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Tips for First-Time Managers

by Sarah Wilkinson, Class of ’17

In her book Becoming the Boss, Lindsey Pollak has a lot of advice about how we can all become effective managers in our future roles. This post will focus on how to manage people when you’ve never had to manage anyone (or anything) before.

As more baby-boomers reach retirement age, management positions are being vacated at a fast rate, meaning many millennials are stepping up at a younger age than ever before. The crux of this is that many companies don’t train their managers; they just throw you in and let you make a lot of mistakes. According to Pollak, the average age of first-time managers is 30, but the average age of people in leadership training is 42. That’s a significant number of years where managers are having to figure out how to be an effective leader on their own.

Of current millennials who are leaders, only 36 percent said they felt ready when entering the role. ~ Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends Survey, 2014

So how do you manage people when you’ve never done it before and aren’t likely to get much in the way of training?

Be Yourself

One mistake that many first-time managers make is thinking they need to be someone they’re not in order to be a good boss. Being more authoritative than you really are, for example, is not an effective way of garnering respect from your employees. Instead, it will likely isolate them because most people will be able to tell when you’re not being authentic. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you have to be mean in order to be a good boss — it’s simply not true.

On the opposite hand, don’t be too honest with those who you manage. It’s not smart to tell them your fears or worries about the company, as this is a sure way to make them scared and worried as well. The key is find the balance between being too forthcoming and dishonest to your true personality. It may take a few tries to get it right. Pollak recommends rehearsing for conversations and situations that you’re facing for the first time. This will allow you to figure out for yourself what you want to say and how, rather than winging it and potentially making a fool of yourself in your new role.

Launch a Listening Tour

One of the best things you can do when you’re new to a management role is spend time with your employees. Politicians — and Pollak — refer to this as a “listening tour.” It’s a mistake to clam up in your office and hide because you’re scared of making a mistake. Instead, by spending time with those you manage early on, you’re establishing trust and also getting to know them and their communication styles. This will hopefully make them more comfortable in coming to you with problems and give you insight into the best way to communicate with them.

Getting input from others is the single fastest way to build morale. Listening to what those you lead are saying will guide you better than any other resource ever could. ~ Stephanie Jensen, coordinator of internships, University of Central Oklahoma

But be careful: it’s not always appropriate to ask your staff for their opinion or input. As a leader, you need to be the one to make hard decisions. This doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally ask your staff for their opinions, but it does mean you have to be selective about when you choose to do so. If it’s budget cuts you’re trying to decide on, asking your employees who should get fired is not the right move. Instead, find other key advisers outside your staff that you can ask for help with tough decisions.

Work Alongside Your Employees

First-time managers — all managers, in fact — should go out of their way to make sure they know what it’s like to work at every level in the company. The show Undercover Boss is a good example of this in practice. If you’ve never seen the show, CEOs and other top execs disguise themselves and go to work alongside their employees. In most cases, the executives have no idea what goes on at the base level of their company, and that’s a problem.

You need to know what it’s like to work in every department, and ask those who you manage — directly or indirectly — how things are going, what could be improved, etc. This is the best way to truly understand where your employees are coming from when they have complaints or ideas. It’s also important to know how to do the “small” stuff, like changing ink in the printer just in case a staff member is out for the day and the responsibility falls to you as the manager. It comes down to knowing your company, knowing your staff, and knowing what they do and why it’s important to the company’s mission.

Secure Early Wins

Have you ever noticed that presidents of the United States are obsessed with getting things accomplished in the first 100 days after their election? There’s a reason for that: people wants leaders and managers who get things done, and quickly. One of the best things you can do as a first time manager is accomplish something right off the bat that shows your staff that you can get things done (bonus points if it also shows your staff that you’re invested in their happiness at the company).

This might mean changing an outdated process into one that’s more stream-lined and saves your employees precious time. Or this might mean doing what Marissa Meyer did in the first two weeks of her leadership role at Yahoo: announce free food in the cafeteria. Sure, it’ll cost the company money to stock the cafeteria at no charge to employees, but think of the morale boost and the vote of confidence in Meyer as someone who cares about her staff. Sometimes investing in morale or making a new manager immediately likable and a team-player is a good idea.

Establish Key Performance Indicators

Along the lines of securing early wins, it’s important to make your employees feel like they’re securing wins of their own. Everyone want s to play for a winning team. The way to do that is to make sure every individual employees’ contributions are working toward the company’s goal (whatever that is at that moment). More than that, you have to make sure that everyone understands how their own contributions and those of the people around them are working toward this goal. Employees need to feel important and valued.

One way to ensure people are contributing and are rewarded for it is to set KPIs, or key performance indicators. These are like benchmarks along the way that help determine progress and keep people accountable for their share of the work. If you’re managing a recruitment company, one of your main KPIs might be how many people you’re reaching and effectively recruiting. Check in on your KPIs often to make sure everyone in the company is working in the same direction.

Make Time for Your Other Work

The first few months of your new role as manger will likely be filled with getting your feet on the ground and helping your employees succeed in their roles — which is great. That’s what being a manager means. But you may start to feel like there’s a lot of other work you’re not getting done as a result of your time spent managing. It’s important to remember that managing isn’t peripheral to your job, even though you have other work that needs to get done. If you spent the day helping your employees get comfortable using a new software program, you spent your day productively even if you didn’t check anything off your to-do list.

However, you still likely have work that needs to get done. So how do you make time for being a manager and getting all your reports and spreadsheets done too? First, give yourself an hour a day where you close your office door and dive into your work. Let your employees know that they can still come to you if it’s important, but that this is your time. Second, get into the office before anyone else. It may seem like 6 am is too early for anyone to be working, but if you give yourself that time in the morning before everyone comes in and you have to be a manager, you’ll get so much done. It’s a matter of stepping up to the plate.

Look out for part eleven of this blog series, which will talk about managing people you don’t like. Be sure to check out last week’s post about effective tips for being a manager in the 21st century.

Sources: Becoming the Boss by Lindsey Pollak; find more information about Pollak here.