Supporting New Managers
When someone is promoted into their first management position, it often comes as a reward for being great in their previous role. However, the skills that made them excel as an individual contributor are different from those required to succeed as a manager. This fact doesn’t always get the consideration it deserves and management training is often reserved for leaders higher up in the hierarchy. Without proper preparation and support, these freshly promoted managers can struggle in their new responsibilities. How can organisations better equip new managers for this critical transition?
Defining the Manager role
First, it’s important to distinguish between a manager and a leader. As defined by Merriam-Webster, a manager oversees a team and exercising executive, administrative or supervisory direction. A leader guides a group through influence and authority. You can be a leader without managing others, and you can manage people while lacking strong leadership abilities.
Stepping into a management role for the first time requires developing brand-new skills separate from one’s expertise as an individual contributor. It should not be assumed that strengths in the old role will directly translate to strengths as a manager. Leadership is a soft skill that you can learn, grow and develop. Managership is a role assigned to you.
In this article, I’d like to focus on the challenges of managership and offer points of consideration for managers, and managers of managers.
When stepping into a manager role, there are a few things to have in mind:
Embracing a New Manager Mindset
When promoted into management, a key shift needs to happen in mindset. One should approach their management role not as an expert who already knows how to do the job, but as a learner who has to develop new capabilities from the ground up. The recipes of the past, which made one good at their job, may not fully apply anymore in this new management position. A new posture is to be adopted. The new manager has an entirely different set of responsibilities and an entirely different set of ways to meet these responsibilities. Humility and openness are crucial to gaining these new skills.
Often new managers are asked to continue their individual contributor responsibilities in addition to taking on management duties. While retaining some hands-on work can be valuable, workload and priorities need to be intentionally restructured. The management responsibilities will require focused time and energy.
From delivering to Enabling
A core responsibility shift is from personally delivering work to enabling one’s team members to deliver results. The new manager’s role is oversight and orchestration rather than tactical execution. They need to create an environment for the team to thrive while avoiding the pitfall of micromanagement.
Team members should feel empowered in their individual roles. The new manager needs to resist swooping in to take over their direct reports’ work, but rather guide and support their people in executing independently. It’s a dance of being involved while still respecting boundaries. Patience and trust in one’s team are essential.
As Patrick Swayze would put it in Dirty Dancing: “This is my dance space. This is your dance space. I don’t go into yours, you don’t go into mine.” Respecting each other’s dance spaces doesn’t prevent them from working together in harmony, delivering the performance or executing on a shared wider vision.
Navigating New Relationship Dynamics
Stepping into a management role also significantly changes work relationships. The new manager now has access to private information about their direct reports and increased influence over their career progression. This power dynamic can breed discomfort on both sides.
Should the new manager aim to be friends with their employees, or keep things strictly professional? The ideal posture is likely somewhere in the middle - being friendly while recognising one’s greater responsibilities. Personal friendships may risk blurring boundaries. However, an open, caring rapport can enable trust.
The new manager should reflect on how to appropriately balance the “boss” hat with being approachable. They should also be aware that with their new status, former peers may behave differently around them. Finding one’s footing in these shifting dynamics takes time.
It can feel isolating to step into a manager’s role from this perspective and finding the right posture may take time. It’s OK. Remember the change in the dynamics is not personal. Seek support from other managers who are going or have gone through similar transitions.
Clear is kind
Giving and receiving feedback is hard. I have many conversations with my clients, even seasoned C-level managers, about giving feedback or how to approach difficult conversations. One gets used to it with time and experience, but it is never easy and always requires reflection and tact.
Fear of damaging relationships or hurting employees’ feelings can cause managers to shy away from giving honest feedback. This is a disservice to their people’s growth. The Performance Review is the absolute worst place to hear a piece of feedback for the first time. Feedback should be an ongoing dialog and direct reports deserve to know where they stand. Feedback should be frequent, fair and focused on facts.
One must be generous with positive feedback too. Celebrate achievements, recognise accomplishments, and appreciate efforts.
Just as important as giving feedback is soliciting it. New managers will benefit from regularly collecting input from their team and stakeholders on their leadership strengths and weaknesses. They need to know how they are perceived in order to improve.
It is essential for everybody involved to know what their role is, what is expected of them and how they fit in the grand scheme of things. Too often, clients come to me demotivated as a result of having poorly scoped roles and feeling stuck in a gridlock going nowhere.
Constructive feedback aims at supporting the individual in closing the gap between those expectations and the reality, a reality made of facts evidencing said gaps.
The manager should be curious about what might explain those gaps. There may be blockers which are outside of the individual’s control, which may need a deeper involvement from the manager.
On caring, delegating and shielding
Many of my clients are deeply caring people and are very set on protecting their teams, shielding them from whatever chaos might be going on above. Remember though that no one in the team should be carrying a heavier weight than they can carry and that includes the manager.
Managers should not be afraid to delegate work to their team members. They cannot do everything on their own. Team members might welcome the opportunity to have more responsibility and to position themselves for their own growth. The manager will be more useful to their team by being available for them when they need them than buried under a pile of delayed projects.
Setting an example of a good work-life balance and role-modelling healthy behaviours is also important.
On leading a team
When leading a team, it’s up to you to set an environment that supports the team in delivering. That includes having clarity in how the team fits into the wider organisation and setting clear goals. That also includes assessing that the current structure and resources can fulfil the desired goals. If not, the manager needs to explore changes to realign.
This may involve redefining priorities, modifying processes or proposing new roles. Afraid of rocking the boat, new managers often default to maintaining the status quo. But leaders question existing models. They identify gaps between objectives and capacity and put solutions on the table.
Learning through Failure
Imposter syndrome runs rampant among new managers. With little direct experience to draw from, they often second-guess their instincts. However, taking risks and making mistakes are the only ways to gain competence. Early missteps should be treated as valuable learning opportunities.
Rather than punishing failure, organisations - and individuals! - should encourage appropriate risk-taking and reflection. Managers must be allowed space to find their own style through trial and error. Patience and resilience will lead to growth.
The same goes for the team members, and the manager also needs to let their team members go through that same process for their own growth and development. A failure of the team member is not a failure of the manager. It’s an opportunity for both to learn.
Everybody fails. If it hasn’t happened to you yet (although I may challenge that fact), it will someday. Don’t put unattainable expectations on yourself or your team and accept mistakes as a part of the process.
Stepping into a management role for the first time is a major undertaking. However, with the right support and mindset, new managers can rise to meet their new responsibilities and thrive. It’s important to acknowledge that it is a big step and goes wider than just a promotion, as it impacts the social dynamics within the workplace as well. It can be a vulnerable time and new managers should be given the space to grow into their new role safely and have access to support, mentors and soundboards.