First-Time Managers: How to Get Started

After years of hard work, you’ve just been promoted to a managerial position. Chances are you’re feeling proud, excited, and probably more than a little nervous. How will you handle conflicts with team members? How often should you meet with your direct reports? Will your team respect you and trust your leadership?

Ideally, first-time managers have been properly mentored and prepared for their positions, but not every company has a leadership or new manager training program. Often, first-time managers find themselves learning on the job with relatively little guidance. If this describes the position you’re in (or if you just want to explore management strategies), the following checklist for first-time managers will help you adapt to your new leadership role.

Work for Your Team

It’s easy for first-time managers to assume their team works for them, but the opposite is true. As their manager, you work for your team. It’s your job to advocate for them, mentor them, and ensure they’re working in a culture that encourages productivity and performance. Everything you do is for the team.

Employees can choose to take a “me first” approach to work, but managers don’t have that luxury. For first-time managers, switching to “servant leadership” can be a difficult process, but one that ultimately builds trust and helps you foster leadership skills in promising employees.

Examine Your Skill Set

You have a skill set that made you stand out from your peers and proved impressive enough that your supervisors trusted you with a management position. Unfortunately, the skill set you developed as an employee may not be the one you need as a first-time manager. Find opportunities to learn more about conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, and other “soft” skills effective managers use every day. Check to see if your company is willing to pay for a new manager training program, and read up on different management styles and strategies.

Don’t Act Like You Know Everything

First-time managers often assume they must have all the answers at their fingertips and may feel stress and frustration when they’re inevitably confronted with questions they can’t answer. Remember, your team members know their jobs better than you do, so take their advice and feedback seriously. Should a team member approach you with a question you can’t answer immediately, tell them you need some time to research the issue and get back to them.

Don’t Be the Department Hero

First-time managers are usually acutely aware of their responsibilities. They are, after all, the heads of their departments. This can lead to the temptation to try and resolve every issue personally, swooping into every situation like the office superhero.

While understandable, this habit is unsustainable. You’re only one person and can’t be everywhere at once. An insistence on being the one who oversees everything turns first-time managers into departmental bottlenecks, as every little detail requires managerial approval before moving forward. You’ll quickly wind up stressed out and overwhelmed — and, far from appreciating your help, your team will feel micromanaged.

It’s far better to trust your team to resolve issues and only step in when necessary or when staff requests managerial aid. As for any mistakes the team may make, most will be minor, and all provide valuable learning and growth opportunities.

Learn to Delegate

Delegation is a vital part of management. Accept the fact that you cannot control everything, assign responsibilities to your direct reports, and let them fulfill these obligations as they see fit. Doing so builds trust, gives employees ownership of important tasks, and allows you to guide the department without running yourself ragged.

Delegating doesn’t come easily to first-time managers who were accustomed to taking full responsibility for tasks in their previous, non-managerial positions, but it’s an important skill to learn. Seek advice on delegating from your own mentors or in first-time manager training programs.

Sell, Don’t Tell

Almost everyone has had a team leader who issues orders from on-high and brooks no contradictions or suggestions. The percentage of people who respond well to this managerial style is approximately zero. People don’t like to be told what to do.

For most managers, persuasion works better than command. Ask team members for input on important decisions, and give them chances to influence solutions. In cases where you have a specific desired outcome in mind, ask staff pointed questions to lead them to the same conclusion you’ve made. People who feel they’re involved in the decision process are more willing to work towards mutually agreed-upon goals.

Establish Clear Objectives

Not setting clear and specific objectives is a common mistake among new managers. Strive to be straightforward, unambiguous, and precise. “We’re going to cut energy costs this quarter” is a vague objective which lacks direction. In contrast, “We will cut energy costs by ten percent this quarter” gives the team a specific goal to achieve. Should the team fail to achieve the goal, you still have a benchmark you can use to determine how close you came to success and which acts as a launchpad for discussions on how to move forward.

Support and Empower Your Direct Reports

Direct reports are your main points of contact with your department. Empower them by making them the owner of 1:1 meeting agendas. Doing so gives direct reports a sense of ownership over their role in the department and encourages them to think critically about that role. Whenever possible, encourage their autonomy and only step in if their priorities are misaligned with those of the department or company.

SEE ALSO: The Ultimate Guide to One-on-Ones

Make Yourself Dispensable

Ask yourself this: if you were away from work for three months, would your department run at normal levels of efficiency? That’s the ultimate goal of management, to make yourself as redundant as possible.

No one achieves this goal overnight. Doing so requires clear communication, skillful delegation, and fostering trust among your team. The best managers are those who know they can trust their department to run well in their absence.

Brush up on Your Emotional Intelligence

Knowing how to read the emotional state of a team member is an important “soft” management skill and a valuable tool when dealing with interpersonal conflicts. Emotional intelligence describes the ability to understand and control your own emotions while recognizing and valuing the emotions of others. It’s a skill that’s equally important whether you’re dealing with your team or members of the executive team.

Mistakes are Inevitable

It’s a hard lesson for first-time managers to swallow, but mistakes and losses happen. Your team will stumble. Your department will miss goals and make mistakes. This isn’t a sign you’re failing as a manager — it’s simply part of doing business.

What counts isn’t whether your department suffers a loss; it’s how you respond to losses. As a manager, you don’t have the luxury of feeling down in the aftermath of a departmental disaster. Your emotions must take a back seat to the emotions of your team. You’re their cheerleader — picking them up when they’re down, encouraging them to do better, and celebrating their successes.

Obviously, you want as few losses as possible, but be prepared to support your team when setbacks happen, even if you’re feeling discouraged yourself.

Listen to Your Team

As a manager, your greatest resource is your team. Your team knows more about their individual roles, challenges, and responsibilities than you ever will. Take advantage of this knowledge: listen to their experiences, concerns, and feedback. In doing so, you’ll gain deep insight into your department and how it runs.

Treat Team Members as Individuals

“Treat others as you want to be treated” isn’t as effective a management strategy as you might think. It’s much more beneficial to treat others as they want to be treated. Your goals, values, and objectives may be quite different from those of a team member, and what motivates you may have no bearing on his performance.

Try to assess situations through your team members’ eyes. What type of communication are they most comfortable with? What are their personal life goals? How do they prefer to approach tasks? How do they like to be recognized for their accomplishments? How do they prefer to receive feedback? Treating each person as an individual demonstrates you care about their well-being, rather than assuming your feelings and values are universal.

Share Credit, Take Blame

First-time managers should accept their position means they are responsible for everything that goes wrong. When a team member flubs an important task or the team fails to meet an important goal, you’re the shield that stands between your team and any blowback from higher up the managerial hierarchy.

Leadership isn’t just about shouldering the blame for department missteps; it’s also about sharing credit. When your department has a success, your job is to give credit to the team while advocating for them to upper management. Always credit your team with the wins, rather than yourself.

Find a Mentor

A significant portion of your role as a manager is mentoring team members and helping them develop their skills and careers. This is a serious responsibility, but don’t let it prevent you from working on your own career progression.

Find a mentor who’s further up the management chain than you and ask her for advice concerning both your current challenges and your future career. If this isn’t possible, seek out additional management training, and look for mentors from outside your company, either online or through local networking events.

Provide Feedback

Employees value real-time feedback and regular check-ins; both help them evaluate how well they’re performing and address any concerns. Using employee engagement tools helps provide immediate feedback, as do regular 1:1 meetings.

No first-time manager’s checklist will cover every challenge you’ll meet in your first few months as a department leader. As more experienced managers will attest, management requires a commitment to constant improvement, experimenting with new strategies and evolving to meet new challenges. Hopefully, the advice given above will help make your first months as a new manager a little less overwhelming. Management isn’t always easy, but it’s always interesting!

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