Podcast: You're the Boss! Now What?
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Leadership Oct 20, 2023

Podcast: You’re the Boss! Now What?

On this episode of The Insightful Leader’s “Ask Insight,” Professor Harry Kraemer discusses how to lead your former peers and build trust with your team.

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Harry M. Kraemer

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You’ve been promoted to lead the team you were just gossiping with in the break room. Is there a graceful way to navigate this new relationship?

On this episode of Ask Insight: The road to bosshood ain’t easy, and it gets even harder when you’ve “arrived.” We hear how to hack it with Harry Kraemer, a clinical professor of leadership and the former CEO of Baxter International.

Podcast Transcript

Laura PAVIN: You’re listening to Kellogg Insight. I’m Laura Pavin.

Harry Kraemer runneth over with leadership advice. And it makes sense. He was chairman and CEO of a multibillion-dollar healthcare company—Baxter International. He’s on a lot of different boards; he’s a favorite professor over here at Kellogg, where he teaches management; and, most importantly, he is willing and able to answer any question that we over here at Kellogg Insight ask about leadership—and managing people.

And we thought, ya know, why don’t we wipe the dust off our Ask Insight series and have him answer a slew of questions about leadership ruts of all kinds. This episode, we’ll discuss how to lead someone who used to be your peer, and what to do when an employee seemingly betrays your trust.

So, without further ado, we bring you Ask Insight, with special guest Harry Kraemer. And don’t worry, you can expect more of these Ask Insight episodes to feature Kraemer. So stay tuned—there’s more to come.


PAVIN: Harry, I always appreciate your time. Thank you for coming today. So let’s start with this. Say you become the manager of someone who used to be your colleague. You both considered yourselves peers kind of equal in ability, but now that other person has to take direction from you and it feels a little weird, how do you navigate this new power dynamic in a way that doesn’t ruffle their feathers?

Harry KRAEMER: Here’s the way I think about this: if you are part of the team, and let’s say there’s six or seven of you and you’re one of the seven, and you’re friendly, you’re buddies, it works well, you’re going to get pizza together. Well, now all of a sudden you get promoted. Now I’m the boss. These people report to me. I have to grade them. I have to give them their performance reviews. Well, I have to make a decision. Do I feel that I can explain to folks that now I’m the boss and I’m going to be holding them accountable? Or wait a minute, I really can’t be friends anymore, I have to sort of separate myself. And I really do believe there’s almost a reflection question. Ask yourself, “if, in order for you to do your job, you’ve got to start to remove yourself, well then maybe you need to think about that differently.”

Now, my opinion—because remember, I always say opinions, not answers—my opinion is I would much prefer to stay friends. I’d much prefer to continue to play ball or do what you want to do. However, what I will do is a little formula. I will, number one, set the expectation in a very nice way. I’ll say, “we can still be friends, but I just want to remind you, I do have to now hold you accountable. So when I say, ‘geez, this project, this is due at five o’clock,’ if in your mind, you say, ‘well, it’s Harry, we’re friends. I can turn it at 10,’ that’s going to be a problem.” So in my mind, it’s … we’ll set an expectation. I’ll communicate it very clearly, but I’m going to hold you accountable. And there’s consequences, both positive and negative. But this whole view of, “oh, well, geez, I don’t think we can have the same relationship.” You can if you set clear expectations and you make it very clear how we’re now going to have to operate differently.

PAVIN: I see. I’m wondering if it would also be a wise strategy to—if tensions are really high for whatever reason—would it be a wise strategy to make smaller decisions in your first few days as a leader and defer the larger ones until you can kind of get your arms around the new team dynamic?

KRAEMER: Well, I think you raise a good point. When I join a new team, I want to first take the time to really listen, right? I mean, I’m the new leader, but by the way, I want the team to know I listen, I’m respectful, I want to be part of the team, and yes, I’m now leading the team. So I’m going to make it really clear that the first week or so I’m going to go on a listening tour. I’m going to say, “Joe, what do you think? Mary, what do you think? How do you think I should be doing things?” Because as a leader, I’m not trying to be right—I’m trying to do the right thing. So after taking the time to listen, I’ll say, “I appreciate all that input, and now I will make some decisions. And by the way, team, if the decision I make is going to be different from what you were recommending, I will always let you know why I’m not doing what you recommended and why I’m doing something else.” I’m never going to put you in a position where you say, “well, geez, I was recommending Harry to go north. Why is Harry going south?” And it’s like, “well, I don’t know.” Interestingly enough, people don’t need to be right, but they do have to really be respected.

PAVIN: And kind of, like you’re saying, communicating with people so they’re not completely taken aback, like, “well, they had this meeting with us, we all kind of agreed this one direction was the right way to go and then went in a different direction.” Not communicating could just be the worst thing ever. But if you get ahead of it, it seems like that will sort of lighten the blow.

KRAEMER: Well, and you raise a great point. What ends up happening, I think to a lot of people, they’ll say, “oh, wait a minute.” I’m telling people I want to know your input. But if you do something different, they’re going to say, “oh, wait a minute, why is he not taking her opinion?” So when I gave that little formula to you—set clear expectations and communicate—I’m probably going to say the first week, “hey gang, here’s the deal: I really want to know what you think. I’m definitely willing to change my mind. As I said, I have no need to be right. I’m going to try to do the right thing, but I will try to think about all the stuff that could potentially happen. So for example, I may say, I don’t think this will happen often, but there could be a couple of occasions when all eight of you want to do something and I decide to do something different. And, of course, I’ll let you know why that is. So therefore, six months from now when that happens and you say, ‘wait a minute, we all recommend Harry … he did something different,’ somebody’s going to say, ‘he did say there could be a couple of occasions when he did something different.’” So what’s really remarkable, if you’re self-reflective, you can predict most things that could happen. So why don’t you lay that out there before there’s emotion, before people get upset. There’s no such thing as a small issue. There are issues you deal with before they become a big issue.

PAVIN: Alright, well then, moving on. How do you recover after an employee takes advantage of your trust? Maybe they undermine you in a meeting with the chair of your company, and this could apply to the work-from-home teams. They’re spending too many working hours handling personal errands. How do you address this employee that’s taking advantage of your trust?

KRAEMER: So it’s interesting. The number of times—and you can challenge this—the number of times I come back to this little formula—set expectations, communicate, hold people accountable, and its consequences—I probably use that five times a day.

So let’s think about this: let’s assume you come to work for me. Now, I could just assume that you’re not going to be doing personal errands when you’re supposed to getting something done. I could assume that you’ll treat people respectfully, but that’s an assumption. And remember that little expression of what happens when you make assumptions, right? Nothing good. So what I try to do is replace the idea of assumptions by setting clear expectations. So what I’m going to be doing, and I’ll always add a little humor to it, I may say to you, “hey, this is your job. And by the way, I’m sure this won’t happen. I’m sure this won’t happen. But if you’re not respectful of people on the team, that’s going to be an issue. If you end up feeling like you need to do all the talking or you interrupt people, I’m sure it won’t happen. But there’ll be implications for that. And when we say we need to get something done, I’m sure you won’t be doing your personal errands when you’re supposed to be getting it done. But if in case, if you were, that’s not going to be a good thing. And I’m letting you know that upfront.” And so therefore, now the person is warned, they understand the rules, they understand the expectations. Sometimes an executive will say to me, “well, how do you know if you’ve done a good job setting expectations?” If I’m good at expectations, I’ll never surprise you. I’ll never surprise you. So when I come down on you and say, “hey, I’m concerned about this,” you’re not saying, “oh, I didn’t know,” because we set a clear expectation.

Remember I mentioned a couple of moments ago this idea that, “oh, Harry, that’s kind of a small issue.” I’ll give you another example: let’s say we got a team, we got eight people on the team, and I say, “hey, how about we all get together at 8:30?” Now I guarantee you if there’s eight people, there’ll be at least one person who doesn’t show up at 8:30. They show up at 9:00. Well, they’re half an hour late, there’s eight of us that’s wasted four hours of our time because somebody didn’t show up. Well, how do you feel about that? Well, to some people, 9:00 is sort of 8:30. You made an expectation—excuse me, you assumed and you didn’t make it. And so the way I look at it is I would say to the group, “hey, gang,” before things get messy, “hey, is it okay we get together at 8:30? Is that okay? Now, I mean 8:30. Is that really okay? If not, let me know.” That gives somebody the opportunity to say, “well, you know what? I’m a single parent. By the time I drop off my children, it’s 9:00.” “Oh, 9:00. Is 9:00 okay with everybody? Okay, now it’s going to be 9:00, right? It’s got to be 9:00.” Set expectations, communicate. And the beauty of that is people know. They understand. So I tease people when they’re at a quarter-to-nine, they’re outside of Starbucks. They think that’s okay. Well, wait a minute. No, I better not because I better be there at 9:00. Set a clear expectation, communicate, hold people accountable. It solves so many problems, so much frustration that goes on in life.

PAVIN: And if someone’s in the situation where they’re like, “well, I haven’t set that expectation yet, and this person has been running errands during work time,” I can maybe have a big group meeting where I do establish that now preemptively so I could give them a chance to correct it before I have to single them out?

KRAEMER: Exactly, exactly.

PAVIN: Could it also be possible that in a situation where you perceived an employee’s taking advantage of your trust, you might be misunderstanding the employee’s actions? Maybe they didn’t really see their actions as hurting you in some way, or maybe you’re interpreting their actions as a slight because you don’t yet trust your own abilities. I wonder if there’s a scenario where leaders should reflect on why they’re seeing something as a slight?

KRAEMER: So the way I think about this, and I’ll just roleplay this with you. The way I think about this, when you do something that I don’t like or I don’t think is respectful or whatever, my initial reaction is going to be, hey, maybe she misunderstood. Maybe she didn’t do it deliberately. The expression I like to use, I love to give people the benefit of the doubt. I’m going to assume that I didn’t make it clear. I’m going to assume that maybe that wasn’t obvious. We’ll communicate, we’ll talk about it. But now here’s the key thing for me, after I’ve now made it clear, after I’ve set a clear expectation, after we’ve communicated, if it happens again, then I’m going to view this as a breakdown in trust. And as you well know, when you lose the trust, bad things happen.


PAVIN: That does it for Ask Insight with special guest Harry Kraemer. We hope you found it insightful. By the way, if you have a leadership question you want answered, you can email us at insight@kellogg.northwestern.edu.

The Insightful Leader is produced by me, Laura Pavin, Jessica Love, Susie Allen, Fred Schmalz, Maja Kos, and Blake Goble. If you want even more The Insightful Leader episodes, you can find us on iTunes, Spotify, or our website: insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu.


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