What to Do When Friends Become Subordinates

By Heather Baldwin

Words have amazing power. If you don’t think so, watch what happens when you change the word representative in a salesperson’s title to the word manager. That one simple change can drastically alter the entire dynamic of a sales team. Friends are suddenly subordinates, certain colleagues who yesterday were cordial now act resentful and star reps who emulated you before now intimidate you, all because of a simple word change. So how do you manage these former peers? In his upcoming book, Fundamentals of Sales Management for the Newly Appointed Sales Manager (AMACOM, 2006), Matthew Schwartz looks at how new sales managers should approach these three categories of team members.

Managing friends. The inherent premise in a friendship is that both people are more or less on par with one another. Thus the promotion of one over the other potentially can strain and complicate that friendship. To avoid that problem, Schwartz says managers must do proper goal setting and provide goal-oriented feedback. “If you set goals properly and both parties accept them, the manager won’t appear to be judging the friend,” he says. “The friend’s achievement will be measured by whether or not the goal is reached.”

As you work with your friend, you’ll inevitably find areas of weakness that must be addressed. To correct these problem spots without destroying your friendship, you must specifically define and isolate the negative behavior by focusing on job and performance requirements, not on personality. For example, instead of saying: Sally, what’s with all the complaints about the finance department? You’re really overreacting to this, you might say: Sally, why don’t we sit down together with Steve in the finance department and talk about their requirements? Maybe we can both learn about the thinking behind their new policies and you could explain to him your concerns about the impact of those policies on our customers. The first statement makes a negative judgment about Sally – that she is overreacting – which likely will cause her to become defensive; the second statement is more objective and opens the way for dialogue.

One final challenge when working with friends is maintaining the friendship without letting it interfere with the success of the entire team. “You must establish and agree on a business relationship as well as a social one,” explains Schwartz. “Others must not feel alienated or as if they are at a disadvantage.” In other words, treat everyone on your team equally and fairly.

Managing nonallies. You know who they are, the people who didn’t think twice about you when you were a sales rep but now harbor great resentment over your promotion. Perhaps they think they or someone else deserved the promotion. Or they simply don’t like reporting to someone who was their peer only a few days ago. Whatever the cause of their lack of support, your job as manager is to pull their best performance out of them regardless of their personal feelings toward you. The way you do that, says Schwartz, is to master the competencies of great sales managers. “This is not something that happens overnight, so it will require patience on your part,” he cautions. But if you consistently practice solid management fundamentals, nonallies eventually can become your most ardent supporters.

Managing superstars. It is common for new managers to question their own abilities when managing a seasoned or star salesperson. So keep in mind that these stars don’t expect you to know everything on day one. They’ll regard you more highly and you’ll avoid lots of mistakes if you seek their advice. Your willingness to admit you don’t know everything and to get input from those whose experience covers your gaps in knowledge will gain you incredible respect. Another challenge with veterans is how much supervision to give them. It’s tough to walk that fine line so they don’t feel ignored, smothered or micromanaged, but you need to find it. Finally, as with managing friends, you’ll win the confidence of superstars through goal setting and focusing on the position and its expectations and outcomes.