You got promoted!
- Avoid the most common traps young managers fall into
- Start off by building the right kinds of relationships
There you are: Meet the boss you’re about to become. As a newly-minted manager, you can only feel how awkward the situation is. Although you’re now in charge, you don’t have much experience supervising others. You’re clueless as to what problems to expect, what goals to set, and what guidance to seek. You don’t have much insight into the “bigger picture” of the organization that just promoted you. You don’t know much more than the person you just were… or the one you’re about to manage. And you definitely know less than whomever you’re replacing.
It's only natural that you'll blunder along the way
It’s only natural that you’ll blunder somewhere along the way. But starting off, here are some of the rookie errors that you can spare yourself:
- Don’t assume that authority and respect are attached to your title. Formal processes and endorsements from higher-ups won’t secure your colleagues’ esteem. This will take time and effort on your part.
- Stop wanting to be a great employee in the eyes of your own managers; you’ll become a great boss by bringing out the best in others. Don’t try to outshine your staff, blame them for poor performance, or take on too much yourself to make up for anyone slacking. Your job is, precisely, to run an effective and cohesive team.
- Forget about how good you were in your previous position. Your new role will entail different skills, different time management concerns, different criteria for success. Doubling down on your strengths is perhaps the surest way to fail. You’ll do well by putting the past behind you, and learning all the faster.
- Avoid posing as if you knew everything already. Ask questions and listen closely—to the people you manage as well as those above you, not to mention your predecessors and other peers. Get started reading up on management techniques; it’s not as if no one ever had to figure these things out before you.
- Discuss your doubts and difficulties early on. The troubles you face are not proof of your inaptitude or a sign of poor performance: Leadership is all about recognizing problems and finding solutions. The worst managers are those who excel in diversionary tactics.
- Beware the “above my paygrade” copout. Fledgling managers tend to assume that someone else will handle things like human resource policies, client relations, strategic goals, or security concerns. You may not have the last word on these, but you must be as informed and involved as you can.
- Refrain from trying too hard to be nice, gain acceptance, or soften your new image as “management”: It’s beside the point. Too many nice people make lousy bosses. You’re doing your job when your team likes you as a manager rather than loves you as a person. So focus your attention on getting your role right.
- Never hold anyone to standards you don’t hold yourself to. You may criticize if you accept criticism. You may ask your staff to work long hours in an emergency, if you’re visibly doing at least as much in support. With rank comes responsibility. If you’re expecting prestige, improve performance.
- Finally, if you’re not all that interested in people, change your mindset or step down. The individualist high-performer, the reclusive expert, the poisonous careerist, the lazy entitled, and the self-obsessed insecure are all terrible managers, because they can’t think past themselves. What we “manage” is mostly people-related problems.
Once you’ve understood those pitfalls, the best way to begin is by defining the right relationships. With your staff, it’s always best to start with too much structure rather than too little. If you’re taking over from someone, explain that you need more reporting—not to increase control, but to ease yourself into your new position, and support your team as soon and efficiently as possible. If you start from scratch with new hires, build a clear framework: Explain roles, responsibilities, goals, processes, and timeframes. In all cases, err on the side of highly specific requests, updates, and deadlines.
Clarity also implies some level of formality
Clarity also implies some level of formality, which you must not shy away from. Send recaps in writing. Make appointments for one-on-one conversations. Learn to communicate negative feedback from the get-go; just make sure it is always thoughtful, timely, and direct. Face-to-face feedback can reduce the risk of misunderstandings. Shift to email only to document problems that are recurring and getting out of hand.
Management demands an enormous amount of availability and attention, but you must also tend to yourself. If you let yourself be overwhelmed, you won’t learn fast enough to teach; you won’t develop the vision you need to rally; you won’t troubleshoot problems before they become systemic; and you won’t have the additional capacity to adjust in moments of crisis, when leadership is most needed. A person stretched thin has lost depth and flexibility.
Your first responsibility, therefore, is to manage your own time and workload well. That means hiring only as many people as you can support—typically no more than four staff who report directly to you. It also entails delegating, and pushing back on your hierarchy when necessary, by explaining why you can’t possibly do more. The most appreciated managers are those we unwittingly tend to overuse, until they reach breaking point. Then everybody loses, in a relationship that was too productive to be true.
If you are lucky enough to have good managers above you, keep in mind why you got promoted in the first place. Your bosses see you as someone who can “grow” into a new role, develop some aspect of the organization, and create space for others to focus on their own missions. They are betting on your ability to evolve. That transformation won’t occur overnight. It may require mentoring, specific training, and dedicated resources. A smart promotion isn’t a reward for past behavior as much as an investment in your future self.
That is why a sensible hierarchy wouldn’t expect you to get it all right. In fact, they will encourage you, as often as possible, to take your own decisions—even if they’re possibly wrong. They will then help you deal with the consequences, because that is how you’ll improve, through experience more than abstract counsel. Mistakes make you a manager.
On one condition, though: that you learn from them.
2 February 2021