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June 10, 2019

Starting Well as a First Time Manager

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“You’ve really done well here. We’d like to offer you the position of manager.”

Or co-manager.

It’s an exciting day! Your successes have been recognized and rewarded with extra responsibility (and usually some extra income). You actually get to test the dreams you had about how you’d do things if given the chance. Your impact can grow.

With rare exception, after all, everyone in an organization can perform better with better management. Managers can break the cycle of “the way we always do things” and improve performance. Managers are a necessary piece of scaling anything.

And being a manager enables you and your organization to increase your impact, your bottom line, your personal fulfillment, and your legacy.

It’s an incredible opportunity.

But after the excitement subsides, you probably have some moments of pause on the new role. No longer will you be evaluated on your work. Now, you’ll be evaluated based on the performance of others. You don’t have to do all the work as manager, but those doing the work won’t do it the way you would.

And people management is hard work. As the long-time manager of the New York Mets, Casey Stengal said, “The key to being a good manager is keeping the people who hate you away from those who are still undecided.” Hopefully it’s not that bad, but it’s hard. You now oversee former peers and enter into others’ lives as “the new boss.” In other words, you’ve significantly increased the potential for relational tension.

These are just some of the challenges of being a first-time manager. As Guy Kawasaki said, “When I finally got a management position, I found out how hard it is to lead and manage people.” Or as Peter Drucker said, “Rank does not confer privilege or give power. It imposes responsibility.”

So how do you get started? By starting well.

Take advantage of the first days, weeks, and months. Set a culture and get in healthy habits. This is true for a first-time manager but also for any new role with responsibility.

A couple years back, Entrepreneur scripted out the first week for a new manager. It’s good stuff, but I’m going to be a bit more generic here, offering not a day-by-day prescription, but a three-task checklist for the first three weeks and the first three months. I’ve learned every situation is different, so that fits my style a bit more. Hope it’s helpful.

3 To Dos for the First 3 Weeks
The first three weeks in the new role should include some key meetings, but more than anything else, you’re setting culture. What will your style of leadership be? Start with these three tasks.

  1. Give clarity: Make sure employees are completely clear on what they are supposed to be doing and any deadlines connected to their work. Don’t leave your expectations unstated. In addition, give clarity on relational shifts. If former peers are now reporting to you, have the conversation early on with them to say, “I know things have changed.”
  2. Establish a rhythm of reporting: Make sure you have an established rhythm of managing results and attitude. This can be a one-page summary of the week that comes to you at the end of day on Friday. It can be a fast 15-minute stand up meeting every Tuesday to see how things are going and what roadblocks they are encountering.
  3. Give inspirational encouragement and rewards for hard work: Employees often fear that a new boss will be a jerk. New managers often worry about being too soft. Try to strike the middle by offering a cheer, a “good job!” or a “You’re really good at ____________.” People sometimes need a push from behind or even a tug from ahead at times. But that positive reinforcement can really go a long way at establishing culture.

3 To Dos for the First 3 Months
As you enter into months two and three in the role, you should have time to take a couple of deep breaths and take stock of the progress. The current is still moving you, but you’ve made it out of the rapids. With that in mind, get in some healthy habits before the next rapids hit.

  1. Find a mentor: There is always someone a bit further down the road on the manager journey than you who might be willing to mentor you a bit if you ask. This applies to every level of management in my experience, including CEO. It doesn’t have to be a formal thing but find a regular place where you can ask questions and get feedback.
  2. Grow in empathy: You might have gotten promoted because of your problem-solving genius. Over the long-term, though, empathy trumps genius every time in the area of people management. In other words, if you had to choose between being a genius or having empathy, choose empathy. (The good news is that you don’t have to choose.) Listen well to your direct reports. Care for them. As H.S.M. Burns, the president of Shell Oil in the 1950s, said, “A good manager is a man who isn’t worried about his own career but rather the careers of those who work for him.”
  3. Adjust your expectations: In 2015, HBR noted that as a manager you don’t get a lot of the things you got as a star performer—achievement, affirmation, etc. That’s an adjustment, and sometimes it takes a little while for that reality to set in. What new metrics for performance will you set for yourself in this role?

Conclusion
Like any competency, managing others is a skill to be developed and grown. Sure, it comes more natural to some than others (I’ve written elsewhere about the difference between performers and managers), but we all can grow our “conscious competence” in this capability.

Stick around this management thing long enough and you’ll face even more challenges (like managing high performers). Perhaps you will shift to managing processes rather than people.

Regardless, don’t wait to start managing. Whether you’re about to start your first three weeks, or you read this article and think of all the mistakes you made years ago in your early days, get started now. Make your next three weeks and three months impactful so that your managing is impactful.

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