advice for first-time managers

Becoming a manager is one of the biggest and most stressful professional transitions that you’re likely to make in the course of your career. When you’re new to managing, it can be tough to realize that the skills that served you well up until this point aren’t necessarily the same ones that will make you successful managing a team.

Managing well means that you’ll have to get comfortable with – and eventually master – a whole new set of skills and behaviors. At U.S. News & World Report today, I talk about five of the most important. You can read it here.

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Nick

    What is the average time in answering a question after it was submitted? I submitted one right before Thanksgiving and I’m wondering if it was received.

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    1. Snark

      I’m not Alison, but given that you got this aut0-response:

      “I answer as many questions as I can, but the volume of mail I receive means that I’m not able to respond to everything, and some (very worthy) questions end up going unanswered. If this happens with your question, please know that I really regret it. But if I do publish it, I’ll email you with a link to my answer so you’ll know when it appears.”

      when you submitted your question less than two weeks ago, maybe be patient and don’t derail the comments thread.

      Reply
    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      If you received the auto-reply, it was received. My backlog is big, though, and the volume means I’m not able to answer every question I receive. If I do answer it, it could be days or it could be months. (I’m sorry! That’s the impact of the backlog, and I don’t answer things in order received for a variety of reasons.)

      Reply
  2. Anonymouse

    Oh, how I want to print out this advice and place it in my clueless manager’s mailbox, but that would be passive aggressive. :(

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    1. Susan K

      Me too! My manager is new at managing and desperately needs to learn that he can’t be buddies with direct reports (and he can’t complain about/make fun of some direct reports to other direct reports).

      Reply
    2. Lindsey

      My vote is to print it out and share it with a sticky note saying “Read this interesting article lately and thought I’d share with you.” One vote from an internet stranger!

      Reply
  3. Not Today Satan

    I’m a team lead which is the literal worst. I have all of the responsibilities and drawbacks of managing people without any of the authority–which of course the people I supervise know. Most of my team is good anyway but I have one problem employee. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve raised the issue with my manager, and if she doesn’t have my back I’ll have to just quit. It sucks.

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    1. The Other Dawn

      My husband was in a team lead position and experienced the same thing. He also got no extra pay in addition to no authority, yet everything came down on him when something went wrong. He told his boss he wanted to step down and just be part of the team, and he’s so much happier now. It didn’t impact his pay since he wasn’t getting anything extra anyway, but it saved him his sanity.

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    2. Red Reader

      Also a team lead. My manager is pretty good about keeping the drawbacks in her court though, because I don’t have any HR authority. She’s way too nice though, but at least that’s more likely to backfire on her rather than just me.

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    3. Magenta Sky

      Were I come from, the term for your position is “blame boy.” It’s rarely unintentional that it works out that way. And the only rational solution is a different job.

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    4. Ramona Flowers

      I’m having flashbacks to my own experience of this. The worst thing was that the manager would let people change deadlines or assignments instead of redirecting them to me, so they’d ask him instead as they knew I would say no because I needed them to do the thing as agreed.

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    5. Nolan

      I avoided the management track at my last job for this same reason. Step 1 was Team Lead which had no power and tons of unmanageable responsibility.

      Reply
  4. Lisa B

    The advice about not being the “do’er” anymore is SPOT ON. I’m a year into my first official teapot design management role and that’s what’s tripped me up more than anything else. I love what I do, and loved teapot design! Trying to manage the designers, and keep my hands off of the actual design, is hard. But I realized I was not getting to my strategic directives because I was too tangled up in the weeds.

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    1. Snark

      Yeah, it’s hard for me to delegate stuff. It’s a weird feeling to be like, okay, a Thing needs done, best get busy, and then go, oh wait, Fergus handles Thing, and then forward Thing to Fergus and…..then it gets done. And I’m like, huh.

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      1. TheMonkey

        Yes. And when I do successfully delgate, then I realize that my job is telling other people to do THEIR jobs and I feel weird and unproductive.

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        1. Arya Snark

          Yeah – it’s definitely a learning curve to understand that my job isn’t to do much actual work, it’s just to make sure all the work gets done.

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    2. NW Mossy

      This is one of the great merits of having your first manager position be over a team doing at least somewhat different work than what you did as an individual contributor. It makes it a lot easier to avoid the do-all-the-things trap, because you literally don’t know how to do what your team does.

      Depending on the manager role, it may also be possible to have structural constraints to prevent you from getting in the weeds too much. I have read-only or no access to the primary applications my team uses, so even though I have the technical know-how, my limited access rights ensure that I delegate appropriately. It’s set up that way for controls reasons, but I appreciate this side benefit.

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    3. Where's the Le-Toose?

      My biggest hurdles were establishing a new set of boundaries with coworkers and delegating. I’m now starting my 8th year as a manager and it took some hard lessons early on to cause me to stop tinkering with the day-to-day work product and focus on bigger issues! As for setting boundaries, it became much easier once I managed a team that only knew me as a manager.

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    4. Blue_eyes

      Yes. My biggest thing to work on (and the only thing my boss ever tells me to improve on) is delegating.

      My position is a little tricky because I am both the manager to other staff, and also an individual contributor in my own right. Some of my staff have very clearly established job duties that don’t overlap with mine, so it’s easy to delegate work to them that falls within their purview. But then there are other staff that have coverage-based jobs (they have to be physically present for a certain shift) but often have a lot of downtime. I have the power to delegate any of my work to them, but it’s sort of peripheral to their job duties so I often don’t.

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    1. Beer Thirty

      Which really f***ing sucks. I don’t like being held responsible for the actions of others. Which is why I’d rather just do the work myself.

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  5. Trout 'Waver

    One thing I learned the hard way: It takes time, coaching, and practice to learn management skills. It doesn’t just happen. You have to put in work just like any other skill. I look back and cringe at some of the mistakes I made when I started.

    Also, when you make mistakes while you are still learning, admit to them, own them, and do better next time. You will make mistakes. I’ve seen some new managers refuse to admit mistakes and it doesn’t go anywhere productive.

    Reply
    1. limenotapple

      I missed this when I posted mine, but you said it better! Owning them has helped considerably. People react differently to your mistakes if you take responsibility!

      Reply
  6. hayling

    I had a terrible boss (who was promoted from an IC role) who did the opposite of all of these! She played favorites (it was way past the “appearance” part), did the work for her employees who were slipping, was afraid to be the bad guy, etc.

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  7. limenotapple

    I’d also add, “you’re going to make mistakes; learn from them but don’t lose sleep.” I have made mistakes that were all part of learning this job, but owning them and learning from it and moving to the next thing have helped me manage it.

    Reply
  8. AnonAndOn

    There was an issue with the first bullet point at the job I left a year ago. The office was too small and managers were hanging out with their reports daily for lunch and at times after work. One minute they were buddy-buddy and the next they had to give them feedback about their performance?! There didn’t seem to be any proper boundaries set regarding that. And in some cases people started out as co-workers while one would rise to the level of a supervisor/manager but those relationships never changed accordingly.

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  9. Arya Snark

    #4 is the hardest for me but I’m finally coming to terms with it. My biggest issue is that I can complete certain tasks in a fraction of the time that it takes someone else. I’m all about efficiency so letting the person whose job it is to do said task just do it no matter how long it takes her is hard for me but I’m learning to just let it be and hoping that eventually she’ll be able to get it done quicker someday.

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  10. Adlib

    I never want to be a manager, but ever since coming to this blog, I know EXACTLY what good and bad management looks like. I used to have a manager/team lead who refused to delegate and then got mad I wasn’t working as much as she was. (I asked for work, btw.)

    Reply
  11. It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's ... Billable Hour Man!

    Not that I have any management experience, but I’d add “emphasize precision in communication” to the list — from the standpoint of an underling’s wish list.

    e.g. it is very, very easy to create fear where none was necessary with a vague “Can you come into my office?” when “Can you come into my office to discuss X?” would have done the trick — even though the former was never meant to imply an issue…

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  12. Lora

    Also,, thing I wish new managers would do: read! There are oodles of books and trainings and whatnot available. If your employer doesn’t have them, see if you can get training from a local college or professional society. Never flail alone! It will help sooooo much because there will be events when you absolutely do not know how to react in the moment, or you want to react inappropriately, and you’re like crap, now what do I do. The training and education will give you scripts and things to say that you can sort of say on autopilot until you figure out the correct thing to do. Because there will be craziness you can’t even with, the full range of human behavior on display. And you’re supposed to be the grownup who knows how to deal with it.

    Sort of like when you are parenting or otherwise dealing with a very small child: the things they come up with are Out There, things YOU certainly never did as a child, and it takes practice before you can react calmly to the temper tantrum with “Okay, you’re going to your room until you can behave,” or “I know you’re upset, but it’s dinner time now so come to the table,” etc. At first it’s just a friggin nightmare when they have a meltdown in the middle of Target and scream like someone is tearing their arms off, but after some practice you get stoic. It goes a LOT faster getting to stoic if you have had specific lessons in how to deal with it. Same with management, you will get to capable a lot faster if you have lessons in how to deal with people. Only instead of “maybe you will make better choices tomorrow,” the script is, “hang on a minute, let’s slow down and make sure I understand the problem,” “I can see you’re very upset, how about you take a few minutes to have a cup of tea and collect yourself and we will talk about this later?” and “let me give you the number for Facilities, they are the ones who set the thermostat”.

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  13. Shoe

    I’m in a situation where I befriended someone at work, both because I wanted to be closer to her professionally (I’m trying to do more work in her area of expertise) and because I think she’s cool and would love to be her friend. Currently, we are at approximately the same level, but I was kind of trying to get a partial appointment in her department. I told her all of my plans, hopes, dreams, desires, emotions, feelings about my boss–stuff you’d tell a peer. We scheme together to try to get what we want at work (not in any bad way, just kind of talking stuff out and then figuring out the best way to get others on board with our ideas!).

    Well, there was a major shake-up in her department when two senior managers suddenly quit, and now it’s looking like she might be promoted. And given that I was trying to get a partial appointment in her department, she might become my boss! I feel so uncomfortable that we have the kind of relationship we do, and I’m really struggling thinking about how it might have to change if she becomes one of my bosses. On the one hand, great, because I know she likes me and thinks I do good work, and also I like her and think she deserves a nice promotion. On the other hand….I’ll be so sad to lose my friend and partner in crime! I really had no inkling that things would start to shake out this way or I might have acted differently.

    Reply
  14. Nardole

    Any advice on being seconded into a management position? I’m only doing the job for 3 months (which I’m happy about!) and then I’ll be back on the same level as the people I’m currently managing (who I’ve now been working with for several years).

    Reply

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