Getting Support on Role Changes

First Published: July 23, 2021

One of the readers of Developer Microskills (my weekly newsletter of practical, actionable tips on becoming a better dev and dev advocate) wrote in recently with this request:

I could use help on getting people to recognize you in a new role. I'm leading a project I was just a team member on. The former lead is now overseeing multiple projects (including mine) but mine was his baby and he doesn't want to let it go. Other people still go to him because he was the lead for so long. How do you get people to stop seeing you as Old Role and start seeing you as New Role? And, if the person who previously had your New Role is still around, how do you get people to stop just going to them?

This is a great question. I would come at this from a few different angles.

There are two different layers to this that I see:

  • Managing the relationship with the former lead
  • Managing the communication with other stakeholders in the project who either need something from you or have a say in the project

Managing the Relationship with the Former Lead

With the former lead, you have to determine the root cause of why he's not directing people to you. Does he continue to handle things because he hasn't taken the time to train others and manage expectations (because in the moment it just seems faster for him to do it), or is it because he fundamentally doesn't want someone else to own the project?

In either case, the first step would be to have an honest, direct conversation with him (preferably on the phone, over video, or in person; not Slack). Refer back to mutual agreements or decisions made by higher authority that caused you to be given ownership of the project and frame it as asking for support. Here's an example:

"Hey so-and-so, I wanted to check in on something. Last quarter, we agreed that I should take over Project X and we got support from senior leadership to make this change. Lately, I've noticed that [example people] are still going to you for questions on the project. Would you please start referring them to me to reinforce this new role?"

This will get to the root of the problem really quickly. It's possible that he's not even aware of how frequently it's happening, and if he's supportive he'll want to bolster your authority. If that's the case, he'll probably immediately agree and say something like, "Oh sorry, I didn't realize I was doing that. I will start sending them your way."

If he hems and haws and makes excuses, he probably either 1) doesn't trust that someone else can execute on his vision or 2) didn't really like the decision to give his project away in the first place.

The first of these you can work with individually in this conversation. Tell him that, while you can't guarantee your vision will line up exactly with his, you want to do your best in this role and would love any training or support he can offer. (Be careful how you word this so it doesn't sound like an invitation to micro-manage you.)

If he's still noncommittal, he possibly didn't like the change in the first place, which means you're probably going to have to appeal to authority. You'll want to meet with either your boss (if it's not him) or his boss (if it is). Being given authority but then not getting the support you need to execute on it is a genuine problem and completely defeats the purpose of the leadership change. That's something they'll want to know about. Of course, you don't want to call in the big guns unless you have to, which is why I would approach him directly first. But if he seems unwilling to change his behavior to support you, it's the right move so you can do your job.

In the meeting with whomever the right manager is, I would again frame it as a request for help. You're not trying to be a tattle-tale; you genuinely need the former lead's support in order to perform your job. Let them know that you tried to have a direct conversation with him and it didn't pan out. Choose your words carefully here because it's almost a guarantee that everything you say will get repeated in some form to the former project lead (since you're basically asking this person to talk to the former lead about a way he's falling short).

Incidentally, I would also go this route if the former lead pays you lip service but then doesn't change after a few weeks. I'd maybe remind him once, but there's only so much patience you can have when you're blocked from a critical responsibility.

Managing Other Stakeholders

Okay, that's the gnarly one. Managing the communication with the other stakeholders is a bit easier. It's likely the same people over and over again, so the first thing I would do is reach out to all of them individually (you could do this over Slack/email). Let them know that you've taken over the project. A great way to make people more open to this information is asking for feedback, since a change in leadership is a good time to re-evaluate processes. You could say something like:

"Hey so-and-so! I wanted to let you know that as of last quarter I've taken over as the lead for Project X. If you've got requests, you can send them through me as [Former Lead] is now supervising other projects. I also just wanted to take this opportunity to ask if you've got any feedback on these processes. Have you run into any issues with these requests in the past?"

Note here: it's even better if the former project lead does this first to give them a heads up, but don't feel like you need to wait for that given what you've said above.

Another good thing to do is to update any internal documentation. Make sure your name is all over the place with as the new lead of this project.

Lastly, find an opportunity to present at a company or department meeting. Two good excuses for this are reporting or updates. For example, you could ask to present at your department meeting about how last quarter went or upcoming changes that you want people to be aware of. Even a 5-minute update will solidify in people's heads that you're the go-to person and it gives you the chance at the end to tell people to come to you with requests or questions.

All of this comes with the caveat that you'll know your situation better than I do. Use your best judgment. It also assumes that people are acting in good faith and want to collaborate to be successful, which sadly is not always true. Just know that, in those situations, you're not wrong to want to have the support and resources you need to do your job.

Hope this was helpful, do let me know how it goes!

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