You’ve been at your job a few years, contributing on a high level, getting noticed by executives, and receiving praise for your projects. Finally, the time has come: your boss wants to promote you to a manager position.
Break out the champagne! Post the celebratory selfie! Buy yourself that congratulatory treat!
Oh, and slip into an anxiety-fueled state of existential despair, because you likely have no idea what a manager is supposed to do. And nobody seems to be rushing to your side to guide you or fork over a handy-dandy first-time manager checklist.
This scenario plays out over and over again in workplaces. Employees are promoted to manage individuals or even entire teams, and expected to wing it, even though they don’t have any leadership experience.
There’s a grand irony to the fact that we usually get promoted as a reward for being good at executing in our jobs. And as part of that reward, we are expected to do less executing (what we just proved we were great at) and more of something else altogether (something we’ve never proven our skills in before). This ends up causing frustration for everybody involved. New managers feel self-doubt and flounder, employees being managed become frustrated and even leave, and the organization as a whole suffers.
Even more common: People who have no interest in or aptitude for management are frequently promoted to managers, because in the American workplace culture, management means advancement. The fact is thatthere should be more paths for those who do not wish to manage, and additional realization that management is an entire job in and of itself. This perception seems to be changing—large corporations like Google and Spotifyoffer non-manager career pathsfor advancement—but it’s happening slowly. So, before you embark on the journey to molding yourself into a better manager, ask yourself if it’s even a job you want.
If your answer is yes, seek out the help you need to do the job well—because it’s unlikely your employer will provide you with what you need on that front. Why, you ask? Why isn’t there more guidance out there? Why do companies fail so often at providing basic training to new managers?
“Many companies fail to provide training because the senior leaders in those organizations have never gotten any training themselves,” according to Melissa Nightingale, a leadership consultant and co-author of the book,How F*cked Up Is Your Management?: An uncomfortable conversation about modern leadership. “They hope that people will figure it out eventually. This does a major disservice to both first-time leaders and to the teams that they manage.”
Well, the cycle needs to stop somewhere. Managing people can be a rewarding and interesting experience instead of a frustrating and draining one, if only you have the correct tools and guidance at your disposal (and are confident that it’s the right job for you). Ahead, a checklist of the most important things that you, as a first-time manager, need to do right away. Ask yourself the five questions below, answer truthfully, and then consider the to-dos attached as your next steps. These aren’t easy to answer honestly—but then, nothing about leadership is going to be easy, so it’s a fair start.
You may not have the makings of a good manager (yet!) If so, it’s important to acknowledge that, and more importantly, forgive yourself for it. Being bad at management does not mean you are a not a smart person, or that you are not successful at your work. It also doesn’t mean you’llneverbe a competent manager. It just means you need to invest in your own personal growth in those areas.
“Say it with me: No one comes out of the womb knowing how to manage,” says Nightingale. “All of us, from your boss on up to the CEO, have had to learn and refine as we go. We have this unhelpful notion that leadership or management skills are innate or fixed. These are skills. They can be taught. They can be learned. You can get better.”
Takethis Harvard Business Review leadership style quizthat will point out your potential blind spots, where you could thrive as a manager, and where you might stumble. Keep the printout of those points at your desk, and refer to it when you need to course correct as you continue to grow in your management journey.
Experts agree: The trait that most often makes a weak or poor manager is the inability to have critical conversations and give your reports the feedback that they desperately want and need.
In order to be a successful manager, youwillhave to learn this skill. Even if you have a dream employee who does everything perfectly, you’ll eventually have to navigate potentially delicate topics like money, emotions, goals, and more.
Let’s practice. Where to start? One of the best things you can learn how to say is, “This may be an awkward conversation, but there is some feedback I would like to give you.” Setting the stage for a potentially awkward conversation is the best way to normalize the situation, and acknowledge the inherent difficulty of it all.
Another thing you can do is learn howyoudeal with conflict yourself. People often have a tendency towards shutting down, or getting flustered.This assessmentcan help you figure if you tend toward “silence” or “violence,” and give you guidance on how to handle yourself in tense situations while still getting your points across.
“One point I would be keen to make is that new managers need to embrace conflict as an inevitable, healthy part of interacting with their team andnotavoid it,” says Amy Gallo, the author of theHBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict and a contributing editor atHarvard Business Review. To get better this, Gallo suggests two approaches: make a study of somebody else, and do a Jedi mind trick on yourself.
“New managers can find a role model, someone who does a good job of being direct and honest and projecting calm when disagreements come up,” she advises. “Watch that person. What do they do? Try to emulate them. Of course, you need to be authentic, but trying out the skills you see someone else master is a good way to learn them yourself. You can also do a bit of a Jedi mind trick on yourself. A conflict-averse colleague of mine once told me that when conflicts come up she pretends she’s an actor who’s good at handling tense situations. This allows her to observe her behavior at a distance and make less emotional decisions.”
No? Get on it. Immediately.
Think about it: the fact that you are now somebody’s boss is actually a big deal. But often, this transition is not marked in any formal or recognized way. Doing a brief sit down with your new report, marking the start of your new relationship together, and learning about each other’s working styles is an important ritual to kick off this new partnership.
The moment your report is aware that they will have a new boss — you — send them a calendar invite or swing by their desk and say, “Hey, I’m so excited we’re going to be working together! I’d love to set up a brief meeting to learn more about you, your projects, and your working style.” Note: Do this onlyafteryou are 100% positive they understand they will have a new boss, andyouare that new boss.
What they say is true: High emotional intelligence makes for a strong manager. But if you weren’t born with emotional intelligence, that’s fine. There are plenty of assessment tests out there that can help you understand what motivates and drives you, and what challenges and blockades you may face as well. This will be critical in helping you figure out how you can best craft a leadership style that feels authentic to you—and leverages your greatest strengths and superpowers.
And of course, you can (and should) do the same for your direct reports. Because as a manager, your message is only as powerful as its reception. Figuring out how to connect with others and guide and manager and lead them successfully comes down to figuring out how to align your own communication and management styles with the things your direct reports need to do their best work. Ultimately, the core of strong emotional intelligence and being a good manager of other people requires both self-awareness and self-knowledge.
Take a personality test or two—and have your direct reports do the same. Two tests that are particularly useful in the workplace are the DISC personality test and theStrengthsFinders test. You have to pay for StrengthsFinders, but it’s affordable; and there are lots offree versions of DISC floating around out there. DISC assesses your mode of operating in the world, and your approach to conflict — dominance, influence, steadiness, or conscientious. StrengthsFinders gives you the top five areas that you’re most developed in.
Together, they’ll paint a pretty clear picture of how superpowers and your ideal management style. Once you have that for yourself and the person you are managing, schedule a meeting with them to discuss. Now that you understand some of the differences and similarities between the two of you, what can you do to keep your working relationship productive and open?
This isn’t rocket science, but you have to show up consistently in order to inspire confidence in your direct reports. Ask yourself if you are willing to do that before you sign up for a management role. If the answer is yes, the next piece is non-negotiable: Schedule a weekly 30-minute check-in with your direct reports and show up for it on time, every week, ready to focus on the conversation at hand.
You’d be surprised to learn how many managers either don’t do this, or do it, but cancel and reschedule constantly. A weekly 30-minute touchbase is a chance to check in on everything from the status of projects to challenges or frustrations your report is facing and—and to discuss how you can help them overcome any issues and address any critical feedback.
“One-on-ones are critical for all managers—especiallyfirst-time managers!” saysLara Hogan, a leadership coach. “You can build trust with your teammate, help them problem-solve, understand how they want to grow in their career, and help them plot that course.”
Set these meetings up immediately, on a recurring basis, at the same time each week. Still to the schedule, try not to reschedule (and definitely not at the last minute) treating this time with priority. Even if it feels like you don’t have anything to talk about, these weekly meetings are your lifelines to each other. It’s perfectly fine to start a touchbase where you have nothing to talk about with, “Well, I don’t have much to talk about this week. But what about you? How is your week going?”
Need more structure? Hogan has a formula for these meetings. “I recommend spending the first 5-10% of a one on one disseminating information, clarifying any rumors they’ve heard, getting some status on projects, and other kinds of context-sharing,” she explains. “In the last 5-10% of the time, wrap up with clarifying action items that you will each take into your week from the meeting. In that big chunk in the middle? Balance being a mentor (giving advice, helping problem-solve), a coach (use open questions and help them find their own answers), and a sponsor (give them big leadership opportunities—chances for major growth).”
Starting with these five items will put you on a clear path towards being a better manager for your employees and at your organization. But don’t forget one final lesson: managing other people can be draining, and when done well, is basically like having a second job. So one of the most important things you can do to be a great manager? Take care of yourself.
“First-time managers often try to balance the demands of management while still doing their pre-promotion job in the evenings,” says Nightingale. “This can be a recipe for burnout. Pace yourself. Go home at the end of the day. Sign off of email. Get outside. Eat dinner. Go see a movie. Whatever connects you to your non-work self, make a commitment to do it. Your people need you at your best.”
Whether you’ve made it to the C-suite or are about to step into your fist management role, leadership skills are something we can always brush up on and improve upon. Join us in Leadership Hall at the Girlboss Rally for actionable workshops and IRL advice that will help you step into your next leadership role. Register now at girlbossrally.com.