Ten Tips for New Managers
So, you’ve been promoted to a manager position and have people reporting directly to you. But with great power comes great responsibility! No matter how successful you’ve been previously in your professional life, managing people for the first time can be a daunting task. Here are ten things to keep in mind to start you off on the right foot.
1) This is not an elevated version of your old job.
You likely made it into a manager position because you proved you could be successful at the job you were doing…but not because you proved your ability to manage people doing the job you were doing. Remember the Peter Principle – idea that you’ll get promoted to your own level of incompetence. Now, that may seem funny, but there’s a lot of truth to it – just because you were successful doing your old job does not mean you’ll be successful in the new one. Those are two very different things! People don’t just wake up one day and automatically know how to manage others. It’s an acquired skill that you must develop in it’s own right just like any other skills. When you take on the responsibility of having people report to you, it fundamentally changes everything. You’re not just an individual contributor anymore. You have power over people’s lives.
I’m going to say that again…because it’s really important: When you manage people, you have power over people’s lives.
We all know that our professional lives and our personal lives are too closely intertwined to be separated in a meaningful way. That means that the person who does your annual review has a tremendous amount of power over both! You just became that person for those who report to you. So take it seriously. We’ve all heard the saying “you don’t quit your job…you quit your manager” for a reason. Make it a point to learn to be the type of manager people want to stay and work for.
2) Adaptation is your magic bullet.
Some managers think it’s the responsibility of their employees to adapt to them. While I would never argue against a two-way street approach – both of you should be adapting to each other – I would say it’s the manager’s responsibility to take the first and adapt to their employees.
Everyone has different working styles, and that means they all have different needs. Sometimes you get lucky and you have employees who have a very similar working style as you and you gel immediately without much fuss. Sometimes the opposite is true and you end up with employees with completely different working styles and needs – that takes a bit more work. Here are a few examples conflicts that can arise:
- You might have a fast-paced style and are comfortable with making decisions quickly and really going with it. Your employee may be slower to adapt to change and question the consequences of the decisions you’re making.
- Your head might explode when one of your people sends you a giant spreadsheet filled with rows and rows of numbers – they thrive on information presented in that way but you can’t stand it and just want the high level bullet points.
- You want to just focus on business and process and can’t understand why your team seems to waste time chit-chatting during the day.
In these cases, neither person is right or wrong. Neither approach is good or bad – each has it’s strengths and weaknesses and there’s a ton of room for compromise between the two. As a manager, it’s your job to take the first step and try adapting your personal preferences to style of your employees.
Here’s the most critical thing to understand: This is not just about making your employees happy. It’s about setting them up to perform. When you adapt your approach to what suits your employee’s needs, they are going to respond better to you and perform at a higher level. That means they are going to be more successful. When they are successful, you are successful.
3) People like structure and guidance.
Zappos made headlines when they restructured to a holacracy and effectively eliminated manager positions. Two years ago, I wrote that this was going to be a problem for them. Today, the company is seeing mass turnover. Here’s why: Managers are not the fundamental problem that exists in traditional organizational structures. Bad managers are the problem.
Fundamentally, people need structure and guidance and from a psychological level, they appreciate it unconsciously (some appreciate it consciously as well!). Great managers provide that structure and guidance. That’s why goals they should be providing their team are so important – they show people progress in a way that drives intrinsic motivation to a larger team result and provide clarity on what tasks should be prioritize over others. If people have complete freedom to do whatever they like, that can actually be overwhelming! It’s the paradox of choice in action – people are more likely to make decisions and make progress when they have a limited number of choices than then they have too many to choose from. This idea applies to shopping and marketing just as much as it applies to intangible tasks.
4) But not TOO MUCH structure and guidance.
It’s critical to provide structure…but just as critical to not overreach. What you need to do is build your team up to take individual ownership over their day to day in a way that meets big picture goals. If you jump in and micromanage their processes, you’re just inhibiting the empowerment to occur.
This is true even if your staff is coming to you asking for specific feedback and direction. When possible, use it as an opportunity to ask “what do you think we should do?” Wait for them to answer and then guide them to specifics by asking them questions and letting them come to that conclusion on their own. Then just say “that sounds great” and let them go off to implement.
This is the difference between telling and teaching. Telling gets you an instant gratification, short term result. Teaching sets your team up for long term success.
5) Let your people lead in their area…even if you don’t agree with where they’re going.
Maybe you do the exercise in the previous example and your staff member goes in a completely different direction than would ever have occurred to you. If that happens, try to resist the urge to push them back in your direction! Ask them some clarifying questions to make sure they’ve thought it through, and then let them go off and try their idea. If it doesn’t work out, use that as a teaching moment, and then send them off to try again.
It’s important to remember that very few of us work in jobs that are truly life and death and that failure is a critical part of getting better because those are the moments that teach us more than any other. So if your people have ideas, let them experiment and try them out! Maybe you tried that idea at a previous job and didn’t have success with it, but you have to let others learn those lessons for themselves. And who knows – there’s always more than one way to skin a cat and the idea that you thought could never be successful might end up surprising you. If it doesn’t, just have them iterate it and try again.
6) Listen actively, and default to trust.
You’ve got to have one-on-one communication with each person on your team regularly – a 30-60 minute meeting every week is my preference. And those meetings have got to be locked down on your calendar. They are the thing you don’t cancel unless you have a legitimate emergency. Why? Because those meetings are how you’re going to develop trust and positive working relationships with each person that reports to you – that’s the fundamental framework that sets you up for success.
When you maintain those meetings and keep them as an open forum for communication, your employees are going to bring you the good as well as the bad. The good is easy to deal with…just acknowledge that it’s great and move on. The bad can be trickier – no one likes to hear bad news about their plans! But when you communicate openly, you’re going to invite it…and you have to view that as a good thing, and as an opportunity. Your people are going to tell you if something is possible…or if it’s just overreaching. They’re going to tell you if they have too much on their plate and need help prioritizing. They’re going to tell you if there are obstacles in their way that they need your help removing.
Some managers take the very knee jerk reaction of pushing back whenever they hear bad news – they think their employees are exaggerating or just trying to get work off their plates, or are just needlessly complaining. Fundamentally, most people want to come to work and do a good job and be successful. Most people are NOT trying to get one over on you. They are looking for your help and support. If their manager approaches them from a vein of distrust when they’re making a good faith effort to do the right thing, that’s not very motivating.
How you make your team members feel matters. If one of them comes to you one-on-one and tells you that they are overwhelmed and need some tasks moved off their plate, and you respond by saying “tell you just need to figure it out”, how do you think that’s going to make them feel? They’re probably just going to continue to be frustrated and overwhelmed, and not any more productive than when they walked into your office for the meeting. And they’re probably going to like you a little bit less than they did prior to the meeting. On the other hand, if you help them think through prioritization and maybe move a thing or two off their plate, that’s going to have a completely different effect. Not only are they going to be more productive and focused, but they’re probably going to feel a lot better about reporting to you in general.
7) Ask “what do you mean by that?” a lot.
This goes hand-in-hand with the previous tip – when you’re having discussions with your team, really make sure you understand their perspective. And that could come down to making sure you’re using the same definitions! So many disagreements rise up simply because people use the same words assuming that others will interpret what they mean as they intend…but the person they’re talking to interprets it completely differently!
It’s the easiest thing in the world to make sure you’re using the same definitions for things. Just ask! You’ll be surprised at how many times people will say something completely different than what you expect. It’s a much better way to ground the discussion and move forward on the same page.
8) Focus on behavior.
You are probably not a mind reader. Therefore, refrain from making assumptions about what’s going on in your employee’s head at any given moment. For example, here’s an actual conversation I had once with a former boss.
Her: You’re obviously angry.
Me: No I’m not. I’m frustrated with a few things, but am not angry.
Her: No, you’re obviously angry.
Me: I’m really not.
Her: I disagree.
Me: Look, I wasn’t angry before but now you’re actually starting to make me angry.
When you focus on your assumptions about what’s going on in people’s heads, sometimes you’ll be right and sometimes you’ll be wrong…but given that all of us have a ton of things going on in our heads at any given time that our co-workers are not aware of, it’s simply just not effective. And when you get it wrong, you lose a lot of credibility and trust.
Ultimately, your goal as a manager is to make sure your people are behaving in ways that are going to make them more effective and successful. So make sure you’re framing the discussion in terms of the actions your people are taking – things that you can actually witness – and the implications of those actions. Where they late to a meeting? Yelled at a co-worker? Didn’t meet a deadline? Those are all perfectly valid things to critique them on. You don’t need to go digging around in their head in order to make adjustments to their actions.
9) Give positive and negative feedback.
When people say the word “feedback”, most the time it results in an instant visceral reaction to brace for something negative. If you’re only ever giving your people negative feedback, that’s a huge problem! The goal of feedback is to reinforce the types of behaviors that you want to see from your people – the things that are going to set them up to be more productive and successful. Certainly, modifying negative behavior is a part of that…but so is reinforcing positive actions. So if your people are doing things that are productive and helpful, make sure they know that it has not gone unnoticed and tell them!
10) Your job is to make sure your people are successful.
At the end of the day, your job is to empower the people reporting to you to set them up for success. The minute you stop taking that as your first priority is the minute you start wandering into “bad manager” territory. When your people are successful, you will be successful – it’s really that simple.
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