Starter wisdom for new managers — how to not suck and have people like you.
I was recently asked to put together some training content for new managers. I ended up unearthing a list of informal advice I had put together a while back for first-timers and would share as starter wisdom. Apparently it resonates, so I thought I’d make it available — raw and unfiltered (gulp!).
So you’re a manager now. You’re actually responsible for other humans. Yay! Now what…
Managing is not for the faint of heart. We really don’t give it enough glory and credit for how hard it is to do well. Here’s a few lessons I’ve learned along the way. I hope this will be helpful to you on your journey to become an admired and effective people manager.
1. Mindset Shift — From “I” to “We”
It’s not about you.
Let me repeat that. It’s NOT about you anymore.
It’s about serving your team and direct reports. This is really the hardest part. Accepting your new reality that your team’s success is your success.
It used to be about what you produced, how you did it and visibility you got with execs. But guess what, you’re not the spotlight anymore. Check that ego at the door and focus on being useful to your team, setting them up to do their best and scaling their ability to impact the business. It sounds easy right? It’s not. This transition is where most first time managers fail.
If you’re a first time manager or a manager in the middle layers of an organization, holding on to your own ego and agenda will quickly lead you down the path of alienating your team and making rookie mistakes. Conversely, managers that clearly put their team first stand out and earn instant credibility with the people they manage.
Let’s say it together: “It’s not about me anymore”.
2. Welcome to people management
Also, more bad news. You are now the shock absorber, the shit umbrella and the complaint box. Let’s break this down. When you become a manager, even of a small team, you will need to:
- Interpret change, uncertainty, chaos, disappointment, etc for your team. You will have to take whatever’s happening in your organization, whether it’s hyper growth or crisis mode, and help your team navigate through it with confidence and focus (aka ‘Shock Absorber’).
- Protect your team from fire drills, undue pressure, random asks and thrashing from above and often also from other teams. You will have to take on the worst tasks so your team can focus on the “real work” (aka ‘Shit Umbrella’).
- Process feedback, frustrations and demands from your team. This will range from resolving internal bureaucracy to compensation and promotion demands to dealing with difficult personalities. Literally anything can and will come at you. You will listen to all of it and you will need to decide what is actionable and where you simply need to provide emotional support (aka ‘Complaint Box’).
You said you wanted to manage, right?
3. Curiosity saved the cat
If you’re very lucky, you got to build the team you now manage from scratch. You recruited them slowly, aligned perfectly and they chose to work for you. You know your team really well. But chances are, that’s not where you’re starting and even if you are, it won’t stay that way for long.
Get curious right away. Take the time to understand each person on your team. What do they do? What motivates them? What are their challenges? What are their aspirations? Etc.
A shocking percent of managers never take the time to do this.
When they onboard new hires, inherit people or take over during reorgs, they start to assume things about their directs based on superficial understanding and cues. This is also where all kinds of bias creeps in. For example:
- “She’s a mom. She probably doesn’t want the big high profile project”
- “He works on X. He must REALLY love X. Let’s just keep him doing X”
- “She’s never complained about anything. Everything must be perfect”
- “He’s ambitious and single. He’s totally OK living at the office”
Yuck. Avoid sweeping assumptions. Ask, engage, be curious. People will surprise you. And you will be an infinitely better manager if you genuinely understand your people.
4. Know what you’re solving for
You were put in a management role for a reason. Almost always, there is a business need that led you to become a manager. It could be:
- Growth: forming and hiring a team
- Turnaround: fixing a broken org with people issues or a part of the biz
- Execution: executing on a new business priority or deliverable
- Development: coaching and teaching junior talent to the next level
It’s very important that you are CLEAR on what is the reason you were put in that role and what you need to accomplish for the business. Don’t get carried away with fiefdom building. Get crystal clear on what you’re accountable for and what value you need to bring to the business.
5. Communicate relentlessly and fearlessly
Saying something once is never enough. And don’t blame your team for not hearing it that one time. You will need to communicate clearly, frequently, repeatedly. Expect to become a broken record on some things until they stick.
Also, communicate the WHY whenever possible. Don’t skimp on this part. Explain the logic and rationale for your decisions. Explain context for why the business needs something. Explain the impact and importance of the work for the team. Part of being a manager is being a funnel for information and seeing the bigger picture. Be generous in sharing context and rationale.
Finally, learn to communicate hard things. Your own discomfort is not a good excuse for not communicating what’s important. Get used to awkward conversations, and ones where you’re not going to come out as the hero.
- If someone on your team needs performance feedback, be direct with it.
- If you need to get resources, advocate hard with decision makers above you.
- If you see a bad decision for the business, make it right.
I can’t emphasize this enough. Communication is going to make or break your management effectiveness so work on it until you get great at it.
6. Never take credit for your team’s work
Sounds counterintuitive, right?
As a manager, you certainly have to market the work of your team and make sure the business understands the value of what your team does. But the framing is important. Put the spotlight on your team and the individuals on it doing the work. Even if you are playing a key role behind the scenes, be generous in giving credit to individuals on your team. Your goal is to build their credibility and ability to operate independently, not your ego.
Remember that manager YOU had that one time who hogged all the credit and didn’t give you visibility?… Yeah, no one wants to be remembered as that person.
7. To each his own
Be mindful that everyone needs to be managed differently. You’ll have to adapt and calibrate your approach to each direct on your team.
There are many personalities and work styles. For example:
- Some thrive on structure + certainty, others love creative freedom
- Some want frequent interaction, others want to operate autonomously
- Some thrive as generalists and enjoy constant stream of new projects, others prefer to specialize as an expert in one area
- Some want hypergrowth, others value stable growth (great article on this)
If you act on #3, you’ll know what each person on your team needs to be happy + productive. If you don’t, just ask. Most people know what they need from their manager.
8. Getting to operating principles
Before you become a parent, you have this idealized view of how you will be.
- “I’ll never feed my kids junkfood!”
- “No TV or video games until they’re 5, no 10!”
- “I’m all about discipline, this kid is never sleeping in my bed!”
And then once you’re in it, you break ALL the ideals you imagined just to survive in the moment. You WILL feed your kids pizza, guaranteed. You WILL use TV as a babysitter. You will DEFINITELY let your kid sleep in your bed to avoid hours of crying. You’ll disappoint yourself.
Managing is kind of like that.
You will have ideals that you aspire to but then in the moment you will make mistakes and you will be less-than-ideal to make it through. It’s OK. Over time, as you move through it you will develop more realistic set of operating principles and rules you live by as a leader / manager. You will start to develop a management philosophy of your own.
When you are at that point, and it will take time, make sure you socialize with your team what your principles and objectives are. What are the rules you are making decisions by. They want to know and the more consistent and transparent you are, the more trust they’ll have in you.
Last but not least…
Every now and then, stop and reflect on what you’ve learned about yourself as a manager and what works and doesn’t. Test and iterate often.
Above all else, recognize that as a first-time manager you are learning on other people. So take that responsibility seriously and do your best.
- Disclaimer. This is not exhaustive or substitute for knowing management fundamentals (goal-setting, performance management, how to give feedback, etc.) That’s critically important and there’s tons of resources on the basics.