first-time manager? here’s what you need to know

If you’re new to managing, the skills that served you well up until this point probably aren’t going to be enough to bring you success managing a team. Managing well requires a whole different set of skills and behaviors. Here are the five most important things for you to know about doing it right.

1. Set clear goals for your team to achieve. Too often, managers assume that they and their team members are on the same page about what success would look like – but haven’t actually taken the time to ensure that the case. As a result, team members’ priorities might be different from yours or people might simply be maintaining the status quo rather than making real progress in another direction. Be explicit with your staff members about what a successful performance this year would look like.

2. Be clear about what your team shouldn’t spend time on, as well. Inexperienced managers – and ineffective ones too – often say yes to any project idea that sounds promising. But there are all kinds of ideas out there, and you can’t do them all. Moreover, some ideas will have more impact than others, and saying yes to one means necessarily not spending time on others. It’s key to think critically about whether something is the bestway for your team to spend its energy – and saying no when it’s not.

3. Set clear standards for your team. Your employees need – and generally want – to know not only what you expect them to do, but how you expect them to approach their work. For instance, if you want all client calls returned within a day, make sure that your staff knows that. If you want your office manager to put flexibility for staff ahead of being a stickler for procedure, tell her that explicitly. Too often, managers aren’t explicit about these sorts of expectations and then get frustrated when their employees don’t meet them (and meanwhile, the employees feel frustrated that they weren’t clearly told what was expected).

4. Don’t shy away from giving feedback. One of the most important levers you have as a manager is providing clear, regular, actionable feedback that lets people know what they’re doing well (and what you’d like to see more of) and where they could do better. New managers sometimes feel awkward about giving feedback, and as a result some end up relying on hints or even not saying anything at all. That will deny your staff opportunities to get better at what they do, and it will make the times that you do give feedback feel like more momentous events. You’re better off making it a normal part of your interactions from the beginning.

5. A key part of your job is to build a great team.Because your team has such an enormous influence on what you’re able to get accomplished, you should take an active role in managing its makeup. The uncomfortable truth is that the team you have now might not be the team you should keep. Rather, you should be proactive about shaping it – putting real energy into hiring and retaining top performers and letting go of people who don’t perform at a high level. That last part is never easy, but it’s critical to the overall performance of your team.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 37 comments… read them below }

  1. Manager anonymous*

    I would add- keep your direct supervisor in the loop.

    Although I am not a “new manager” I was new to this position a year and 1/2 ago. I began by sending a short 3 to 4 sentence weekly progress report on my department.

    I included things like…it seems that Betsy should be updating the website yet it isn’t in her job description. Is this an appropriate task for this position?

    or a shout out….yesterday we had a serious customer service glitch ….this is how Tacey handled this awkward situation superbly.

    Tibb has been 15 to 20 minutes late, 3 to 4 times a week for the last two months. I have spoken to her about the importance of arriving on time. She doesn’t seem to be taking this issue seriously. I am documenting and have sent her 2 emails reiterating my concern. What are my next steps?

    1. Nanc*

      What about Joe? How’s Joe doing under your management?! Betsy, Tacy and Tib could all learn a few things from Joe!

      1. Jennifer*

        We’re all such nerds.

        Jenny? Where have you been? Your mom says you were at a sleepover all week….

  2. Lora*

    Also: See if your organization offers any kind of manager training. Sometimes it exists but isn’t well-advertised, and can be quite useful. If there isn’t any, pick up some books on managing people. My personal favorites are “The No A$$hole Rule” and “How To Win Friends And Influence People” but I’m sure other commenters can suggest more. Just by trying to learn how to be a decent manager you’ll be head and shoulders above most other managers, who don’t take the time or put in the effort.

  3. blu*

    I would add review your company’s performance review process now so that you can keep in mind and make note of it as things come up.

  4. The Other Dawn*

    Communicating my expectations was a tough one for me to learn as a new manager. I enjoy the hands-off management approach when it comes to how I’m managed, and I tend to be that way when I’m managing. It’s easy to take it for granted that everything is getting done in the way it should get done, when it should get done. I just assume people know what to do and when, and how to do it. I’ve gotten myself into trouble with that before and I plan to turn that around the next time I’m a manager (hopefully that’ soon).

  5. Jamie*

    Number 4 is something so many people need to learn – some who have been managing forever.

    I flawed in 1001 different ways, but if I need you to do X like Y – that’s what I’ll say. I’ll say please – I’ll thank you – but the instruction and that it’s required is absolutely clear.

    If I suggest X or Y, or ask if you’ve thought about doing Z – that’s exactly what I mean. A thought, a suggestion, take it or leave it.

    Just like if I say I’m going to need you on project Y – that’s what I mean. If I tell you there is an opportunity for you to be involved in project Y if you’d like that’s what I mean. I thought it might interest you, thought you might be good at it, but if you don’t want to it’s not required and won’t be held against you.

    So many people think they are tests or games or guess the right answer and it’s because of bosses who issue directives in the form of a suggestion and mandatory assignments under the guise that it’s optional which creates employees who are so paranoid the managers who don’t have time for that crap have to retrain them to take words at face value. Managers who do this aren’t nicer than me…I’m nicer because you know what’s a requirement and what isn’t from the start.

    I don’t have time to deprogram the people you terrorized with ambiguity – so everyone who does this knock it off.

    1. Windchime*

      +1000. My current manager is pretty good about it, but in the beginning he would just say things as if they were thoughts that were flitting past his mind as opposed to actual directives. I finally said, “Look, I always agree with what you say but I often leave our one-on-ones unclear about what it is you actually need me to do. So can I have a list, please?” Now he is better about saying “I need you to do this, and this, and this”.

      The vague hints and subtle inferences drive me mad. I need a list with concrete action items, not an idea cloud with wisps and whispered “what-ifs”.

      1. voluptuousfire*

        GRRR! YES! My former manager was all about inferences, vague hinting and passive aggressive communication. She was brand spanking new as a manager.

  6. MaryMary*

    One of the big changes for me when I first became a manager was to realize I was Management now. When you’re Management, you represent the company to your employees. That means communicating and enforcing company policies and expectations, not just your own. Let’s say your company has a formal dress code: suits and ties and pantyhose. You think the dress code is outdated and ridiculous, particularly since your team’s role is entirely internal. You can lobby your boss to change the dress code, you can try a formal proposal to senior management. But if they say the dress code is not going to change, it is your job to make sure your employees follow it. You can let your team know you tried to change the policy and got overruled (and hopefully, when you were overruled someone gave you reasoning you can share with your team), but if you continue to badmouth it (or worse, try to ignore it), you are undermining your manager, senior management, and their authority.

    When you’re Management, people also put extra weight on what you say and how you act. A random comment or a joke suddenly becomes “my manager said.” One of the best pieces of advice I got as a new manager was Vent Up. Everyone gets frustrated at work and needs to vent. When you’re a manager, people pay more attention to your rants and put new meaning on it. Complain to your manager, complain to another manager on your level, go home and complain to your significant other or bestie, but don’t vent to your team. If you’re negative and especially if you’re disrespectful (which, c’mon, happens when we’re venting), your team will pick up the same attitude.

    1. De Minimis*

      This is so true…I’m not a manager, but attended some meetings taking notes for my boss. The person in charge of our region basically said as much….there were some changes being enacted from headquarters that many were dubious about, but he emphasized it was very important to not express that to the staff. He said “Complain to me or to each other all you want, but not to your staff. If they don’t buy into this, it will fail for sure.”

    2. cuppa*

      So very true and not something that everyone learns. My new manager was really negative about something that was going on a few months ago, and I think the whole experience was more negative than it could have/should have been because we were all influenced by her reaction.

    3. Graciosa*

      I really echo that sudden shock of “I am Management.” It still surprises me sometimes how much people are paying attention. Frankly, I don’t feel all that important – I’m just trying to get work done.

      One of my direct reports recently made a comment along the lines of “It seems like you were having a tough day on Thursday” which was a shock because 1) I try really, really hard to make sure I keep any of my moods away from the team (including consistently cheerful greetings, smiles, etc.) and 2) I have been doing this long enough to think I had mastered number 1. It wasn’t even that big a deal – I’m pretty even tempered.

      Your team is watching you more closely than you realize.

      Even when you have good relationships with your direct reports. Even when you make a conscious effort to manage your behavior. Even when you think there’s nothing to see.

      I mentioned it to a much more experienced and very senior manager who I would think had really mastered this stuff and was told it never stops surprising you.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        “Your team is watching you more closely than you realize.”

        Times ten. They know what you ate for breakfast, what you watched on tv last night and that you are angry at your spouse. I am not saying be paranoid. But very little gets by them, you life is more of an open book than you realize.

  7. Milos*

    Listen, learn and make adjustments based on the information you have. Continuously be open and available for ideas and communication, but stand behind your decisions once you make them.

  8. OfficePrincess*

    I’ve been in management for about a year now, and I think I’ve been communicating expectations well. The issue is the enforcement/follow through piece. I’m frequently told it’s not possible (when my experience and the experience of a parallel team doing the same tasks tells me otherwise) or that the mistakes that are being made aren’t anything I should worry about (I’msorrywhat?). I’m trying to figure out where the line between “entering x instead of y is a small thing to fix” and “this is a pattern that’s generating more work and impacting metrics in a meaningful way”. I don’t want to be a hardass but there comes a point where people need to do the job they were hired to do in the amount of time allotted to do it without moaning about it or making a mess of it. I’m also a very internally driven person and a bit of a stubborn perfectionist, so figuring out how to manage and motivate people who aren’t has been a struggle. I’d be interested to hear how others implement balancing this, because I sure haven’t figured it out.

    1. Graciosa*

      I think you already answered your question – the issue is enforcement and follow through. Communicating expectations is only one part of the job. If there are no consequences for failing to meet them, you’re not managing – you’re hoping.

      1. OfficePrincess*

        My question was about how to follow through – how to balance not sweating the small stuff while still addressing it when it adds up. I realize I need to have consequences, but I’m struggling to figure out when to use them and what they should be. So thanks for pointing out that I know where my deficiencies are and that I suck. It really helps me feel great about struggling.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I think that consistency is an absolute necessity. Reports must be complete by Friday. Every Friday. Supplies are ordered every 2nd Tuesday of the month- your order must be in by then. Every month. And so on.

      I also think that at the one year mark you are just starting to approach the turning point. Just my opinion, though. Yeah, it’s a long haul. Give it six more months and see if some things have improved.

    3. Lora*

      Re: perfectionist part. Based on the feedback, it sounds like you need to dial back the perfectionism.

      Example from my job:
      Me: Here is a draft of a methodology that we need to support $LEGAL$$FILING$. Please review, we will discuss comments, and then we need it signed off in two weeks to start.
      Perfectionist Manager: I will not even begin to contemplate a protocol that is less than practically perfect in every way. *opens umbrella, sails away*
      FDA: Why was this study not executed? I can’t believe you wasted our time when you haven’t even done any methodology for Obvious Issue!
      (Auditors release bloodhounds, hunt down draft study sitting on PM’s desk. Much howling.)

      Moral of the story: Getting Stuff Done will have a better impact on your metrics at the end of the year than Fixed All Typos Everywhere. It is more important to senior management that you got ten things done with a B+ than one thing with an A+.

      Where to draw the line: You WANT people to be able to do things for themselves without having to consult you. If you are constantly nitpicking and second-guessing and Monday Morning Quarterbacking them, they will quickly deduce that everything they do is wrong according to you, and will cede every tiny decision including which font to use, to your discretion, until you are doing their jobs as well as yours. That is just making work for you, and they will actually become MORE sloppy because they know that everything they do will come back with 1001 edits anyway so why bother putting in the effort to be perfect–they’ll just have to re-do the whole thing to your satisfaction. A useful question to ask yourself is, “is this a question/instruction I want to give five times daily, every day, for the rest of my career?” If the answer is NO, then let it go.

      Also if it is a matter of aesthetics and diction and voice in writing–let it go, do not even mention it ever except with praise towards someone who does a good job. Build a bridge and get over it, because that is one you will never, never win.

      1. Cat*

        Wait a minute, there are many jobs where diction and voice and tone in writing are extraordinarily important. A manager can’t always let them go.

      2. OfficePrincess*

        Unfortunately, I WISH the things I was dealing with were aesthetics or voice. I’ve come to the conclusion that in certain areas, spelling issues aren’t a battle high enough to get fought right now. My team is largely data entry, so it’s things like entering the wrong date in a system where the wrong day will throw off our metrics that go to the client and the wrong month or year will cause the system to throw a hissy fit and information won’t travel to the client. So what looks like a typo actually is an issue that can take 30-45 minutes to fix, depending on when it’s caught. It easily adds up to where I can spend a few hours a week fixing things that my team thinks I “shouldn’t worry about” because they’re “too small”.

        My perfectionist comment was more to the point that I don’t get why other people don’t proofread. It’s impossible for the thing to have arrived to us in 2020 when it’s only 2014. If we need to send a message for more info on the dolphins, we should contact Sea World, not MTV. And because we didn’t contact Sea World, we have to give them more time, which pushes things back, and we can’t start on sharks until we’re done with dolphins. And that irritates the zookeepers and screws up our metrics more.

        I definitely agree on picking my battles and settling for good enough. I’m just stuck on figuring out how hard to come down on things that might seem little but really waste a ton of time. :-(

        1. Anon*

          Everyone is human and can make mistakes, however are they doing it repeatedly? If so, then it can be handled like every other performance issue. You can make “attention to detail/proof reading” part of the job and describe the standard you expect to see on that area, hold them to it and clearly state the consequences of not performing to the standard e.g. “Everyone makes mistakes and we are all human, however this one thing has X intolerable impact/has become a pattern and I need you to significantly improve in this area. If X or more instances occur in X time period, then Y consequence will happen.” That would make it clear to your employees that this needs to be taken seriously as a part of their job and not just because you quite like it that way.

      3. Trillian*

        One incompetent manager (and poor process within the company) does not invalidate the argument. Depending on the job, certain details are highly important (data fidelity, getting a complete filing) and high standards are essential. Since humans are error-prone, there need to be processes in place to reduce important errors – at a company level (eg, independent review and QC, and *time built into the timeline for that step*), and at an individual level. There is stuff that is such an easy fix – like maintaining a dictionary and running a spellcheck in Word, for instance – that if I repeatedly get documents that contains multiple errors of this kind, I am liable to wonder whether, since this person will not do easy fixes, will they do hard fixes.

  9. Graciosa*

    The part I pay attention to is making sure I’m giving positive feedback appropriately – not just negative. It is incredibly demoralizing to do a hundred things perfectly and hear nothing, but then make one minor mistake and have your manager tell you to fix it.

    Yes, it needs to be fixed, and it’s my job to make sure that happens, but it’s easy to spend too much time looking at the errors and not enough pointing out the successes.

    I have heard two great guidelines that I try to use in monitoring my feedback. First, with respect to performance reviews, the balance of review time spent on positive feedback versus areas of improvement should match the same ratios of the actual performance. This really helps to avoid skipping over the good stuff too quickly.

    The other one was more of a banking analogy for monitoring your overall interactions. You have to deposit goodwill regularly (in the form of positive feedback) in order to have goodwill available when you have to draw upon it to fix a problem that requires negative feedback. You don’t want to turn this into a formal equivalency so that every time you give a compliment the employee knows what will follow, but I like the reminder that these “deposits” of good will should be happening regularly (when deserved) as part of your standard management system.

    Communicating your expectations clearly means more than telling people how they are not meeting them.

  10. Not So NewReader*

    I think #1 can be a whole discussion by itself. What do you do if you are plunked down into a job with no training and no guidance, how do you set goals or let people know your expectations?

    My current boss went for a week-long training and started work the next day. She never had time to read all the materials she was given. This works into a situation where she or I make our best guesses and wait for someone to complain. No complaints? Keep going.The one positive that I can say is that everyone is kind. And that is because they are working under the same conditions, so they understand.

  11. Ihearya*

    I’m currently working for a manager who doesn’t have a clue how to effectively manage our very small team. It’s a nightmare frankly because he’s also on a power trip about being “the manager” even though he has less than no idea how our jobs actually work because he’s never had to do them. And this happens to be a field where it’s very unusual to have a manager who hasn’t also previously done the job of the subordinates. It’s a licensed required field and he has no license, which is not the norm for our field. Therefore, we end up with a lot of stuff that he just doesn’t have a clue about. Add that on to the power trip of being a manager and it makes for some loooonnnngggg days at the office. I’m new to the job, but I pegged this problem very early on and I’m now just waiting it out until I can apply for other jobs because I can’t see staying in this position for more than a year or so. And neither can anyone else since massive turnover in the form of entire teams being replaced yearly and even faster sometimes happens on the regular since no one wants to deal with this for the paltry money paid.

  12. FX-ensis*

    I would say learning emotional intelligence is a good thing here.

    And also learning how to motivate, coach, and resolve conflict.

    I think at the outset, it may even be good to say one is a new manager, and would welcome some support. However, I guess this shouldn’t be done continuously, as after a while subordinates may take advantage of that.

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