By Scott Berkun, January 25, 2006
The central mistake new managers make is egoism. On the surface, the change is all about you: you’ve been promoted, you have a new job title, you have a new office. Perhaps you’ve been waiting for this change for some time, while watching peers or friends get promotions, and now finally you feel you’ve received the respect you’ve earned. Congratulations! But be warned: how or why you became a manager has little to do with doing the job well. The sooner you recognize how different success as a manager is from success as worker, the better off you’ll be. Good managers are rare (how many have you had?): so if you’re new to the game, and would like to be a good one, this essay is for you.
Why managers are different
On the day your job title includes “manager” others depend on you. They will look to you for leadership, guidance, or advice. They may rely on you for career direction and job security. You have more influence on their happiness, and success than most people in their lives. All this is what makes the transition to management a challenge: even if you are currently the most important programmer, marketer, or designer in an organization, there are new stresses and responsibilities you’ve never faced. The psychology and responsibility of managing others is complex and should be taken seriously.
Part of the challenge is that the people who work for you are unlikely to fully understand what your job is like. Like a parent or guardian you will be doing things on behalf of others that they may never know about or fully understand. On occasion you will need to quietly take the heat for decisions they made, or pass on rewards that, if you were more selfish, you’d keep to yourself. You will be asked, on a daily basis, to make decisions that impact the lives of other people, without as much information or time as you need. Mistakes will happen and you will be accountable for them. Some of your best moves will be out of your team’s view, and the positive impact you have won’t always be acknowledged.
Despite any pay raises or perks that come with the job, it’s rare to be fully compensated, in financial terms, for the challenges and tough choices that will inevitably be yours.
However the upsides are equally high. There are thrills in bringing a team together and making good things happen, at a scale larger than you can do alone. When you finish a project you won’t just have one piece to feel proud of: you’ll look at the work done by many people at share pride for the whole thing.
However, it’s important to recognize the countless managers with heaps of fame or seniority who are categorically management failures: their teams hate them, their peers don’t trust them, and their superiors loathe them. Look around your organization: I’m sure you know who they are. Being a manager combines big challenges and opportunities and requires a maturity and perspective few have, which explains why many lousy managers remain in the corner office. So remember this: one day, all of those bad managers were once like you and chose to take on their first management role. If you read on, I can help you to avoid their fate.
Make a list of the previous managers you’ve had. Go back as far as you like: think of summer jobs, chores you did for your parents, and if your career is long enough, consider the professional bosses you’ve had over the years.
For each manager make a bulleted list of the things they did well, and things they didn’t. Build a map for yourself, based on your own experiences being managed, on the kinds of things the better managers in your experience have done. Did they treat you in a certain way? How did they make you feel about your work? Did they teach you things? How did they earn your trust (or not)? How did they show respect or disrespect to you as a person? What was their approach to giving you difficult feedback? Take your time with this: wander through your own memories and see what you find. Talk to your peers and friends about their experiences, and roll them into your own.
This exercise isn’t just for kicks. Refreshing yourself on your (and your friends) experiences working for others creates a guide to your behavior as a manager. It gives you a vocabulary of management situations that loosely approximates management experience, even though you’re a new manager. Every time you need to take a management action, you’ll have a sense for what kinds of behaviors better managers take (as well as what tactics they avoid). And perhaps most importantly, it surfaces any latent grudges you might be harboring about what bad managers have done to you (and left beneath the surface, might drive you to repeat their bad behavior on someone else).
The question of desire to manage is often skipped in the process of becoming a manager. The sense of promotion, ego, and career growth in an organization is typically the driving force, and other considerations come last. Common good reasons to become a manager include:
- You’re ready for more responsibility
- You are interested in leading and teaching others
- You’ve excelled at a specific role and want to help others do the same
- You like setting people up to succeed
Common Bad reasons include:
- Because your boss said so
- To make your mother proud
- To buy that new Maserati GranSport
- To have less work to do (it’s rarely true)
- To make people suffer in living hell forever
As a new manager, it is fair to say you want to try it out and see if it suits you. But if that’s your intention you need to be clear with yourself how, and when, you’ll decide whether it suits you or not. Few things are more frustrating than working for a manager who, after 3 years of indifferent mediocrity, still isn’t sure if he wants to manage people or not. It’s common in some organizations for people curious about management to manage interns, or external contractors, as those are stepping stones towards being a manager. If you want a trial opportunity, ask for one. But be clear on what you expect to get out of becoming a manager and clarify those reasons with your own boss before taking on a team of your own. If you’re already a manager it’s never too late to write down your reasons: it will either reinforce your drive to do your job well or make you aware that it might be time to return to an individual contributor role.
The boss is not the center of the universe (Micromanagement explained)
The stereotype we learn as children is that the manager, the boss, tells other people what to do, and yells at them when they do it wrong. This doesn’t work so well. Few people enjoy being told what to do, and frankly, it’s not so interesting to be a boss if everyone always does everything you say. The stereotype fails because it’s boss centric: the manager is the center of the work universe, when it should be the work.
The job of any manager is to make the best possible things happen. A successful manger gets the best possible work from the team and contributes as much as possible to making their organization successful: any management tactics they employ are done with these goals in mind, rendering a boss centric universe counterproductive. If you take this view of “best possible things” all kinds of clever and interesting approaches come to mind that wouldn’t be considered otherwise. (For example, follow the logic: to get their best work, I need the best people. To get the best people, I need to provide interesting work. To provide interesting work I need to create clear, but challenging goals, delegate responsibility, and back them up when they need help.)
However the ego trap many managers fall into is that the only way to make good work happen is to place themselves in the center of everything: every decision, every task, every meeting. This is the opposite of management: it’s anti-management. Instead of 5 people working at full speed, you have 5 people limited by the manager’s speed in checking and re-checking every single tiny decision they make. Micro-management, the need to control everything, is a fundamental failure of the management to control his bad habits, or to grow a team sufficiently skilled not to need so much of his involvement.
Learning how to delegate, the obvious way out of micro-management, isn’t easy. Anyone who previously worked alone and took pride in their perfect work will struggle with assigning work to others. But this is a trap, and a sign that the person isn’t ready to manage. It’s the giving away of work and gently guiding it, and the person doing the work, to quality results that is the core of what managers are supposed to do. It’s a two way process as the manager won’t always be right and won’t always know the best way to solve a particular challenge (especially if the people reporting to the boss are talented). So the smart manager must delegate, in part, to keep learning new ways to do things.
The best managers build trust with their team, every day, in every meeting, so that eventually critically important and complex tasks can be delegated away. If a manager feels his team isn’t capable, his job is to figure out exactly what they’re capable of, and then helping them to grow: things that only happen by delegating work and seeing what happens. People need the opportunity to prove themselves and that opportunity is only granted by the manager. If it turns out that work is done poorly, was too hard or the goals weren’t set properly, then as a manager, you have a living example to discuss and explore with the person in question. You can work to understand what your expectations of each other were and what they should be. Those conversations, openly exploring the differences in perspective of the manager and the worker, is the heart of management. It is where trust is built and lessons for how to make better work happen are discovered.
Find a mentor
Whenever you take on a new role or challenge it’s a great idea to find someone who’s done that thing before and who is willing to give you advice. I used to think I was cool for learning everything on my own. Turns out it’s often a waste of time: If having a tutor or guide can get me the same progress in half the effort (or more progress in the same time) of going solo, why not take the help?
Some people look to their own managers to mentor them: there are two downsides to this. First, some managers are not good mentors: they’re interested more in results or getting things done than they are in coaching or giving advice. Second, by finding a mentor who is not your boss, you can get advice on your boss’ behavior. If you find the term mentor goofy, fine. Pick someone who you respect who has experience as a manager, and say “Hey – if I buy you lunch once a month, will you give me some advice on how to manage people?” That’s it. Friends can work, but again, the further removed your mentor is from your current inner circle, the better perspective they’ll be able to give you on what you’re doing.
Want more? Read Part 2
This essay continues here, covering:
- Getting acclimated
- Assessing the team
- Setting the tone
- and more