How to survive when your colleague becomes your boss

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Have you been recognised as the sort of ‘high-potential’ employee that an investment bank will fast-track up the organisation? If not, the chances are you could be over-looked for a promotion and, even worse, find a former colleague who has been deemed elite suddenly bumped up to be your manager.

A sudden change in circumstances where a peer becomes a manager can be difficult to swallow. Inevitably, the relationship will change and – short of quitting – you need to adapt to the new reality. Here, according to leadership experts, are the best methods of survival.

1. Take the lead from your new manager

The ongoing problem for investment banks is that they promote good performers, not good managers, so a very competent colleague could suddenly find themselves thrust into a position they don't feel particularly comfortable with. Help them out, don’t resist the new situation, advises John Lees, careers coach and author of How to Get a Job You Love.

“Benchmark their behaviours and work out the best way to operate with your new boss,” he says. “Approach with a degree of caution, but it’s worth asking questions about what’s expected of you rather than relying on perceptions of how your relationship has changed.”

2. Show your prowess

Financial services organisations, although they are unlikely to admit it, over-fired during the financial crisis, to the point where everyone is under pressure to do more with less, says Chris Roebuck, former global head of talent management at UBS and visiting professor at Cass Business School.

“It needs to be a culture of collaboration in investment banking, managers must encourage their reports to go above and beyond their job spec without being dictatorial,” he says. “The pressure on people and managers to make more money for their organisation with fewer resources has doubled in recent years. Having a new manager is also a new opportunity for an employee to impress, however.”

3. Put your competitive instincts aside

Investment banking attracts high-achieving, naturally competitive individuals, so having a colleague promoted above you is likely to draw these qualities out. This is, however, counter-productive, argues Roebuck and your career will benefit if you focus on delivery of objectives over trying to beat your newly-promoted manager.

“Competitive environments are disruptive and rarely achieve their objectives. There’s nothing wrong with actively managing your career, but don’t focus on trying to undermine others,” he says.

4. Remember, nothing is forever

At UBS, Roebuck says that the HR team defined a set of criterion that assessed whether an employee should be deemed ‘high potential’. If they were, then the organisation put more effort in to developing them and ensured that they reached their full potential within the bank. Obviously, this means that those who miss out on this tag are likely to also be overlooked for any potential promotions.

However, the crux of the matter is that investment banks are usually poor at communicating what these criterion are, so employees who feel they’re performing well can miss out. This has the potential to breed resentment, particularly when a colleague is promoted ahead of you. However, the situation is more fluid than you think.

“Just because someone has been identified as high potential doesn’t mean they will continue to be in this category if their performance falls, and similarly someone doesn’t meet the objectives can do so at a later date,” says Roebuck. “It’s in the organisation’s interest to ensure you meet your full potential – it means you will make more money for them.”

5. Don’t assume you have their ear

The fact that you have worked with your new manager in an ‘equal’ capacity is likely to make them more wary of being perceived as offering favouritism to you. “Give them space to establish themselves,” advises Lees. “Assuming you have their ear on matters will only make them more wary about forming cliques and is likely to make matters worse for you."

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