Timeless basics for new managers

I first managed a team of 25 persons, when I was just over 23. One of my key direct reports was twice my age and very experienced. The customer support team was headed by an experienced manager too. It was a new concept, new product, new brand, new channel and a new type of customers for the company. The new-new-ness of the whole context bound us together in the huge learning experience.

Due to some poor assumptions in planning, I also handled a redundancy exercise. I have never been as thin as I became then. The stress was incredible.

Nothing I could recall from my management classes prepared me for any of that. I had virtually no line manager to speak of, so I could not ask anyone for help. Few of my fellow management grads were in roles with so much responsibility, so they were not much help either.

Shaping something together with a team might be an advantage for a n00b manager, who, if she can unite the team behind the vision, can bring them along through it: I learnt this lesson but I use and share it with caution as most people management situations are not like the clean slate I had.

Even clean slates get smudged pretty damn quick as my experience with having to deal with a redundancy exercise shows.

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Recently a friend asked to share experiences and advice on how he could manage and help develop his new and growing team better. I distilled my learnings for him, and now here they are.

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Hire well. Or as well as you can. Hiring is random at bestreplete with biases, and then we pile the pressure of organisational expectations on — while not providing an ideal environment to — the persons we hire, who may already be dealing with their own and peer expectations of what they are supposed to achieve.

Start with the goals. Few first-time managers have any idea what to do with the people they manage. Starting with agreeing on shared goals is the first step.

Ideally, where the employee’s goals meet organisational goals. This is the destination, but also a moving target as both the employee and the company evolve. For instance, an employee, who is a new parent, may want more flexibility and less stretch the year the baby is born but may want to rev up things in other years.

Peg their level of current skills as accurately as you can. This is the hard stuff.

Bar some exceptionally self aware persons, nearly nobody assesses accurately how bad or how good they are at something. It is not simple as laughing it off as Dunning-Kruger at play. Research conducted across cultures finds that persons “with higher self-esteem rated their ability more favorably independent of their actual performance. Moreover, participants who perceived the task to be more difficult made more unfavorable self-assessments. Regarding the relationship between estimated and actual performance, we found that when the task was seen as more difficult, and, hence, less diagnostic of ability, participants were less likely to base their ability assessment on their actual performance, resulting in less accurate self-assessments.

The discussion can be emotional. After all, who likes to admit or hear that they are crap at something their role demands of them?

Assessing people’s strengths and weaknesses correctly is crucial in shaping their development journey, as well as in deciding whether they are the people to go on that journey at all! Getting people to see the link between their skill levels and their desire to invest in their own development, and their ambition is often the hardest conversation. It must however be had.

Resist promoting people to manager too quicklyNot every one is cut out to be a manager. Sod’s law says nearly always it will the most clueless who will want to be managers because they do not have a good sense of what it takes, nor a correct measure of their own abilities especially in relation to their ambition.

However a good manager can help an employee go on their own journey to becoming good managers.

How can a manager do a good job here? By building her own sense of self-awareness about her own abilities, consciously pursuing a plan of self development too, and demonstrating good management practice.

Use a range of resources, many of which are now at our finger tips. To help the development of an employee, a manager can use and suggest a mix of free resources (readings, relevant podcasts), paid online resources, and paid immersive resources (industry events, short courses in management schools) where they can meet their peers and assess themselves against those peers.

No one path is suitable for all people on a team. A good manager recognises this and enables the employees accordingly.

Talk often – formally or otherwise. The manager and the employee should have frequent conversations about how they think the employee is doing, how those resources are or are not helping, if the employee is developing new skills or abilities, whether they might like a new responsibility or a skunkworks project to try out these new skills.

In some cases, their new skills can be linked to job deliverables. In other cases, not so much.

These conversations help shape the journey of an employee’s development as well as help the organisation track how the goals, discussed before, are being served.

At some point an employee will outgrow an organisation and want to leave. In such a case, good management will have created a champion, a friend who will continue to support and evangelise the organisation long after they leave it.

Hire slow, fire fast is bad advice and it misses complex nuance. An employee’s performance does not occur in vacuum. As a manager, you need to know why the employee is doing badly and not contributing all that you thought she might. You also need to take cognizance of the cultural set up you may have created, especially if you seem to be firing a lot or if employees seem to leave you in droves. This needs you, the manager, to reflect and course-correct.

If all else fails, yes of course fire the bad employee but do not miss the chance to seek growth and lessons out of that experience.

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Poor management creates and increases attrition risk. It is also expensive as organisations keep hiring the wrong people, poorly managing them, failing them in the duty of care, then firing or otherwise losing them to resignations.

People management is a contact sport. No matter how much one may distil into advice, the real test still is in how it pans out in practice for a manager.

Good managers however are not born. They can be made and this is where leaders in organisations need to do some heavy lifting in thinking it through and practising it themselves.

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Often in startups, young founders can quickly find themselves in a managerial role. If they have never worked in formal organisations, they may not have experienced formal management — good or bad — at all. Sometimes as a result, they may make dreadful management errors, leading to expensive attrition and retention issues.

If like me, you mentor young startup founders or new managers, you may find this post helpful to share with them.