Never been manager


Radio news It’s September, a period of transition for many people, which means some folks will become managers for the first time. I’ve written extensively about being a good manager, starting with “I can manage” from chapter 9 of my book (a chapter dedicated to humane handling of humans). However, before you set off to become a good manager, you must first get comfortable with being responsible for the livelihoods of other adults. That’s a big pill to swallow.

Adults have loan payments, utility bills, activity fees, and a host of other financial responsibilities, as well as self-image issues, that you now dramatically influence. Gulp. You’re going to meet their parents, spouses, friends, and children before and after you review their work performance. Gulp, gulp. If that’s not enough, your finances and self-image are now dependent on their work and loyalty. Gulp, gulp, gulp.

So, congratulations on achieving your goal of finally becoming a manager. Careful what you wish for. As for swallowing these big gulps—well, I’m here to help.

Welcome to the machine

As I mention in “I can manage,” the basics to being a good manager are caring about all your employees as people and ensuring they have what they need to work in a safe environment. While this might seem like a low bar (and it is), there are a surprising number of bad managers in the world.

Why are there so many bad managers, when being a good manager requires so little? I believe it’s because the two requirements involve focusing on others. Serving your employees, in addition to yourself, requires a significant mind shift after years of focusing only on your own advancement.

  • You need to be transparent, so that your employees can trust you, understand your actions, and have all the information they need to be effective.
  • You need to think of yourself as representing your team members, receiving the credit and the blame for their work as well as your own, so that you care about them as much as you care about yourself.
  • You need to help plan for others and relinquish direct control of what they own, even if that means allowing employees to try, fail, and improve, so that your team can be more successful.

When you serve your employees, you gain their trust and can more easily and fairly represent their interests—financial and otherwise. While you’ve probably had to practice these behaviors before, doing them all the time is difficult. Let’s break them down.

Eric Aside

Read about creating safe environments in which to work, stumble, and learn in Is it safe?

While this column is about how new managers need to start helping others, you must also continue helping yourself. Not only is this important for your own career and well-being, it also makes you a good role model for your team.

I see what you’re doing here

It may be fun to share your successes, but it’s scary to share your mistakes and failures. But how can your team members work in a safe environment if they don’t know what’s safe? How can they respond to problems they can’t see? Why would they share issues that impact you and your team, if you’re not willing to share your own?

Being transparent feels scary—you’re exposing yourself and your team, warts and all. However, insecurity is not leadership. Be proud of your team. Embrace your failings as opportunities to grow and reach new heights together. We all make mistakes; greatness comes from how we respond.

Eric Aside

There is some information you can’t share as a manager, such as personal information about employees or org and plan changes that haven’t been disclosed yet to those who will be impacted. However, the question should be, “Why can’t I share this?” not “Why should I?”

More about transparency in Get real, “More than open and honest” (chapter 8), and “To tell the truth” (chapter 1).

I made this

Many first-time managers find it difficult to take credit for their team’s work, especially on self-evaluations, unless they made a significant individual contribution. Well, guess what? You get the blame when your team members mess up, regardless of how much or little you were involved. Thus, it behooves you to take the credit when your team succeeds.

Naturally, you should share credit generously with your team members and partners who contributed to your shared success. The key to remember is that as a manager, it’s not about you singular anymore—it’s about you plural. This is the culture you should be coaching to all your employees: you win and lose as a team.

Eric Aside

For more about recognition, read I hardly recognize you.

Enabling others

When you consider future work, you’re probably used to analyzing it, designing it, and thinking through the implementation. That’s what a good engineer does prior to writing a feature or fixing a bug. However, a good manager needs to plan and design for a whole team, not just herself.

Considering a broader scope of work also means thinking further ahead, since broad work takes longer. Managers typically need to plan two- to three-times further ahead than their direct reports will plan. That’s why Satya needs to focus on work years in advance. As a leader, you’re all about enabling future results now in order to enjoy the credit later. Perhaps it’s the delayed gratification that makes being a good manager so difficult.

Eric Aside

I cover the subtleties of high-level management in Making the big time.

Satya Nadella is the current CEO of Microsoft.

Overdoing it

Another challenge for first-time managers is relinquishing control. Being great at your craft probably helped you become a manager. Now you need to let your employees do most of the work. (They outnumber you.) They’ll almost always do it differently than you would, and sometimes not as well. Wow, is it difficult to stand back and let people fail (within reason). You feel such internal (and sometimes external) pressure to step in and get things done right.

However, it’s not your job to do other people’s work. Doing other people’s work, whether for someone on your team or another team, is called “overfunctioning.” The trouble with overfunctioning is that it enables the underlying problem to persist and prevents people from learning and growing.

As a responsible leader, you need to overfunction occasionally to prevent catastrophes. But even then, it’s important to resolve the underlying problem that caused you to step in. If you don’t let people try, fail, and improve, their problems will only multiply and overwhelm you. Your team won’t excel, and all of you will suffer. That’s no way to lead a team. Hold yourself back, be there to help and support, and enable your team to learn, grow, and achieve greatness.

Eric Aside

Learn to manage and mitigate your risk in Right on schedule.

Sitting in

Sometimes your first experience at being a manager is filling in while your manager is away. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • You’re not actually in charge. In a few weeks, the people you torment will be your peers once again. Try not to let the opportunity go to your head.
  • You are in charge, temporarily. Don’t shy away from responsibility. If a decision needs to be made now, make it. Your manager put trust in you to keep your team functioning well and moving forward.
  • Ask for help as needed. Though your manager is absent, other managers you trust are only a Skype or email away. Engage good mentors, and grow through the experience.
  • Make the most of your opportunity. Try the behaviors I described earlier. Pay attention to how you feel and what the role is like, particularly in one-on-ones and meetings with your manager’s peers. This is a great chance to see if being a manager is right for you.

Ready for action

Congratulations on becoming a manager for the first time. It is a heavy responsibility. Your employees are adults with real feelings, real finances, and real families. They are trusting you with their careers. You can show them their trust is well-placed by being transparent, caring as much about them as you do yourself, helping plan their future success, and giving them the autonomy needed to make mistakes and gain mastery of their craft.

Being a good manager is all about serving your team members so you can achieve greatness together. Coaching and guiding your staff, witnessing their tribulations and triumphs, and seeing them grow as employees and people is inspiring. It has been the most rewarding experience of my career, and I hope it will bring you all the joy, insight, and fulfillment is has brought me.

Eric Aside

If you’ve been a manager, but are taking over a new team, you might want to read Taking over.

Comments (1)

  1. Matt Gertz says:

    Just to pile onto the “Overdoing it” section — the hardest thing (for me) all those years ago when I became a manager was letting go of my previous coding responsibilities. Not just because I needed to let my people grow and make mistakes and so on (which is all good advice), but because a person simply can’t sustain all of that work. Don’t Do It. You Will Burn Out. Learn to live (and get rewarded, as noted above) vicariously through your people instead.

    The other tricky one for me personally was the temptation/inclination to become a martinet — “I’m a manager now, so by golly I’m going to manage, just watch me give those orders.” I learned quickly that this ain’t the armed forces…

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