Becoming a first-time manager is daunting. You are no longer an individual contributor and part of a team, and your relationships with your colleagues and your managers have completely transformed. Perhaps the biggest mistake a first-time manager makes is to underestimate the learning curve they are about to experience or to anticipate the potential emotional effects.
This article outlines 12 common mistakes first-time managers make and gives tips to avoid them. We explain how your leadership style can make the job of being a manager easier. We also suggest ways to motivate and gain the trust and support of your subordinates, how to manage your manager, and why mentors are so crucial.
Some managers assume their position without a clear understanding of what their short and long-term goals are. They continue with business as usual without confirming the priorities. Abhishek Paramanand, a manager at the Indian multinational steel-making company Tata Steel, Ltd., commented on Quora, “Without a crystal clear view of their prescribed role, a manager will not be able to make the best decisions and lead their teams in the right direction.”
Without mutual clarity on three to five key results, managers risk making poor decisions, particularly when there are inevitable trade-offs to be made. Here's how a manager can gain clarity.
A new manager should not assume they understand their role. Plan a one-on-one meeting with your manager to clarify expectations.
These meetings should be held regularly, weekly if possible, because both short and long-term priorities will shift. As a manager, it is your job to understand the objectives and ensure that your team has the resources they need to achieve the objectives.
Obtain mutual and written confirmation of two or three priority areas with your manager and revisit them often to maintain alignment with organizational goals.
A manager should understand their environment and the context under which they are expected to perform. This requires understanding the responsibilities and interests of other stakeholders, such as subordinates in their own team, other cross-functional teams, cross-functional team superiors, and executive management. This gives a manager a 360-degree view of their own role and how others impact them. This information is crucial for strategic decision-making.
Plot a chart with the various managers, teams, and roles to show interconnections and lines of command.
Consider where you can build alliances. A manager can get decisions passed and gain the support of others by building alliances and gaining political power.
It’s easy for a manager to have a silo mentality and focus solely on their own department's processes. But this can hinder operations and be detrimental to the organization. Managers with a more holistic understanding of the big picture are more likely to suggest workflow solutions that can benefit the whole company.
Engage with other managers to understand all of the connected operations.
Gain a working knowledge of all of the organization’s processes, not just those you manage.
Find ways to collaborate and remove bottlenecks.
Consider how employees could benefit from collaborations; for example, rotations to other departments to learn new skills.
Your relationship with your direct manager and new boss is probably the most important relationship of all. This relationship will determine whether you are supported and promoted and, in turn, whether your team is supported and promoted too. It is up to you to build trust with your manager so that you can get things done and receive the resources your team needs to reach their objectives.
Meet regularly with your boss to clarify priorities.
Learn how your manager prefers to communicate. Do they prefer texts, phone calls, emails?
Keep your manager informed but without overwhelming them with information.
Schedule regular one-on-one meetings with your boss.
Select one or two items for discussion: you are more likely to get consensus if you limit the focus of the meeting.
When presenting an issue or a challenge, always give two to three solutions. Your boss is likely to pick one. That way, you are a problem solver, not a complainer.
Understand your supervisor’s network and interests. Otherwise, you could embarrass your boss by talking negatively about something they have a vested interest in.
For more on managing your relationship with your boss, read “I Hate My Boss—What Should I Do?”
Addressing conflict could be the one thing that all managers hate to do. But it's only through conflict that progress is made. To find a better way to do something requires someone to disagree with another so that a solution can be found.
New managers often shy away from a conflict, whether it be their own or a conflict among team members, but conflict is something that managers must deal with beginning on their first day. The manager that can confidently find solutions by listening to both sides, mediating, and finding a win-win outcome will earn trust and prove themselves a great leader.
Many conflict situations can be avoided if the company culture, and you as a manager, encourage an environment where people communicate openly and are not afraid to fail. Encourage staff to take risks, and don’t punish them if they make mistakes. Support your staff and guide them to finding their own solutions rather than telling them what to do. Empower your staff.
Hold regular feedback sessions with subordinates and peers so that lines of communication are open and issues are dealt with before they become major conflicts.
Plan one-on-one meetings regularly to encourage a relationship of trust.
Encourage staff to speak up when they have concerns and reward them for doing so.
Don’t punish mistakes but encourage staff when they take the initiative.
Listen to both sides of an issue to understand both perspectives.
Realize your own biases, and do your best to control them when you make decisions.
Look out for signs of burnout in staff, which inevitably will cause workplace conflict.
Seek the advice of a third party, mediators, or career coaches for an outside perspective.
A good manager is not only interested in others, but they want to learn from them. First-time managers often think that they should have all the answers, but that’s just not realistic because they face a steep learning curve.
This is a time to be humble and seek the support and advice of everyone around you. For example, Peter, who works in the customer service department and responds to customer complaints, knows a lot more about the customer experience than you do. Anna, an engineer working on the platform’s API, knows more than you about how interfaces can encourage conversions.
Listen to others and take the advice of your new team members. You will garner the knowledge, trust, and support of your subordinates and peers.
Seek the opinion of subordinates and admit that you don’t know everything.
Be humble and learn from subordinates and peers. Use the information you receive to make better decisions.
Consult regularly with a mentor for advice and to check the decisions that you are making in your new job.
Some managers find it difficult to let go of their past jobs when they assume their new role as a manager. For example, a research analyst who is promoted to manager might be tempted to continue to be involved in research projects and even to micromanage. After all, research is where their expertise lies.
However, as a manager, you are expected to step back and assume a role that oversees but does not get mired in the details. This means relinquishing tasks that you love, letting someone else take the reins, and trusting them to do a good job.
Confirm your role as a manager and identify your priorities and responsibilities.
Delegate as much as you can to your staff according to their skillsets so that your time is freed up to attain those goals.
Don’t be tempted to stay involved in projects at an inappropriate level. It’s time to let go.
Xiomara Medina, an agile project manager and business owner, warns against telling direct reports what to do. But isn’t telling people what to do the role of a manager? Not exactly. It is a manager’s job to set goals for people and to guide and support them in pursuit of those goals. That’s quite different from telling them what to do.
That said, there are contexts where a manager does have to adopt an autocratic management style. For example, the military is an example of a work environment where a successful outcome results from the execution of precise instructions with no time for discussion.
Both models are examples of great leadership. The appropriate style of leadership depends on the context.
Unless you are in an environment where autocratic leadership is appropriate, here’s a better way to lead.
Act more as a guide and mentor and less as a voice of authority.
Let others find their way of doing things. Your way is not necessarily the best way.
Celebrate milestones, not just big achievements. We all need a bit of motivation, so throw in a happy hour or two or free pizza to celebrate the small things.
People are bound to disagree with something when they don’t see the reason behind it. Once people understand the strategy or the goal, your role as a leader will be much easier. What’s more, your teams may even come up with better ways of doing things.
Take the time to explain why something needs to be done so that people can come on board with the idea.
Get to know your team before delegating tasks. An introverted software engineer may not want to suddenly manage a project team and all its varied personalities. An extroverted sales rep may not want to be holed up in an office focusing on sales analytics. Be sensitive to the strengths, weaknesses, and career aspirations of staff when assigning roles to ensure employee engagement and better staff retention.
Check-in with staff at regular intervals to gauge how engaged they are with their work.
Ask staff what they would like to do before assigning roles and tasks. Give them a choice if at all possible.
Advocate for your staff and help them along the road to professional development and promotion.
One of the most important things you can do as a great manager is to be authentic. That requires self-awareness. Knowing your leadership skills and style will help you be more intentional about using them well and managing your own shortcomings. Does your strength lie with your expertise? Charisma? Caring?
Whatever it is, it is enough. Leverage your unique leadership style to become more influential and inspire others.
Assuming a management position marks a big change. Your relationship with your coworkers has turned 180 degrees—you are now managing them, which is quite different. For some, the management role can be a lonely one. You are expected to make decisions, yet there are few people you can talk to about your decisions. You are also now closer to the higher echelons of the executive suite and, thus, thrust into a world of political intrigue that you know nothing about. To succeed, you need a strong network of support.
Build a network that includes family and friends and trusted mentors who can advise you in all aspects of your life. You might need more than one mentor—someone who understands your personal life, someone who understands the politics of your organization, and someone who can act as a career coach. Don't try to go it alone. A strong support network will see you through the hard times as you lead your teams to the best of times.