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The First-Time Manager

For years, I thought I needed to have desirable skills or yield results to become a manager. For the most part, this is correct; the issue is that it paints only a minor part of the picture. I believed my ability to finish consistently at the top of my fantasy football league was evidence that I was on my way to the top. It took time in team environments, particularly experiencing both weak and strong leaders, to understand just how influential a manager can and should be.

Rome was not built overnight. Even the most successful managers have to start somewhere and learn valuable lessons to get where they are. Managerial experience is not necessarily required to be gained in a workplace. In fact, it is more valuable to gain ancillary experiences in other facets of life that affect our ability to lead. For example, I am grateful to have spent time as a captain of multiple baseball teams - it is highly beneficial to obtain similar early experiences.

The Big Picture

My first learning lesson was that on-field performance only sometimes translated to becoming an effective leader. Often, especially with younger audiences, a star player held an egocentric personality that did not connect well with others - often, it did the opposite. Coaches that excel can separate the performers from the leaders, which is the first step in connecting to the rest of the team.

Many definitions of what constitutes a “manager” vary from organization to organization. Are you managing a team of people or a project? Both entail very different responsibilities.

  • Project - the management of a process with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

  • People - the management of team oversight to achieve a continuous goal with a sense of responsibility for well-being and development.

The main difference is that project managers, by definition, may not have a team of people to work with. For example, many Airport Operations departments will employ “Airfield Managers” with the duty of airfield oversight. This is considered process oversight - if they tried to develop taxiway direction signs as leaders, they might not generate much luck.

Those with a team beneath them are in charge of more than just results. Companies are so intrinsically complex that productivity cannot be the only performance indicator. For instance, a ground services supervisor must balance the need to meet turn times with the humanity of their team of employees. Otherwise, these team members will find somewhere far more liveable to work.

Organizations suffer miserably when high performers fail to adjust to management responsibilities. No failure should be surprising since there is no telling beforehand who has what it takes - if there was, wouldn’t life be so much easier? However, failures are only temporary, and these individuals must chalk these early experiences up to learning lessons that will help shape a still bright future.

Common Lessons

In her article “Becoming the Boss,” Linda A. Hill of Harvard Business Review discusses her research over the years, specifically focusing on difficulties transitioning into leadership roles. Whether underestimating the duties or encountering an unfamiliar challenge, many first-time managers are initially taken aback by how demanding managerial positions are.

Managing, by definition, is a stretch assignment - thus, there will be some gap between current and required abilities. The perceived gap will differ from person to person, but it is usually equally as surprising. Especially for the individual performer, their career has not yet prepared them for the new requirement to develop a vision for a team of people.

The following are common misconceptions for new managers alike. These illusions distract and mislead the new manager into a mindset that is harmful to their ability to lead:

I’m in charge now

Unfortunately, many first-time managers fall in love with the notion of being the boss. These individuals may believe this new-found authority gives them the trust and ability to impose their power and perspective on the organization. These individuals will tell others how they should feel and why they are correct, emphasizing their importance to the company.

Usually, life hands these managers important learning lessons rather abruptly. Detrimental mindsets hardly generate satisfactory results, and the leader must have an answer for their lack of performance. Using Jocko Willink’s “Extreme Ownership” concept, the proper counter would be to adopt our beliefs correctly and understand that the world does not revolve around us. An inability to react will leave the new manager without a job faster than they found themselves in the role in the first place.

One new manager interviewed by Hill observed, “The fact is that you really are not in control of anything. The only time I am in control is when I shut my door, and then I feel I am not doing the job I’m supposed to be doing, which is being with the people.” There will be no progress until managers shift their mindset from commanding authority to nurturing interdependencies. Building a network will usually require expanding our focus past subordinates - for example, can you think of external stakeholders that play a role in your organization?

This idea does not mean that new managers cannot wield some power - it's more that it is never as much as we first think. An issue will arise with the manager who mistakes their new position in the hierarchy and forces the autocratic mindset that only they have the answers. For the organization to succeed, I must exert my power and order people as needed.

The fact is that the stronger the subordinate, the less they will listen to convoluted orders. The associate might better understand the task and hold a more effective way of reaching the goal. The more we try to control people, the more they will begin to shut down, especially if the manager has less experience than the subordinate.

Building Trust

One of my leadership classes during my M.B.A. studies spoke about the importance of exuding influence. The paradox is that this ability is something other than what we can learn in the classroom - we can understand it in class, but we must master it over time. Many new managers are surprised by how difficult it is to build and earn trust. Individuals may even be insulted that their impressive resumes don’t speak for themselves!

  • Demonstrate character - subordinates are mainly concerned with the essence of a new manager who can do the right thing. Hill quotes another first-timer, “I knew I was a good guy, and I kind of expected people to accept me immediately for what I was. But folks were wary, and you really had to earn it.”

  • Demonstrate competence - subordinates are also concerned with the leader’s ability to do the job. I know of a ground service company comprising managers who have never worked a day on the ramp. How can a team trust you to lead if you have never performed their daily responsibilities?

  • Demonstrate influence - how well can you deliver and execute the right thing? These results are the product of the interdependencies, credibility, and trust built over time. Refrain from falling into the trap of believing formal authority is a fountain of influence.

I cannot stress this last point enough. Many believe they must control their direct reports and attempt to establish this dominance early, fearing that employees will walk over them otherwise. The lamentable reality is that using formal authority alone generally yields adverse results, usually with the opposite effect.

“Compliance does not equal commitment.”

Because a subordinate carries out your wishes does not mean they also are devoted to you. Employees that lack commitment will also require more initiative. Without initiative from subordinates, the manager cannot correctly delegate since direct reports won’t take calculated risks to revert negative fluctuations in our changing environments. Instead, these individuals will freeze until told to do otherwise. The proper attitude for personnel emanates from the top and is cultivated with influence.

Building Teams

Every leader thinks they are excellent team builders. However, the results are quantifiable. To exemplify this, take, for example, two teams:

  • One team generates all-stars across the board. These teammates’ skill sets are without question, yet still, the team lacks the desired results. Individuals seem to move dependently and irrelevant of each other. Here, 1+1=2.

  • One team has strong performers yet is not as skilled as the above team. However, these teammates have strong cohesion and seem to overperform consistently. Here, 1+1=∞.

Indeed, new managers have a lengthy adjustment period with many pressing issues. There are other matters to attend to that team building is often overlooked. Managers may focus on individual performance versus the collective culture and results of the team.

We must also look out for our team's future. The junior manager focuses on a smooth operation today but, just as importantly, ensures the team is well-suited for tomorrow. This responsibility may put the person in the uncomfortable situation of challenging organizational processes and structures that do not fit tomorrow’s needs.

Leading outside our control is likely the most daunting concept we have discussed. It will take time, and likely you won’t make much headway until you earn some respect. We must be comfortable approaching ideas outside our daily duties to challenge the status quo.

There is typically a tendency to play the victim card and blame either flaws in the system or ineffective hierarchy for a situation. This is an external locus of control, and these individuals do not see themselves as change agents; they are at the whims of forces out of their control. The harsh reality is we create our conditions for success - “Extreme Ownership.”

Unless you are the “World’s First Direct-Appointed C.E.O.,” you will have superiors who have been in your shoes before. Do not think that approaching them for advice will affect their level of confidence in you. No matter who you are, having questions about a new role is normal.

The Bottom Line

Much of this boils down to the idea that you do not have it all figured out on day one, nor will you solve every problem with the snap of your fingers. You earned becoming a manager with the understanding that you will grow into your new position, and for that, everyone above and beneath you will benefit.

The world needs innovators more now than ever. If you earned your role being an innovator, you are not expected to change who you are during your transition. Companies that exist to maintain current conditions are being weeded out faster than ever. You are obligated to lead your team and organization into a successful future.

Additional Source: HBR on Leadership Podcast

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