Becoming a manager for the first time is a pivotal career moment, one that shapes you both inside and outside of work. Harvard Business School Professor Linda Hill describes this transition as:
- A transformative, and sometimes traumatic, experience,
- Having consequences for the individual and the organization, and
- A “learning by doing” experience that can’t fully be taught
Your performance in this new role, and your ability to learn and grow, will have repercussions for years to come. Some new managers blossom as great leaders and experience accelerated trajectories thereafter. Others develop unfortunate behaviors – and reputations – that plague them through the remainder of their careers.
In the worst of situations, the new manager fails and has to go through something of a re-start. The stakes are high. According to Hill, many new managers come into their roles feeling that they are now in a position of power and will have more ability to control their day-to-day work.
What they fail to realize – at least initially – is that they are more so in a position of dependence, where they are reliant on their subordinates, manager, and team members for success. They need to manage not only the work, but also a complex web of relationships and egos. New managers face a number of challenges that all make the transition challenging for many.
10 Tips for Becoming a Manager
With this context in mind, we share ten tips to help guide your transition into a new management position. While this list is by no means exhaustive, these suggestions should at least allow you to make a good start.
- Recognize that you are entering a new era.
To borrow a phrase from executive leadership coach, Thinkers 50 Hall of Fame member and author Marshall Goldsmith, “What got you here won’t get you there.” In other words, that fact that you were likely a strong – or even exceptional – individual contributor does not mean you will necessarily be a effective manager.
You are now on a new plane, and you’re going to have a steep learning curve again. Moreover, the success criteria for in your new role are likely different – and more complex – than they were when you were an individual contributor. Embrace your new need to learn, and get clear as quickly as you can on how your managerial success will be measured.
- Be clear on the type of new manager situation in which you find yourself.
Are you a line supervisor with 10 or more direct reports performing a critical day-to-day operational function? Or are you a staff manager with a just one or two direct reports, where you’re expected to be more of a player-coach?
Each of these situations – while both first-line manager roles – are quite different in terms of the time spent on managing people, performing your own work, setting and executing an agenda, etc. Characterize your new situation and the accompanying work mix accordingly.
- Take time out to think about your prior managers.
What did you like and not like about them? What did they do well and not so well? The situation is not unlike becoming a parent and thinking about what type of parent you want to be relative to how you were raised by your own parents.
Taking some time to reflect on the type of management style you want to employ will at least provide some initial guidance to shape your day-to-day actions.
- Develop good habits with respect to the basics of management.
Focus on mastering the core “people processes”: hiring, developing, coaching, evaluating, and (if necessary) firing. Don’t underestimate how important the seemingly mundane and administrative tasks sometimes are.
Learn to be a good steward of your organization’s time, energy, money, and resources. Too many managers ignore or under-emphasize management skill-building on these basics, or worse, develop bad habits that they’re never able to fully shake off.
- Understand that your every word and every action are being dissected.
Coming back to Professor Hill, she notes that new managers need to demonstrate their character—the intention to do the right thing. This is of particular importance to subordinates, who tend to analyze every statement and gesture for signs of the manager’s motives. Such scrutiny can be unnerving.
Need to demonstrate their competence—knowing how to do the right thing. This can be problematic, because new managers initially feel the need to prove their technical knowledge and prowess, the foundations of their success as individual performers, which comes at the consequence of success as effective leaders need to demonstrate their influence—the ability to deliver and execute the right thing. After all, no individual contributor wants to be working for a powerless boss.
- Up your communication game.
Your communication skills become ever more important as you continue to progress into more senior roles. From your early management days onward, make sure you communicate consistently, clearly, and concisely. Recognize that communication is a “whole body” game and focus on your body language accordingly.
Use open communication to your advantage and listen more than you speak. Explain your decisions and your rationale. Ensure your team is clear on how they fit into the company’s strategy. Along the way, be your authentic self and search out the communication style that works best for you.
- Understand that other people now depend on you for their livelihood and their professional fulfillment and happiness.
This is a weighty obligation and one that should not be treated casually. Be clear that every person on your team is different and its imperative to build trust with each of them. Get to know them as people. Know their family situations and what’s going on in their lives and career development.
Develop a viewpoint on their preferred working styles and how best to manage their activities and influence their behavior. And if you were selected as manager over other former peers who also wanted the role, be especially diligent about managing their disappointment and likely bruised egos. Work hard to get them on side, so you reduce the risk of losing them.
- Focus on team performance as more than the sum of individual performance.
Have a clear point of view on the type of culture you want to create. Establish a developmental environment, one where mistakes are treated as learning opportunities. Remind yourself that you don’t have to have all the answers.
Look to your team as well and promote employee engagement. Show them that it’s ok to be imperfect and vulnerable. Be a guide, not an autocrat. Aim to be respected first and liked second. Regularly give and ask for coaching and feedback. Be wary of granting exceptions for one person unless you are willing to grant them for the full team.
- Don’t fall prey to the myths, such as that you won’t have to do any work anymore.
If anything, the first-level manager role is one of the most challenging ones in many companies. You will face pressures from all sides. You are now dependent on others for your personal success. At the same time, you are at the bottom rung of the managerial ladder, and you’ll need to “toe the line” on strategic direction and operational execution guidance that comes from above, even if you don’t always agree with it.
According to Professor Hill, many new managers perceive a loss in autonomy and “feel constrained, especially if they were accustomed to the relative independence of [being] a star performer. They are enmeshed in a web of relationships—not only with subordinates but also with bosses, peers, and others inside and outside the organization, all of whom make relentless and often conflicting demands on them. The resulting daily routine is pressured, hectic, and fragmented.” For more on the myths of management, check out Hill's 2007 HBR article.
- Become part of the firm leadership.
Get rid of any “us / them” or victim’s mentality in your mindset. Now, more than before, you are a representative of the company. Take ownership for that responsibility.
Be a change agent, not a change recipient or a caretaker of the status quo. If you disagree, learn how to constructively voice it. If your advice isn’t taken, accept it and move on.
Regularly seek counsel from other, more experienced managers. Find a mentor you consider a great manager. You’ll invariably find that almost all of them will be more than happy to help guide your path and learning. Take full advantage of their willingness.
Congratulations on Becoming a Manager for the First Time!
In sum, becoming a new manager is both an exciting and nerve-wracking transition. Learn to appreciate both these aspects of the transition.
Using our tips for first time managers, embrace your new obligations and acknowledge that you are back on the steep part of the learning curve. Focus on developing good habits. Be open to guidance and advice from all sides. You’ve got this!
NOTE: For more on the core skills you should hone before becoming a good manager, read our post on the The 10 Essentials.
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