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Making the Shift from Peer to Supervisor

March 31, 2022

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One day, you’re part of the team. You likely count a few fellow assistants, in your own department and other parts of the organization, as work friends. You might be particularly close with one or more of your peers. Even though we’ve missed out on a lot of in person coffee and lunch breaks with friends over the last couple of years, you’ve been there – both in spirit and digitally – for one another.

Friendships aside, you may have been privy to conversations in which other colleagues vented frustrations about systems, people or other aspects of their careers.

Now, whether it’s the result of actively pursuing your goals, or an opportunity you’d not anticipated, you’re a supervisor. Congratulations! However such a situation came about, once you’ve accepted a role with supervisory responsibilities, you have some navigating to do. Whether you’ve already been promoted or you’re reading this because you have aspirations of leading a team, the reality is that such transitions have implications for you and for those who used to regard you as their peer.

You’ve stepped over a line some will understandably see as a barrier to maintaining the scope of relationships you shared before you took on supervisory responsibilities. Given the expectations now resting on your shoulders, you may feel the same way. Some former peers may feel compelled to watch their words around you. Others may be concerned about whether you might extend special treatment to certain assistants – favourably so for some, or perhaps less so for others.

Some of your former peers – even those you consider friends – may now view you through a different lens. When you think of the additional authority you may now wield, this makes sense. You may find yourself responsible for performance management. For some who previously viewed you as a counterpart, one of the team, it may initially be uncomfortable to now take direction from you. How might they feel, knowing you’ll be conducting their performance evaluations and reviews? It may also be daunting for you, yet these are examples of how and where the rubber hits the road.

The good news is that your appointment as a supervisor likely reflects your possession of skills both technical and “soft” in nature. The latter are those good, old fashioned people skills for which many assistants are valued. These skills reflect both self- and social awareness. In turn, those levels of awareness are indicators of the emotional intelligence (also known as EI and EQ) we need to exercise both during and long after we make the shift from peer to supervisor.

We can draw on the qualities that saw us shortlisted and then hired for a supervisory role in the first place. We need to establish or re-establish ourselves, in this new context, as leaders who merit trust and respect. When we’ve previously enjoyed a good rapport and mutual trust with other assistants in our organization, that gives us a head start. We’re a known quantity.

One of the best recommendations I can offer is that you be authentic. We may not be able to spot art forgeries even if they’re staring us in the face, yet we can and do recognize inconsistencies when people try to be something or someone they’re not.

There are instances in which your appointment as a supervisor may upset the apple cart for some. I remember being the new kid on the block at one large organization. Once both our young ones had entered school, I applied to work with this major employer. While I’d previously supported a COO, in this organization I stepped into one of the most junior employment categories possible, as an on call assistant. In that role, I might go days or weeks without work, and needed to be prepared to fill short term absences in various areas of the organization. In fact, this was a great way to get to know an organization and its people.

Less than a year after my arrival, an opportunity arose for a full time position, one that included responsibility for supervising a team. I applied for and was offered the role, and that’s when the challenge began. All my new colleagues had been with the organization longer than me. All but one of these women was older than me. One of the people I supervised had applied for and keenly wanted the role, and there was friction in the air. If I was able to meet those challenges, you can meet yours.

What can you do in your early days as a supervisor? You may want to turn an eye toward team building. That was one of my early steps, along with seeking ways to empower people and the team as a whole. This will be a time in which both you and your former peers need to think differently about your relationships. Some of these people may feel diminished in contrast to your promotion, and so you may want to consider how you can empower colleagues, both individually and as a team.

As a leader, you need to be prepared to make and implement difficult or unpopular decisions. In such instances, it helps to engage in critical thinking and actively check for any biases – favourable or otherwise – that may influence your thinking. We want to be fair to individuals and to the team as a whole.

Walking the walk as a leader can be lonely and challenging. I found it helpful to forge new networks with others who held comparable levels of responsibility. You may find a new peer network within your organization, or you may need to look externally or even launch such a network yourself. Speaking from experience, it’s more than worth the investments of time and effort involved.

In the early stages, and depending on how you and your former peers navigate the shift, there may be moments when your new role requires more of your time, energy and resilience than you’d anticipated. In other instances, you may find there’s tremendous goodwill toward you, and you’ll want to repay that by continuing to nurture trust and a positive culture.

Whatever the current atmosphere within the team, acknowledging that this shift impacts your former peers is a good early step. In reality, the fact you’ve been in your colleagues’ shoes positions you to do very well by both your team and your organization. Build on this, and enjoy this next stage of your career!

About the Author: Shelagh Donnelly educates and inspires assistants on topics ranging from meetings and minutes to communications, resilience, cybersecurity, and working with boards. She helps assistants nurture their adaptability, productivity, and resilience in order to enjoy their career and continue to add value even as roles evolve. An international speaker, Shelagh worked with C-level executives for more than 25 years and is recognized for her governance expertise. Shelagh founded her globally read Exceptional EA website in 2013.


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