Some managers and leaders believe that expensive initiatives or complex strategies to improve team performance…
CONGRATULATIONS! You’re now a manager! You’ve worked hard, done well and been promoted to lead a team. That in and of itself is a HUGE accomplishment. But it’s only the beginning. Because now you need to figure out how the heck you’re going to actually be a successful, inspirational, motivational leader. That, my friend, is no small task. In fact, I am not sure that there exists a more jarring transition than the transition from individual contributor to manager.
I tend to summarize the issue very bluntly: The activities that made you a successful individual contributor yesterday LOOK NOTHING LIKE the activities that will make you successful as a manager today. I mean that exactly as written.
The problem, of course, is that we tend to promote people into management roles because they were one of the top, if not the top individual contributor. Based on my blunt summary (AKA my blummary), this would be extremely arbitrary criteria since the activities that made you successful yesterday are not the same ones that will make you successful now.
This transition, then, also represents for so many an extremely specific example of the Peter Principle, selecting a candidate for a position based on their performance in their current role, rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role. This principle is exacerbated by the fact that very, very few companies invest enough to ramp up their new and mid-level managers.
Well lucky for you, Candor has come along to help. A good friend of mine, Dan Greene, shares a passion for getting involved with new managers and helping them find their footing. Like me, Dan started his leadership career as a Military officer. He spent a few years in the commercial aviation business after his 11 years in the Navy and then moved into the Tech world. Over the past decade, both Dan and I led large teams within the advertising businesses at Google and then Twitter. I turned to him to write this post with me so that we could produce the best handful of tips to help you succeed. This isn’t a comprehensive list of management how-tos. It’s simply a description of the top 6 lessons that we feel any new manager should keep in mind as they ramp up in their first few days, weeks and months.
So here’s to you, new(ish) manager! We hope you’ll find these practical tips helpful.
Lesson #1 – You are not an individual contributor anymore
I asked one of our engineers, Matt Dailey, who made a transition from individual contributor to manager at Palantir, “Based on that transition at Palantir, what are your top two tips for new managers?” His answer was “First, I needed to ditch my individual contributor (IC) responsibilities.” Managing a team is a full-time job. If it’s not a full-time job to manage a team, then there probably shouldn’t be a manager for that team.
Because you were likely the top individual contributor, it seems intuitive that you should retain some of that work. I think this is a very bad practice, and here’s why:
It doesn’t scale.
If you keep meaningful IC responsibilities instead of delegating, you will struggle to scale.
If you’re doing IC work, who is coaching Steve? Who is making sure the team is focused on the right priorities today (see below)? Who is helping remove obstacles and blockers to help folks on the team have more success? Who is reaching out to cross-functional partners to make sure teams are coordinating their efforts and operating in an aligned way?
I think you get my point.
It’s like robbing your team.
Something we believe deeply is that when you become a manager, you must prioritize your team’s growth, development, success, and needs above your own. Not in a lip-servicey kind of way, but truly in every fiber of your being. I personally take some cues from Service Leadership here, but this is really mostly a philosophy I brought with me out of the Marine Corps. It’s true that officers eat last. The insight here is that every single time you take on an important, complex, high-impact deliverable, you are robbing people on your team from not only the growth and development that would come with them being front and center on that project but also robbing them of a scarce high visibility opportunity. Sometimes people say, “Well that’s just not realistic, those people are too busy” or “We have too much to do.” When I hear that, the first thing I think is “ok, then that team is most likely not prioritizing well.”
So here’s the tip: Look carefully at your IC responsibilities. Identify what is truly important, given the goals you just articulated, and identify what is not. Work with people on the team to distribute the important stuff to them, and work with them to trade off other less important work that they might be pursuing.
Distribute the truly important individual contributor responsibilities to the people on your team.
Some companies follow the practice that new managers carry a lot of individual contributor responsibilities. My advice is for you to start to actively look for opportunities to delegate meaty opportunities to the folks on your team, start talking to your manager immediately about the risks of retaining too many IC responsibilities, and gradually work your way out of those responsibilities as time goes on. You *will* become a better manager. This is not easy to do, but that’s the mental model I recommend.
Lesson #2 – You have to truly care about your team(s)
It’s easy to use rank or positional authority to direct your teams and order people around, but that’s not leadership. To truly lead, you have to motivate and inspire, not direct. To motivate and inspire, you must earn your people’s trust. So, the question is, how do you earn someone’s trust?
The first step is to develop relationships. People trust people that they know. So, take the time to get to know them. Engage with your team. Build connections with people. Get to know your people and let them get to know you. For example, find out what their hopes and dreams, goals and career objectives are. And make sure they know the same about you (relationships go both ways).
You can build these relationships through one on one sessions. You can build them informally by sitting with and working with your people. You can build them by hosting lunches and social events. You can use whatever works for you and your team and your culture. But no matter how you do it, get to know your people!
Show You Care Personally
The next step is to show your people that you care about them. People trust leaders when they know those leaders truly care about their best interests. This is no small task! Caring means that you put their needs first. You are in fact “in-service” to your own team… not the other way around. You can show you care by:
- Helping them develop. Make time to coach and deliver strong and actionable feedback.
- Helping them solve problems and removing obstacles for them.
- Giving them credit and praise and making sure they shine whenever applicable.
- Making time for them when you don’t have time to make!
Remember, this section is all about building trust with your teams by building relationships and showing them that you truly care. If you don’t care, they’ll know it. You cannot fake this! If they know you don’t care, they won’t trust you. If they don’t trust you, you can’t inspire them and if you can’t inspire, you cannot lead them. So if you don’t care, you can’t lead. Also, remember that building strong relationships is the foundation for trust. People follow leaders that they trust. So build strong relationships to enable trust and unlock your leadership potential.
Lesson #3 – You gotta have a plan
Our engineer Matt’s second thought about his transition to becoming a manager was “I needed to clarify the team’s objectives.”
Of course, if you’ve transitioned into a management role recently – or are about to – you most likely inherited (will inherit) an operating team. This step, as Matt described it, is actually to try to understand “what the guy before me had the team working toward.” The team might be on the right path, but it also might not be. A few steps to follow:
Absolutely understand what the team thinks its objectives are
… by asking them. It might be tempting to think “Oh, now that I’m a manager I’m supposed to know a lot of stuff, so I should know the team’s objectives.” Nonsense. A couple of questions to ask individuals:
- What are your goals for the quarter?
- What do you believe our team’s goals are for the quarter?
Absolutely understand what key stakeholders think the team’s objectives should be
… by asking them. What does your new boss think the team should be achieving? What do your key cross-functional partners think the team should be achieving? What do the people ON THE TEAM think they should be achieving? A simple question for all of these people:
- “I’m working through the team’s goals (OKRs, KPIs), and I am wondering, if you were setting the team’s goals for this/next quarter, what would your top 2 or 3 goals be?”
Rationalize what you learn and publish clear OKRs
As we’ve mentioned before, OKRs are “Objectives and Key Results” – or goals. Ultimately, you are responsible for the team’s delivery or lack of delivery, so the final OKRs will be your decision.
Having done your diligence by checking in with the team and stakeholders, you’re in a great place to paint a 360-degree picture of the expectations of the team. But be wary of excessive compromise, ie the Nebraska Problem (you want to vacation in Vermont, your partner wants to vacation at Lake Tahoe, and to compromise, you settle on Nebraska, which is in between the two).
Good OKRs are measurable or binary, and they leave no ambiguity in the mind of the reader whether there was success or failure.
I like publishing OKRs in Google Spreadsheets with a description of the goal, a spot for notes, and a place to grade. Pretty simple. Distribute this sheet to the team so they know the team’s goals.
It’s also important that every person and every team has their own OKRs. So, not only should your team have clear goals, you and each individual also should have your own personal goals for the quarter. And we recommend listing and publishing all OKRs / Goals in a single doc so that everyone on the team knows and understands the focus areas, objectives and goals of all team members.
The final step – give your team visibility into your boss’ goals so they can see how their work supports a larger picture.
Lesson #4 – Ruthless Prioritization
Oftentimes, if you’ve just taken over a team, you’re freaking out a little. You think, incorrectly, that the path to success is to be able to show a mountain of awesome stuff your team accomplished. With this approach you will wear your team out, make them miserable, and while you might actually find a little bit of short-term success, you will not be able to sustain it.
The answer is to prioritize. If you have more than three priorities you have none. Just in case you’re thinking, “OK, Russ, but I can probably sneak in a 4th or 5th,” I’d say rethink.
One of our podcast listeners, Paige, wrote in and in our exchange mentioned, “Fun fact, the word ‘priorities’ is a modern word… before recently there was never a word that was the plural of priority – you only had ONE priority.” In other words, I think I’m being generous in giving you 3. :) Don’t let your insecure overachiever get the best of you. 3 priorities, no more.
How do you prioritize?
Great news! By carefully crafting your team’s goals, you have already taken the most important step toward prioritizing. In some ways, the team’s goals are the team’s priorities for the quarter, but I think priorities have to be actively traded each week and even each day. This is actually pretty hard to do. Prioritizing is a cognitively intensive process that people tend to naturally avoid. If you’re interested in learning the details, check out the “Prioritize Prioritizing” chapter in Your Brain at Work.
A very simple prescription is to hold a daily standup meeting. In this meeting, each person articulates their top 3 priorities for the day. A few pointers on this:
Use a Google doc to capture and commemorate each person’s priorities. Ask folks to drop into this doc no more than 3 priorities for the day prior to the standup.
The moment one person goes to four priorities, you’ve got yourself a one-upmanship situation. “Oh, well Sally had four yesterday and now it looks like she is working harder than me, so I’ll put in four today.” If someone drops in four priorities, ask them, “What are your top three?” and delete the fourth.
Be intentional about time of day
I recommend holding standup meetings at the earliest possible hour of the day, given your team’s working style. People have many different perspectives here, even in our own company, but the logic is that if you are prioritizing for the day, and part of the objective of the meeting is to provide transparency to all team members on each other’s priorities, then it makes the most sense to articulate and share those priorities first thing that day.
Monday is double duty
Consider using the Monday standup to articulate not only Monday’s priorities, but also the priorities for the week. Weekly priorities should have a clear tie to the quarterly goals — you only have 13 weeks in a quarter, so you can’t afford to let a whole week go by without progress toward your quarterly goals.
Lesson #5 – Don’t Default to Ruinous Empathy
In episode 3 of our podcast, Dick Costolo, founder of Chorus.fit and former CEO of Twitter, says, “Managing by trying to be liked is the path to ruin.”
Think about the best coaches and teachers that you had in school. Think about what made them truly great. Chances are you were motivated and inspired, but you were also challenged, you were pushed, and you learned a TON. No one wants a push-over for a coach or a teacher or a manager.
They want someone that will set high standards, who help them grow and achieve more than they thought possible, and who will do all of that in a way that shows they care. That means being a great manager doesn’t necessarily mean being everyone’s best friend. It means you’re going have to be tough when tough is needed and you’re going to have deliver difficult and constructive feedback when called for.
Guess what? People sometimes struggle, and sometimes you need to criticize their work and their behavior. Guess what else? People sometimes fail to make the changes you think they need to make.
Both of these realities are very difficult for new managers to grasp for a few reasons:
Thinking you can save everyone
You were almost certainly a strong individual contributor. You think that if you can just get Jeff to do this thing like you did, he’ll be ok. Sometimes, you even do the work for Jeff. Wrong answer, folks! – See Lesson #1.
Lacking confidence to act
You’re new, you’re off balance, and you’re not sure if you can hold people’s feet to the fire. You must. The purpose of critical feedback is to help people improve. By not acting, you are not helping people become more successful, the most important thing you can do for the people on your team.
Wanting to be liked
Giving tough feedback and holding folks accountable is uncomfortable… for everyone. You fear an emotional response. You fear being complained about at the water cooler. Well, those things are part of the gig.
Not wanting to hurt morale
You think that by holding Jane’s feet to the fire, you’ll upset her and since the team likes Jane, upsetting her will hurt morale. This is almost always wrong. Popular as Jane is, usually the team is troubled by the fact that she’s coming up short. They’re having to pick up the slack, and you’re not doing anything about it. By not getting Jane what she needs, critical feedback, you are hurting morale far more.
And here’s the ugly truth, noob. Someday you will have to fire someone. I promise you that day will be the worst day of your career. Always remember that it’s not fair to that person or the rest of the team to allow someone to continue in a role and struggle. You have to intervene swiftly. To feel better prepared, take time early in your tenure to find someone in HR who can teach you about how the company thinks about this stuff. Usually this person is an “HRBP” – Human Resources Business Partner or someone with broad HR responsibilities. It’s important to flag to this person your concerns and collaborate with them on next steps.
Lesson #6 – Set the pace, set the tempo, lead by example!
OK, this is the last tip. We promise! Leading by example. On the surface, it’s simple… always always always lead by example! Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find some complexity.
Part of leading effectively is having the respect of your team. It’s very hard to gain or maintain that respect if you don’t set the right example and lead from the front. What do we mean by that? It falls into a few categories:
You have to know and understand as much as you can about what your people know and do! Know the product, know the roles, know the operations. You need to understand what your people are doing day to day and understand what you’re asking them to do at any given time. Don’t ever ask your people to do something you haven’t done or wouldn’t do. And whenever you can, roll your sleeves up and get your hands “into the work,” along with your people. Walk the walk and talk the talk! You’ll build a tremendous amount of respect from your teams by focusing your energy in this way.
Effort & Energy
The team is fueled by your energy and your mood. If you bring low energy and a bad mood to work, that’s what the team will feed on. And that’s the kind of performance you’ll get from them. The fact is, you lose the right to have a bad day when you pin on your manager stripes. You have to be able to compartmentalize your problems, and bring your enthusiastic “A game” each and every day. This isn’t an easy task by any stretch. But that’s why you get paid the big bucks, why you’ve been given the privilege to lead. So, suck it up and be mentally and emotionally tough. Leadership is HARD. Being a great leader is even harder. You have to accept and be comfortable with that fact. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of commitment to be a great leader.
Here’s something that all too many leaders forget or never actually understand: when you are in a position of leadership, everything you do is a leadership action. What you do, what you say, what you think, what people think you think and how they perceive you as a result — it all matters! Everything you do counts as a leadership action and you must set the right example as often as possible. That means you’re always setting an example, on the job and off. As a leader you’re never really off duty. What you do at home, out in town, off the job, or on the job — it all counts. And you’re always setting an example. If you want to maintain the respect of your team and as a result maintain your ability to lead and manage them, you need to set the right example all the time!
You can do this!
One article with 6 lessons and tips on how to lead certainly doesn’t cover the entire corpus of leadership. There’s no way we can teach you everything you need to know and understand in one article. What we’ve tried to do here is pull together the top 6 things we think every new manager MUST understand if they’re going to be remotely successful in their new jobs as leaders.
We encourage you to read through and think about everything we’ve written here. But, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Talk about these concepts with other more experienced managers that you know. See what they have to say about the most important things you need to know as you start your management career. Let us know what you think, what you learn, and what questions you have!
Leadership and management is an amazingly rewarding career path, but to do it right requires a tremendous amount of energy; a refined, robust and specific set of skills and knowledge; and a ton of practice.
This post was co-authored by Dan Greene.
Dan is currently an independent leadership consultant, writer, and speaker. Over the course of his career, he has held a variety of roles in general management, operations management, and sales & business leadership. Dan was previously the Vice President of U.S. Sales at Twitter, spent 6 years leading teams at Google, and was the VP of Business Operations for an aviation startup company. Dan graduated from the United States Naval Academy and spent the first 11 years of his career serving as a carrier-based Navy fighter pilot & operations director before earning his MBA from UCLA. He lives in Willow Glen, CA with his wife, Karen, his three kids, and his yellow lab “Scout”.