the workplace. They walk us through how they’d coach a client through the challenge and identify possible solutions. Got an issue you’d like one of our coaches to tackle in a Coaching Insider feature? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarah and Jim have been working together for about two years. Sarah was recently promoted, and is now Jim’s manager. Sarah sometimes feels uncomfortable delegating tasks to Jim, who’s been with the company longer and is also older. He’s respectful, but she doesn’t get the sense that he really views her as a leader. And on top of that, she’s still learning the ropes of being a manager, and often faces situations where she isn’t sure what to do and could use guidance, but doesn’t want to appear unknowledgeable in front of her team. She knows she needs her team to respect her, but doesn’t feel confident that she can command that authority.
The transition from individual contributor to manager is a tough one, so it’s understandable that Sarah would question herself. To kick off our coaching session, I would validate that she will face awkward moments over the coming weeks or months of her new role.
Our goal (and a key role of coaching) will be to help Sarah prepare and anticipate challenging situations, and coach her on how to handle them appropriately so she can really come into her own as a leader.
One of the first things I would do is reassure Sarah that her experience isn’t uncommon, as most leaders have been promoted to manage former peers at some point in their careers.
I’d encourage Sarah by telling her that many leaders learn to successfully manage their peers and this is a valuable learning opportunity in her leadership growth. Over the course of our sessions, I would focus on helping Sarah walk the line of establishing her position as a leader gently and respectfully.
Some general developmental goals for Sarah may include the following:
I would reinforce that Sarah has been promoted for a reason and is being rewarded for her performance. I would explore areas where Sarah may be underestimating herself and then gently inquire about assumptions she may be making about Jim’s feelings of discomfort. Are they real or perceived? Then, we’d discuss how to challenge these possible assumptions.
Manager coaching tip: Take quick action for early wins.
This is a great opportunity for Sarah to expand her insight and understanding of the importance of empowering her employees. I would reinforce how she can communicate her interest in supporting her employees, while still conveying a sense of authority.
For example, questions she may want to ask Jim include the following:
I would encourage her to leverage Jim’s strengths and experience as they navigate this transition in their relationship. This can be done by conveying specifically how he can provide value. In order to fully understand Jim, Sarah will need to listen, ask relevant questions, and take the time to hear what he has to contribute. Moving forward, Sarah can find ways to reinforce Jim’s strengths, find specific things to celebrate, and seek out opportunities to recognize him. I would also encourage Sarah to take quick action for an early win on how to support Jim.
Suggested action plan:
Manager coaching tip: Prioritize clear and frequent communication.
As a new manager, this is a good time for Sarah to proactively facilitate the integration of all members of the team. Demonstrating the importance of teamwork will help set the context for Jim and her other employees, so she should prioritize clear and frequent communication.
I would challenge Sarah to find specific ways to engage team members by pursuing input, seeking counsel, and making individuals partners on various projects. Reinforcing the message that all team members have something unique to contribute (i.e. we cannot have a team of all quarterbacks or all goalies) will help Sarah motivate and empower individual team members and their unique strengths.
Suggested action plan:
As part of our plan for success, I would help Sarah understand how to effectively establish respect and credibility with a new team. A key element of developing an authentic leadership presence is to present with transparency and humility.
Sarah doesn’t need to act like she has all the answers, and it’s healthy for her to acknowledge to the team when she doesn’t know something; no one expects her to magically be the expert on everything. Moving forward, Sarah needs to demonstrate consistency in action, statements, and behaviors as she’ll be more closely observed early in her role. Teams like to feel valued, so Sarah could look for opportunities to convey the need to leverage the team’s expertise.
Setting boundaries is another important part of establishing credibility as a leader, especially in the context of managing former peers. I would try to help Sarah understand that there needs to be a shift and a re-calibration in her relationship with Jim since the reporting structure has changed. It may benefit her to learn a few tactics to subtly create some healthy distance and detachment, without it being an obvious or overt dismissal of Jim. Boundaries can be reinforced while still maintaining a personable, interested, and connected approach to the relationship.
Suggested action plan:
As she develops her own authentic leadership style, Sarah will likely start feeling more confident and comfortable influencing in a way that feels congruent to her and also conveys an appropriate sense of authority. Every manager’s path is different, and there is no single “right” way to lead, but the process of transition is a critical time to learn your own leadership style and to begin to refine it over the course of working with your team.
Original art by Vaclav Bicha.