Adam Woodward

How do you stay friends with colleagues you now manage?

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A promotion to the senior leadership team will undoubtedly test your relationships with close staffroom colleagues but when the dynamics change, you have to adapt, advises Adam Woodward

How do you stay friends with colleagues you now manage?

You’ve been working in your school for several years and have built up relationships with other members of staff. Some have become close friends and you spend time outside of school together regularly.

You message each other about initiatives you don’t agree with, about how the bosses are adding more to your workload and don’t understand the pressures you’re under. You share private jokes about pushy parents in the playground and in your WhatsApp group.

Then, one day, you are promoted to the senior leadership team, which means you’re now managing those friends. You have worked hard for this job and you deserve the opportunity. But what impact could it have on the relationships that you have built up in school? What will happen when a friend fails to meet a deadline or you need to have a difficult conversation about performance?

Stepping up to leadership will undoubtedly change how you engage with colleagues, just as it will change how they engage with you. And that shift can be very difficult to manage when you have built relationships up over many years. I have been in this situation. I had to have a difficult conversation with someone I got on well with – someone I’d previously laughed and joked with regularly – about something they had not done.

The conversation was professional and was driven by the need to provide children with the best opportunities that we possibly could. But, unfortunately, our relationship changed as a result and our conversations afterwards were different.

I know I’m not the first leader that this has happened to and I know that I will not be the last. But that doesn’t make it any easier. Here’s how to navigate these new waters.

Make the most of relationships

You must develop a thick skin when you know that people you regard as your friends may be questioning your actions behind closed doors. But, ultimately, relationships should not impact negatively on your ability to lead.

In fact, they can be used to your advantage – to help support others, for example. If you notice a friend is acting differently, you can use your relationship to check in on them. Emotional intelligence is a key attribute for any leader: perhaps you know your friend well enough to know when something isn’t right.

Maintaining friendships with colleagues can also help you to understand how other members of staff are feeling and use that knowledge to support them.

For instance, if a new initiative has been introduced, you can ask how this has been received by colleagues. Any useful findings can be relayed back to the rest of the senior leadership team to further support everyone.

However, these relationships should not be exploited in this regard, and you may need to accept that conversations that were appropriate in the past may no longer be acceptable as you move into leadership.

Consider boundaries carefully

Talk with friends before and after getting your new role. Have honest conversations about what will or will not change.

This will likely strengthen your friendship in the long term and will also help to lay down boundaries so that you can be seen as authentic in your leadership from the very beginning.

I have heard of some leadership teams who encourage people to remove themselves completely from friendships within the school so that there is no conflict of interest and that boundaries are clear.

Some even go as far as to not want senior leaders to be seen in the staffroom at the same time as other teachers.

But this is not always the case and it doesn’t need to be. It is possible for friendships to remain intact, even when people have different responsibilities within school. It requires both sides to separate school from the personal relationship and to know that both parties are passionate about doing the best that they can. The relationship between the leader and those that they manage should be built on a different kind of ground from that of a friendship.

Stepping up to leadership will undoubtedly change how you engage with colleagues, just as it will change how they engage with you. And that shift can be very difficult to manage when you have built relationships up over many years.

Outside of school, it is important to keep discussions away from work topics, as difficult as that may be. It is paramount that you separate your personal life from your professional one. Keep conversations to your other common interests.

Think ahead

Finally, if you are a teacher looking to move into management, consider whether an internal promotion is truly the best option for you. Although becoming a leader in a familiar environment has its benefits, there are also merits to accepting a leadership role at a different school.

By moving your career forwards somewhere new, you can maintain the relationships that you have with your current colleagues without having to worry about how your friendships will be affected by your new position. You will also have the opportunity to lead a fresh team and form relationships as a leader without having to worry about how the friendship dimension might complicate things.

Whether you choose to stay put or move on, entering the world of leadership can be lonely at times and relationships may become strained along the way.

But you do not need to be alone. It is important to be authentic as a leader and to be yourself, even if relationships change.

Adam Woodward is director of studies at Radnor House Sevenoaks School, in Kent

This article originally appeared in the 12 February 2021 issue under the headline “How to behave as a friend in high places”

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