I’ve been managing people for the past 4 years and a leadership coach for the last 2 years. Someone asked me if I could share my learnings and experiences and here are the 10 things I’ve learned.
1. The fastest way to get better at something is to find a mentor or coach.
I struggled for about six months when I was promoted from a software developer to a manager. I didn’t have any training. I was a software developer one day and then a manager the next day. I second-guessed myself at every one-on-one and every decision that I made. I was stressed and near burn out until I worked with a coach. A large percentage of the problems new managers face are foundational problems that have been solved before. So there’s no reason to suffer needlessly.
Invest working with a coach. Or proactively reach out to more experienced managers in your organization who can mentor you.
2. Everyone is unique, so your management style should cater to their uniqueness
Some of your direct reports want you to challenge them. Some will prefer that you’re more gentle with them. Some prefers their one-on-one with you to be casual, relationship building type conversations (that’s how they build connection). And others may prefer to go right into the work, and problem-solving mode with you.
The key is to understand each one of them as unique team member, figure out what drives them, what makes them happy, what they’ll need to grow within the company, what support they’d like from a manager and then adjust your management style accordingly. One way to do that is to kickoff your first one-on-ones with the right kind of questions.
Being a great manager is like being a chameleon. You’ll have to be a different leader for different people.
3. It’s about the team, not about you.
Being a great manager is figuring out how to empower individuals and then supporting them to become a high-performing team. Your job is to serve the team and individuals within that team. If you find yourself often the one to provide solutions on behalf of your team or the one to speak the most during a meeting while the rest of your team is quiet, this might mean your team don’t feel empowered to drive their own work or don’t feel they have the autonomy.
There are a few ways to help kickstart a conversation with the team so they start to see you as a manager/coach/facilitator role, rather than someone who dictates and micromanages them. For newly form teams, I recommend facilitating a working agreement with them. For more established teams with clear working agreements, a retrospective is a great start.
4. Be quick about positive feedback, gather information for negative feedback
If you personally observed or received feedback that your direct report did something well, give them that feedback right away. Leverage the power of positive reinforcement. You can do so in a team environment (public praise) but also enforced it privately.
If you’ve personally observed negative feedback, you can also provide them with that feedback right away. However, if you’ve received negative feedback on your direct report (not your personal observation), you’ll need to gather more information by speaking with other team members. This is to ensure that the feedback is not subjective and due to team members not getting along.
When we build teams, we build them to deliver business objectives based on skills and velocity. Sometimes that will mean team members in a team may not get along and that’s okay! As long as team members are respectful and professional, we don’t all have to be best friends.
Once you’ve gathered enough evidence and decided that it is a legitimate negative feedback, provide that feedback privately and timely. I’ve found that the longer I wait, the longer I dread giving that feedback. And it’ll be more difficult for the employee to recall how their behaviour had resulted in a negative outcome.
5. You have to build a team’s trust. And this takes time.
Trust = (Credibility + Authenticity + Reliability) / Self-Interest
I’ve used this handy equation when I first join an organization, a team or when I first work with someone. The simple math explains that to build trust, you need to show credibility (do you have the skills to do your job), be authentic (be yourself) and be consistently reliable (alwys follow-through on your promises) and dial down on seeking ways to make yourself look good or claim recognition for yourself when the recognition and praise should go to the team.
People are smart. They will see through it if you pretend to care about them. For some people (for those of you familiar with Enneagram, this is especially true for Enneagram type 6s), once you’ve broken their trust, it’s very hard for them to trust you again. I recommend for the first 6 months to consistently work on building trust without focusing on what you’re going to get (self-interest).
6. Re-frame what it means to be productive
Being a productive manager is different from being a productive individual contributor. Many new managers have admitted to me that they are busy all the time but they have a hard time telling if they’re productive. They often feel that they’ve let their team or their own manager down because they’re not as productive as they were before.
When you’re a manager, you’re no longer checking things off and moving JIRA tickets to completion to measure your own productivity. For example, as a manager you’ve provided feedback to your team member but you can’t “complete” this task until a few weeks later when you’ve observed your team member making improvements. Sometimes that cycle of feedback to behavioural change is quick. Often, for the trickier ones, it can take months.
Instead of measuring yourself by the things you “complete”, measure your activities. For example, activities like making sure you have a regularly scheduled one-on-one with your team, showing up to team check-ins, making sure you follow through with any feedback.
7. You won’t have the answers to everything, and that’s okay!
At some point, you’ll cease to be the most technical person as your role changes to a manager. You don’t have to have the final say or have to be the smartest person in your team. Instead, lean on your team. Ask your team for their thoughts and ideas. Consult with them about timelines and project feasibility. Work together with them to reach the best decision for the team and company.
8. It is okay to admit to your team that you don’t have the answers
You’ve become a manager, not someone who has to have all the answers. It’s okay to admit that you don’t know something. The team will respect you for it. I’ve seen managers assume they have to know-it-all, don’t collaborate with the team and make a decision that is wrong for the team. This also erodes your team’s trust in you.
Being in a senior role and being able to admit to your team that you don’t know something is actually empowering for your team. You’ve just modeled for them that it’s okay for them too, to admit to you or the team that they don’t know something. This will help build psychological safety, which is the number one attribute for high-performing teams.
9. There’s no “us” vs “them”. Your first team is not the team you manage
Your first team is your team of peers. Many managers think the team they manage is their first team and can inadvertently create a culture of “my team” versus “your team”. When you change your mindset to “all the teams are our teams”, you’ll be able to navigate change (for example, team member movements), help other teams be successful (because when they’re successful, the company is successful) and as a great side effect, grow in your career.
It’s possible that sometimes you’ll have to make a decision that is less than ideal for your team but one that serves the department or company as a whole. It’s your job to help your team understand the “why”, the bigger company goal and the long game we’re playing. Patrick Lencioni’s The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team describes this well.
10. To be a great manager, learn basic coaching techniques.
If you’ll interested in becoming a great manager, you’ll have to learn basic coaching techniques. Google’s research into what makes a great manager covers coaching as one of the top ten qualities that sets great managers apart.
Coaching is different from mentoring and a great manager travel between the two often.
Mentoring is helping someone do something that you yourself have done before. An example of a mentorship can be a Senior Ruby Engineer mentoring a Junior Ruby Engineer on how to be a better Ruby Engineer.
Coaching is very different. You don’t need all the answers or have achieved the result a coachee is looking to achieve themselves. Coaching in this case is helping your team member figure out the answers for themselves because the solutions or ideas that work the best are the ones that they come up for themselves.
So how would I use both? For example, a common topic that my direct report comes to me, is feeling overwhelmed with work and not feeling productive. Usually, I’ll approach this conversation first, as a coach. Using listening and powerful questions (which are foundational coaching skills), questions I might ask could be:
- What makes you think you’re not productive?
- What does a productive day look like to you?
- When you say overwhelmed, what specifically are you overwhelmed with?
Often, these questions can uncover further insight and the real issues they’re struggling with. For example, you might uncover through coaching techniques that perhaps they’re feeling overwhelmed because they have unrealistically high expectations of themselves. Or they haven’t learned how to say no to people’s requests.
If I were to start our conversation with a mentoring mindset, I would have missed those important insights and mentored them the way I’ve cope with feelings of overwhelmed or time management techniques that work for me when all they would have needed is learning to set proper expectations of themselves, and/or ask other team members to help triage incoming requests. Very different solutions to seemingly similar issues. One will resolve their real issue. The other won’t.
Occasionally, after uncovering the real issue, a direct report may not be able to figure out solutions for themselves. I’ll give them a few tries but sometimes they’re truly stuck. That’s when I’ll use my mentorship skills to share what techniques have worked for myself or others or I’ll suggest some ideas that I think will work for them. I may also suggest that they experiment with one idea that resonates with them the most and we’ll connect again at the next one-on-one as a follow up.
If you’re new to coaching, read The Coaching Habit book. It is a good primer to get you started on using coaching techniques as an additional tool in your manager toolkit.
Bonus 11. Imposter syndrome is real as you first transition to this role
I’ve coached, managed, worked with many managers, team leads, senior leaders of engineering and regardless of their level, all of them experienced imposter syndrome. I too, have experienced imposter syndrome every time I’m promoted or tackling a challenging project that I’ve never done before. I’ll be writing more on this topic as it deserves a post on its own but for now, here’s my advice:
Imposter syndrome is normal and the more comfortable you are with it, the faster you’ll go through it. That’s the key. It’s not something to avoid but rather, something you go through. If you haven’t experienced imposter syndrome, then perhaps you’re playing it too safe. Even Neil Gaiman experienced it.
Comment/email me: Which bullet-point above resonates with you the most and why?