Two years ago I received my first people management opportunity. My now boss called me into his office to let me know I was chosen for the promotion. I was flattered, thrilled, and nervous all at the same time.
I worried how my former peers would react to the news and if they would think I was too young to be their manager. I could picture them huddled around cubicles saying I didn’t deserve the promotion or that I didn’t know enough to lead the team.
Managing your former peers is awkward, especially for a young manager. The first few weeks after you are promoted are the most difficult but also the most critical in building trust and establishing your new relationship with your team. In this time, the team looks to you for cues on how to act around you.
It’s a difficult situation but you can make it better or worse through your actions. If you’re awkward and uncomfortable around them, they will be awkward and uncomfortable around you. If you can “toughen up” and get over the awkwardness that you feel, then you have a chance.
There were many times in my first two years of management that I have had to “toughen up” or address a difficult situation head on. People management is not easy and many first-time managers are not aware of the difficult situations that they will face until they face them. The following lessons I learned through experience and wish I knew from the beginning.
#1. People talk
If you want to be a manager, you have to be comfortable with the idea that people will judge your actions and vocalize their opinions of you more often than if you remained an individual contributor. It’s just a fact of life. The responsibility and power that comes with a leadership position also brings with it greater scrutiny.
I had a hard time handling the criticism when I first became a manager. First, it was the slights that my peers who were passed over for the promotion had said that got to me. Then, it was the rumblings I heard from the team after I had made a difficult decision.
Over time, I have gotten more comfortable with the idea that people talk and I also have worked hard to build trust with my team so the criticism is few and far between.
Empathy and maturity are two important qualities that a good manager must have when dealing with criticism.
A good manager can understand why an employee is reacting a certain way to a situation and is mature enough to let it go.
Letting it go can be difficult as our natural reaction is to resent the person or react ourselves but it is so critical to the future success of the team that we move forward.
The best action a manager can take when dealing with criticism at work is to take a step back, evaluate if their decision or course of action should change, and then work to build better rapport with the individual.
Bottom line, you are more of a target in a leadership position. People will talk. Get over it now.
#2. Giving feedback is really hard but very important
Your two primary responsibilities as a manager are to deliver on your commitments and to make your team better. Many managers focus more on the former than the latter.
You are solely responsible for the development of your team.
The more your team improves, the better results they will achieve for your department, and the better manager you will become.
Aside from training, the one effective way to get your team to improve is by giving feedback. Giving feedback is very difficult. It can be awkward and uncomfortable. The person receiving the feedback may react in various ways that make the situation better or worse.
First-time managers often shy away from having these tough conversations but they need to happen.
Giving feedback is not only key to the development of the individual but also critical to managing their expectations at year-end. Many individuals only hear positive feedback from their managers and are blind-sided at the end of the year when they don’t get the promotion or don’t receive a good performance review.
It’s important that you give consistent feedback to your team so they know where they stand and what they need to improve upon to get to the next level.
#3. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is the right thing (for the team)
When you have given rounds of feedback and have provided plenty of training opportunities yet an individual doesn’t improve, you may need to manage them out for the good of the team.
I had an individual who reported to me that put in a lot of hours, but did not deliver quality work, had received poor ratings from the manager before me, received poor feedback from his peers and partners, and was not open to constructive criticism.
At the end of the year, my first instinct was to let him skate by in his year-end review because he was a nice person and worked hard. I had a really hard time doing what I need to do.
Luckily, my boss stepped in to teach me a lesson on people management.
He said, “Fight hard to keep your stars and let go of your weakest performers.”
As a first-time manager, I had never dealt with this situation before and I felt terrible about doing what I needed to do. I was sick over it for days. I ultimately provided the individual with the lowest possible year-end rating, no raise, and sent a very clear message in the performance review – improve or you’re out. This person ultimately chose to leave the company.
Two months later I had the opportunity to hire an absolute rockstar with the open position. This person is performing at double the capacity as the previous individual and receives outstanding reviews from his partners, peers, and myself. This employee not only delivers on his commitments but he makes the whole team better through his leadership and setting a good example.
I never would have been able to hire this person if I hadn’t managed out the other employee.
I now realize how important it is for the team to manage out your weakest performers. It’s the hardest thing you may have to do as a manager but can be the most critical to team success.
#4. It’s all your fault
With a leadership position comes a certain amount of responsibility. As an individual contributor, you are responsible for your work and your work alone. As a manager, you take on responsibility for the work of the team you manage.
When something is done poorly or a big mistake is made, higher management comes looking for you and not the individual on your team. This new responsibility can be difficult for first-time managers to handle.
As a young manager, your first reaction when confronted with a situation like that may be to say “it’s not my fault” but the quicker that you accept that it is, the easier it will be for you. The worst thing that you can do in this situation is place the blame on to your team.
The biggest leverage you have with upper management is the perception of your team as a high performing team.
You cannot trade that in to escape blame individually.
You owe it to your team to step up and be the leader that they need in this difficult situation.
When this situation happens to me, I find it best to accept responsibility versus fighting the blame. Finger pointing is an unfortunate part of corporate culture. Figuring out how to escape a difficult conversation with your and your team’s reputation unscathed and yet with the other party feeling like their needs will be addressed is a skill that managers need to develop.
In my experience, I have learned to not appear defensive, to calmly and very succinctly explain the situation, and to spend the most time on discussing what we can do to move forward. If I need to address the situation with a team member after, I will do so calmly and with empathy. I will also work hard to see what I could have done differently to avoid the situation.
People do not make mistakes on purpose, so figuring out why the mistake is happening and addressing the root cause versus dwelling on the mistake is often the best move for you and the team.
#5. Put the team first (and don’t be a yes man)
A first-time manager must work very hard to gain the trust and respect of the team. This trust and respect does not come automatically with the title. It is earned over time.
Key to developing this trust is the team knowing that their manager has their best interests at heart and will stick up for them when necessary. I have seen other managers fail at this task and have struggled with it myself.
There’s a fine line between pushing an individual to do their best work and to set that individual up for failure from the beginning.
I remember a situation where a project manager committed that two of her project resources would deliver a piece of analysis to an important stakeholder by a certain time that same day – without talking to the resources first. The resources were not able to deliver the work that same day because they had other deliverables that were priority and also the analysis would take some time.
These resources were giving everything they had to this project and were doing a fantastic job on the project thus far. When they shared that they could not deliver the analysis that same day with the project manager, she fought back and would not adjust the date because she had already committed to the stakeholder.
It was very clear that she cared more about her ability to come through for that stakeholder than she cared about the team. This was her greatest mistake.
When you are leading a team, whether as a direct manager or indirectly as a project manager, you need to motivate the team to do their best work for you. You have to push them to perform at their highest and then thank them when they deliver.
At the same time, you need to make sure the team feels that you would not put them in an impossible situation and that you would stand up for them and say no when necessary.
What the project manager should have done was consult with the team prior to committing to the stakeholder and then be willing to push back on the stakeholder in a respectful way to renegotiate the date.
Saying yes to everything or being a “yes man” at the detriment of your own team is the quickest way to lose the team’s respect.
Saying no is a difficult thing for a first-time manager or young manager to do, especially when under pressure to deliver, but it can be key to earning the team’s trust.
The five lessons outlined above were critical learning points for me as a first-time people manager.
Movies and television often depict managers as authoritative or hard yet many first-time managers find that being authoritative or hard with their teams does not come naturally. Their gut instinct is to be nice and avoid conflict at their detriment.
First-time managers can also struggle with the added pressure and scrutiny that come with management responsibilities.
If young managers are mature enough to handle awkward situations, if they put their team first, and if they focus on improvement then they are off to a great start.
Overall, demonstrating toughness at the right times is the key to being an effective manager and developing a high-performing team.
Although management is difficult, at the end of the day, you get paid for this greater responsibility both financially and in experience. That is why people management can be one of the most challenging and most rewarding opportunities in one’s career.
If I could offer one piece of advice to first-time people managers, it would be “toughen up” and you will succeed.
People managers, what lessons did you wish you knew in the beginning?
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