How do you become a good boss after being one of the gang?


One of the biggest career challenges Dean Hazelwood ever faced came shortly after he was promoted to manager. He had to warn a buddy that his job was on the line.

"It was a situation where I had to say you've got one foot out the door and if you don't straighten up we'll fire you," said Mr. Hazelwood, 37, general manager of Days Inn in Fullerton, Calif.

Becoming the boss after you've been one of the gang can appear deceptively simple. Typically, you're good at what you do, know the people you'll be supervising and are familiar with the company. But the transition can be one of the most difficult, say psychologists and management experts.

It's one where even the best performers fail.

"It is a more profound adjustment than we usually think," said Linda Hill, a Harvard Business School professor who specializes in organizational management. "The transition from being specialist to a manager . . . is actually a change in identity. We often forget that it's not only a matter of learning a new role, but unlearning the old role."

Employers, faced with cutbacks and hiring freezes, increasingly are tapping their own ranks to fill managerial vacancies. But few adequately assist new managers, Ms. Hill said.

"A lot of the programs are misguided," said Ms. Hill, author of the recently published book "Becoming a Manager: Mastery of a New Identity" (Harvard Business School Press, 1992). It chronicles the experiences of 19 new managers during their first year in the role.

Part of the problem, she says, is that the training doesn't give new managers what they need to learn when they need it. Instead, new bosses are often left to feel their way.

Mr. Hazelwood, the hotel manager, was fortunate. He handled a potentially volatile situation by explaining to his friend in an unemotional and straightforward way what was at stake.

"Actually, I think it helped that we were friends, because he respected me," Mr. Hazelwood said. "The last I heard he was still there."

But not everyone is so lucky. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta and director of its Center for Leadership and Career Studies, remembers a new chief executive at a large forest-products company who nearly lost his job because he didn't make it clear to his old buddies in the marketing department that they no longer had immediate access to him. This caused resentment among other departments.

Such blunders are likely to continue as companies eliminate management layers and promotions come later in careers, Mr. Sonnenfeld said.

"It's getting more common that people come up through the ranks missing a few skills they need to supervise, but with a wider network of pals than they have in the past," he added.

To avoid problems, larger employers, including Bank of America and some government offices, try not to put a first-time manager in charge of his peers. The best other managers can do is to try to avoid the potential pitfalls.

Learning the difference between being a boss and a buddy is often the first step. Managers used to spreading gossip, talking about specific people or going out drinking with their colleagues might have to use more discretion. The same is true of playing favorites.

"My standard rule is that you should never do anything with an employee that you wouldn't do with your best customer," said W. Steven Brown, an Atlanta consultant who specializes in management development.

Amy Hoffman, 32, director of marketing for technical products at computer company Ingram Micro, still socializes with the people she supervises because she feels she can keep the distance necessary to manage. "That's the kind of hard and fast rule that doesn't apply to everyone," she said. "I think if you can make your employees and your group shine, you can get away from it."

For those used to being united with their peers against the "inexplicable" decisions that come down from management, it can be unsettling to be thrust into the position of being the one who makes the unpopular choices. Dennis Todaro, 40, found this out when he was promoted to head Shearson Lehman Brothers Inc. brokerage in Newport Beach, Calif. But if he has to incur the animosity of the staff because of it, he's philosophical.

"I don't think people necessarily want you to make the popular decision," he said. "They'll tell you they want what they want, but what they really want is what they need."

Mr. Todaro thinks being older than most of the staff smoothed his transition. It also helped that he had acquired the knowledge to set himself up as the unofficial office expert long before his promotion.

But, like most people, he has seen them in action. Mr. Todaro remembers the embarrassing managerial debut of peer at a former job. "You know how all of the sudden people have delusions of the boardroom and become very autocratic," he said. "The problem was he didn't do a good job of establishing respect. At times he was an object of laughter."

The best way to build credibility as a manager is to proceed slowly, Mr. Brown said. Don't make any major changes. Instead, spend your time trying to understand the different roles your staff plays.

To make her transition, Ms. Hoffman, who works primarily with engineers and designers, tried to emphasize that they were a team.

"When you were a peer you have to be very cool and not try to steamroll people," she said. Although there was a bit of jealousy at first, Ms. Hoffman acknowledges, once people realized she was going to let them do their jobs, it dissipated.

Her light-handed, team-oriented strategy helped her succeed, where talented star performers often fail. The main reason is that often people who are very good at a task don't delegate enough and try to get everyone to do it their way, said Ron Riggio, a professor of industrial psychology at California State University, Fullerton.

"They're still playing their old role," he said. "And their subordinates are going to resent it."

Mr. Riggio and Harvard's Ms. Hill recommend that new supervisors look to senior management for guidance. Companies should be able to lay down a clear set of expectations for their managers. They should also set up periodic training and mentoring relationships so that supervisors have what they need when they need it.

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