Executive Director's Blog: Building a Great Team, Part Two

The New Manager’s Survival Guide

This is the second in a series of posts on how to build a great team.

Little can prepare you for being a new manager.  You can read books on it, talk to seasoned managers, contemplate the qualities of the best (and worst) managers you’ve had, but because so much of being a manager is experiential, these resources can provide only a cursory understanding of what awaits you.  If you are a new manager, or aspire to be one, prepare for one of the most intense learn-on-the-job experiences of your life.  That said, below I’ve highlighted 9 key management lessons I’ve learned through my own experience, in the hope that they will aid those of you about to embark on your first management role.

Let the metamorphosis begin

Ever see a job posting for a manager role that doesn’t require prior supervisory experience?  Me neither.  What this means is that first time managers are almost always promoted by their current employer.  Why does that matter?  Because it means that your coworkers already know you as a non-manager.  You already have a reputation, a network, friends (and foes), and perhaps a few close personal relationships with coworkers.  All of which is to say you are not starting from a clean slate.  The paperwork formalizing your transition to manager may be sudden, but your reputation will take time to evolve.  People won’t suddenly see you differently and it is easy to continue behaving as though you are not responsible for leading and setting an example for your team.

Establish a new dynamic

Often you will be asked to manage people who, the day before, were your teammates.  This will feel especially strange because you likely have peer rapport with them, a shared history, inside jokes, mutual dirt, etc.  It is tempting to continue in your relationships with them as though nothing has changed.  This is a common mistake.  Your relationship with your new direct reports has fundamentally changed.  You have been assigned the task of leading them.  This means, on the positive side, that you are responsible for getting the best out of them, inspiring them, supporting them, and challenging them.  It also means, on the negative side, holding them accountable, correcting them, disciplining them, and, when necessary, eliminating their positions.  If you’re going to be a successful manager, at some point you will need to do all of these things, so consider how close of a personal relationship you are comfortable having with those on your team.

Stay you

As a new manager, I initially went too far in my attempts to establish authority.  When former teammates I used to joke with made jokes, I frowned and asked them work-related questions to refocus the conversation.  I began declining standing social gatherings where I knew everyone would drop all pretenses and blow off steam.  This was a mistake because I was unnecessarily alienating myself from my team by pretending to be someone other than myself.  My sense of humor and interests didn’t evaporate the day I was promoted, so why would I behave like a robot?  It took time to find a balance.  Today’s workforce wants to engage with their boss as a coach or mentor, which requires a level of personalness never expected in past generations of bosses.  They want to feel valued and they want their job to be fulfilling, and how their boss treats them has a significant impact on their perception of both.  So what am I suggesting?  Establish a new identity befitting your new position, but at the same time don’t lose who you are.  Strive for a balance between being considered “one of the gang” and being seen as “management.”  Sound hard?  It is.

First day of school

Remember walking into class at the end of summer and seeing a stranger at the front of the room?  “Who is this person and, more importantly, what will she let me get away with?”  Schoolchildren are masterful testers of boundaries and the first few days of the school year are a high-stakes game of poker between students and teacher, the winner setting the tone for the rest of the school year.  The teacher who establishes clear, firm boundaries early on and demonstrates the willingness to follow through on stated consequences will quickly earn respect and therefore the right to lead his or her class.  The teacher who fails to establish authority will forfeit the right to lead and face an uphill battle to manage the class the rest of the school year.  As a new manager, consider what your ground rules will be, what team culture you want to establish, and what consequences you are willing to employ.  Be intentional in your execution of this vision, don’t be afraid to correct your direct reports when they cross a line, but at the same time don’t be shy about publicly rewarding the behaviors you want to cultivate, and both you and your new team will thrive.

To be loved or feared

Hypercompetitive industries like professional sports offer case studies on how a variety of management styles on the Loved-to-Feared spectrum can be equally effective.  Disciplinarian coaches like Tom Coughlin can lead their team to Super Bowl victories.  Beloved positive reinforcers like Pete Carroll can achieve the same result.  Occasionally, a coach comes along who can toggle between both extremes at will.  What type of boss should you be?  Your top priority is to be an effective (and thus respected) boss.  How you do that - your style - is inevitably going to be a combination of what the team needs and your own personality.  Don’t worry so much about whether you need to be more authoritarian or more nurturing.  A wide variety of styles can work.  Be what comes naturally to you with special emphasis on what you think your new team needs; that’s your best chance to be an effective leader.

Find a Mentor

Learning how to manage is mostly experiential, but that doesn’t mean you need to go it alone.  As soon as you find out that you are going to be a manager, identify someone in your organization who has the reputation of being a great manager.  This will be someone people want to work for, are loyal to, and who has a reputation for developing talent that then moves up in the organization.  Approach them about being a mentor.  The relationship should be somewhat formal.  This is not a series of gripe sessions about how hard it is to be a manager.  You and your mentor should set goals based on the management competencies you want to develop.  Your meetings should focus on your progress against these goals, using real life situations as practice opportunities and failures (there will be many) as teaching moments.  If you’ve chosen your mentor wisely, it’s unlikely you will present them with a situation they haven’t experienced before and cannot provide you with perspective on.

Redefine “Real Work”

An individual performer spends a much greater percentage of time working independently compared to a manager.  They tend to think of that solo work as “the real work.”  The meetings, peer discussions, networking, reporting up, etc. they often consider nuisances and time-suckers.  “If I just had fewer meetings I could get some real work done.”  As a new manager, you must redefine “real work” for yourself.  Of course everyone at every level has some work best done alone, but as a manager, the majority of your real work consists of activities like monitoring and developing your team; cultivating relationships with peer managers whose cooperation you will need to succeed; reporting up to your boss and others effectively; recruiting talent; staying attuned to the priorities of your organization’s senior leaders so you can align your team members’ priorities to them; staying current on industry trends; creating a brand that lets others know what you stand for; etc.  This is your new “real work.”  It will feel strange at first and you will long for the familiarity of your former solo duties with warm nostalgia, but resist the urge to slip back into the role of individual contributor.  It’s no longer what you’re being paid to do.

The Coddler

When new managers take over a team, they want to earn some early goodwill from their new direct reports.  One of the easiest ways to do this - and the most common trap I see new managers fall into - is to act on a direct report’s complaint about something or someone with blind, unquestioning certitude.  The new manager says something like, “Leave it to me,” and rushes off to fight with another manager on their direct report’s behalf.  While this may generate some short-term goodwill from the direct report, it is poor leadership.  First, what if your direct report’s complaint is inaccurate, or entirely one-sided, or simply a manifestation of a personality conflict with another person in the organization?  Instead of making a good first impression on a new peer, you look like a fool and alienate yourself from another manager, or even an entire team.  Second, what are the odds that your direct report is an entirely innocent victim in the situation?  It’s very rare to uncover pure evil in an organization; organizational friction is almost always the result of misunderstandings in which both parties are culpable.  But in the rush to come to your direct report’s defense, it’s easy to neglect to question them on their role in the situation.  Third, what has your direct report done to try and resolve the issue him or herself?  Have they exhausted all options available to them?  What was the other party’s response to their attempts?  If the new manager doesn’t challenge and support their direct reports to solve issues on their own, they will never develop the critical conflict resolution skills necessary to advance.  Equally detrimental, the new manager will find him or herself forever putting out other people’s fires.

Let go

When someone is given their first opportunity to be a manager, it’s generally a reward for their performance as an individual contributor and a sign of faith that they can grow into a good manager.  The key phrases here are “performance as an individual contributor” and “faith that they can grow.”  Being an excellent individual performer is only a weak indicator that someone will make a good (let alone excellent) manager.  It’s more like a prerequisite; if you can’t cut it as an individual performer, you’re never going to get a shot at management.  Which helps explain why promoting someone to their first managerial role is truly a leap of faith.  Often it doesn’t work out, and when it doesn’t, it’s most often because an excellent individual performer has been rewarded - literally - for excelling individually and, once promoted, they aren’t ready to be judged by an entirely different set of criteria.

When individual work is up for grabs, new managers say “I’ll do that” far too often.  They don’t realize that, as managers, they will be judged on their ability to achieve results through others and by their team’s overall contribution to the organization.  That means the new manager must let go of much of the individual work they are accustomed to doing and being praised for.  Being praised feels good.  Letting go feels scary.  In a sense, you are retiring from the competencies you mastered in exchange for another set of competencies that you barely understand.  Passing this first test of management requires that the new manager let go of his/her former duties, trusting team members to own them.  This is especially difficult because the new manager knows these duties all too well and is bound to have strong feelings about how they ought to be done.

Faced with this dilemma, things tend to go one of two ways: 

1) The new manager can’t let go.  New managers who continue to operate as individual contributors are easy to spot.  They are seen as micromanagers in the eyes of their direct reports and peers; they work long hours because they won’t delegate; their team is demoralized because they don’t feel trusted; their team’s productivity is lower than it ought to be because team members are underutilized; and they are bottlenecks to organizational decision-making because all decisions must go through them.

2) The new manager stops controlling and learns to delegate.  New managers who can sever their emotional attachment to their former duties and entrust their team members to own them are equally easy to recognize.  They work reasonable hours; their team members make decisions independently and confidently; their team members take risks; their team is highly productive; and their team members are heavily recruited internally by other managers to more senior positions.  Note that all but one of these tangible signs of a new manager’s effectiveness are exhibited not by the manager, but by his or her team.  This is the tell-tale sign that the new manager has transitioned from individual performer to effective manager.  You can spot a good manager by where their team is excelling without their direct involvement.

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