by Patricia Wallington

Career: You’re the New Boss, But It’s Lonely At The Top

Sep 15, 20056 mins

Congratulations! You have just been selected from among your team members to become the new CIO. A promotion is always exciting, but with it comes this challenge: how to get off to a good start as the new boss of your former colleagues.

Don’t assume that your existing relationships with colleagues will continue as before. Some of them who also aspired to the position may be jealous. Former pals may no longer welcome you to their social gatherings. A resentful few may even try to sabotage you.

Meanwhile, you may have to treat differently those who remain your friends so that you don’t appear to be playing favorites. And you will have a new set of alliances to build among both former colleagues and the senior managers whose ranks you have joined. Navigate these obstacles successfully, and you’ll be able to enjoy the new opportunities available to you to grow as a leader and have a lasting impact on your organization.

Passive-Aggressive Colleagues

When you become the boss, your former peers will fall into one of four categories: leavers, testers, passive resisters and boosters.

Leavers are those who, for a variety of reasons, won’t stick around. Let them go. Holding on to people who have already psychologically separated themselves from the organization is, at best, a temporary victory. At worst, you have marginally motivated employees who are probably second-guessing their decisions to stay. You will find it easier to rally the organization behind you when those who are dissatisfied are gone.

Testers are uncertain about your leadership. They will find ways to challenge your style of management and your expectations of your staff. Testing is normal and can be used to develop constructive relationships with your former peers. In your response to such challenges, the organization gets to see how you operate. Deal with testers by being patient. Take every opportunity to clarify your positions. Support experimentation by your staff as they learn how to meet your expectations.

Passive resisters will test your patience as they disagree with every idea. Even when they express agreement, they will often follow their own agenda anyway. Get passive resisters in-line by encouraging them to, according to the adage, “lead, follow or get out of the way.”

I remember one instance in which a former colleague was continually undermining me outside the office with his associates. I engaged him in a brief discussion, during which I told him he should bring his disagreements to me personally. I informed him that much of what he said outside the office got back to me, and who knew if it was translated effectively? A few examples proved my point. The public attacks stopped, and we were able to develop a constructive relationship. He learned that I would work with him on issues he brought to me personally.

Boosters are those who are happy to be working with you, and they’ll tout your leadership to others. Boosters can be anywhere in the company, from the CEO to an entry-level employee. They are your allies because some connection (an idea you shared, a joint accomplishment or a compatible personality) has created a positive relationship. Nurture relationships with your boosters, and they can be your advocates whenever you need support.

Redefine Your Relationships

Now that you’re in charge, you will need to balance the pull of the past with the requirements of the new job, which call for you to play a bigger role in the operation of the company.

You have friends in the organization, and you will want to keep them. At the same time, you must avoid favoritism. You can do this by being even-handed in how you allocate time to employees, and by being objective in how you distribute praise and awards. In addition, recognize that your position as the boss changes the chemistry of the team that made you successful. Give everyone a chance to adjust to new roles and relationships. Being able to strike the right balance between friendship and fairness, and between bossing and teamwork, will be a key factor in gaining the organization’s support of your leadership.

Establishing new relationships with your former colleagues will not be the only challenge you face. You also will need to discard your junior image and redefine yourself to the company. Don’t assume you know what is expected of you. Take the time to learn what your superiors and your internal customers want from you.

At the same time, assume the new role with vigor. In other words, don’t act subservient as you contribute your ideas toward advancing the company’s goals. But also be mindful not to adopt an arrogant attitude. (Humility is a desirable trait.)

Don’t Stop Explaining

Despite the challenge of redefining yourself, there are many advantages to being promoted out of the crowd. You know everyone, you have an established network of supporters, and you know your company’s products and processes. And now you have the opportunity not only to enhance your skills but also to put your own stamp on the company.

As the CIO, your challenge now is to understand the broader issues facing the company. As you learn more, you can set the tone for your organization’s growth by sending the message that continuous learning is not only accepted but expected.

As you define your strategy, consider building on existing plans. This is another way to get the organization on your side. (If you have been mandated to create a new strategy, you will have a greater challenge.)

Change often comes across as criticism to those being asked to do something differently. Perhaps technology choices you criticized in the past are things you are championing now because you understand better the constraints that guide these choices. Remember how you felt when you believed that the direction of IT was misguided. Use this experience as a basis for explaining what you’re doing, and encourage everyone affected to share their ideas for making your initiatives successful.

Once when I was in such a situation, my staff kept telling me what I was proposing wouldn’t work; we had tried that before. I explained to them that the current conditions for success had not been present during prior attempts. This was enough to get their support, and we went on to achieve our goals.

Don’t forget, you want this job. The challenges can be invigorating. Redefine yourself and your relationships successfully, and you will be on the way to making your mark on your company.

Before retiring in 1999, Patricia Wallington was corporate vice president and CIO at Xerox. She is now president of CIO Associates in Sarasota, Fla. Send feedback to