The Hardest of Work Transitions
I have seen two approaches by the new leader to this transition:
1. The “nothing has changed folks, I just have a different job” approach
2. The “you know me and I know you but our relationship has to be different now” approach
Maybe it was my Marine Corps experience but I have always subscribed to the latter approach. I recall the experience I had when I returned to the FBI Office in Portland in a senior leadership position after a number of years away in other assignments around the country. I had begun my FBI career in Portland and had a number of good friends with whom I’d hunted, drank beer, and played poker. A great group of guys.
Soon after I arrived, one of those friends said that we needed to get the old poker crew back together. I was non-committal in my response knowing our relationship had changed with my new position. While I had the benefit of having been away for some time, I knew this transition would have its challenges.
Not long after this first conversation, I was invited by a different friend to join the poker game that coming weekend. The moment to make the break from being a peer had arrived. I replied, “Thanks for the invite but I’m going to have to pass. My job is different now and people will watch how I treat people from back in the day. If we continue to hang out like nothing has changed, people will assume that anything good that happens to you will be because you’re a drinking/poker buddy of mine. That’s not good for anyone. My new role doesn’t make me better than anyone but our relationship needs to be different.” I added, “When we’re done with this career, I look forward to enjoying the old times on the porch of retirement.”
Not long after this conversation, this same Agent and another Agent approached me with a proposal for an operation. After some back and forth, I told them that I couldn’t support their proposal. The looks on their faces told me everything and I said, “I can tell what you’re thinking – Eric used to be a good guy but now he’s an a-hole.” After a brief pause, they both laughed and said I’d read their minds. We all laughed together…but my answer was still “no.”
New leaders who take the “I’m still a good guy/gal and nothing has changed” will come to regret not redefining their relationship with their former peers. To lead means you will make unpopular decisions. Trying to maintain your peer relationship with those you now lead will cloud your judgment and cause you to avoid making decisions for the betterment of the team. Some may think it’s cliché but leadership is lonely. You have to accept that you have a new peer group now. There will be a time when you can once again enjoy the company of your former peers.