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What I Wish I Knew: Leaders on Their First Manager Job

April 29, 2020
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So this is what it’s like to be a manager? Between the office drama, endless meetings, and a bad case of imposter syndrome, you’re wondering if that promotion was worth it. Call it paying the cost to be the boss.

You aren’t the first to go through this and you won’t be the last. We asked veteran leaders a question: If you could write a letter to your less-experienced self, what advice would you give? Here’s what they said.

1. It’s more than a title.

You were good at your old job, hence the promotion. But you can’t treat management like a title change and a few extra responsibilities. Most of the skills that made you a successful individual contributor won’t apply here. That was a hard lesson learned by Shanna Hocking, Associate Vice President at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. “Your job is not to be the superstar anymore. I mistakenly thought I could keep doing everything I had done as a superstar employee, but perhaps better, and that would be the key to leadership,” she said.

Don’t treat management as just the natural next step from your old role. Even if you’ve been at your company for years, approach the role with the mindset of a new hire eager to learn the ropes.

“A huge issue is not mentally promoting yourself when you get a promotion. People will often continue to operate as an individual contributor even after they've become a manager,” said Terry McDougall, a leadership coach. Not flipping this internal “switch” might partly account for why over half of managers bow out within their first two years.

“As a manager, your new job is to make sure the work gets done, not to do it yourself,” McDougall said. The sooner you realize that you serve a completely separate function, the better. “Many times, new managers are actually uncomfortable with differentiating themselves from their employees...It can feel strange to have power, but only by actually using it will you learn how to wield it effectively and responsibly,” she said. 

2. You’re not alone.

Hocking doesn’t look back on her first weeks as a manager with much fondness. Even the most self-assured leaders have their doubts early on. “I ended up doing everything myself, feeling burnt out, alone, and forgetting to bring my team along with me,” she said.

The initial thrill of the promotion can give way to loneliness. When you’re suddenly managing friends, work relationships change. You can’t be as forthright about personal and professional challenges as you once were, and colleagues may be less inclined to open up to you. Leaders recommended seeking counsel from past managers or ones who inspire you at your current company. In addition to listening to your troubles judgment-free, they can offer much-needed perspective in these early days.

“I should have asked for advice earlier on,” said Alex Williams, founder of Hosting Data. Rather than turn to a mentor or peer, he over-relied on books and thought leadership. It didn’t work for him. “I had tried reading industry and management books for tips and tricks, but often found them to be so high level that I wasn’t able to apply them. It was only once I started working with a mentor that I was able to ask for advice on real-life scenarios,” he said. 

3. Use praise wisely.

Recognizing employees, verbally or financially, is one of management’s highlights. But it’s easy for green leaders to overdo it. “Looking to your reports to be liked or be your friend is a mistake, and will lead to a lack of respect,” said Marc Prosser, CEO of ChoosingTherapy.

Praise
can be a powerful management tool, but it can’t be doled out indiscriminately. “New managers fall into one of two camps. Some are too generous with their praise and celebrate everything, and it loses its motivational impact. On the other hand, there are managers who do not offer enough praise and you can see their reports straining to figure out what they have to do to gain some recognition,” said Jacob Wedderburn-Day, co-founder of Stasher.

Privately, some suspected that they over-recognized reports as a way to validate their own performance as managers. “Early on, I made praise way too cheap. I probably did it just to make myself feel like I was doing a better job than I was. That made it hard to adequately recognize folks when it was super deserved,” said one senior leader.

“The key is to be honest and sincere with your praise. A word of praise can have a big impact if it feels earned,” said Wedderburn-Day. That honesty is key if you ever want to build a culture that doesn’t eschew feedback because it’s uncomfortable. “I have to fight my own temptation to be too nice in giving feedback — but it's very important to foster a culture where people can constructively criticize each other, in order to improve,” he said.

4. Your first hire is everything.

Managers never forget their first hire, good or bad. Getting the call right can make a big difference in your ability to lead and overall team culture.

“Be very deliberate in who you hire and promote. Many other factors have an impact, to be sure. But to the extent that culture reflects your company values, nothing states them more clearly than who is on the team and who gets rewarded within it,” said Wedderburn-Day.

As a first-time hiring manager, your gut instinct might be to bring in people with less experience than you. Considering that the average age for a first-time manager is just 30, that means excluding a sizable chunk of the workforce. Remember that part about giving up your individual contributor duties? Let go of wanting to be the “best” at anything other than managing your team.

Additional Resources

Want even more management advice? Hit the ground running and inspire your team with The New Managers 90-Day Plan.

As one leader put it, “You need more experts, fewer apprentices.”

“Great managers are confident and humble enough to bring on people who are smarter, more experienced, and capable of executing the vision. Learn to delegate and empower these people to take more initiative so they can rise to the occasion,” said Paige Arnof-Fenn, CEO of Mavens & Moguls. Fill your team with experts, not mini-mes — even if that means some of them are earning more than you.  

5. “Business” isn’t the hard part.

“I was pumped for my first management meeting. I was now part of the club and couldn’t wait to see what was on the agenda. We ended up spending half of [the meeting] debating whether one employee was taking too much PTO,” said one leader, reflecting on her first week as a manager.

Aspiring leaders daydream about what it means to be a manager — pacing around a corner office, ruminating over strategy, and making high-stakes business decisions. But leadership has just as much to do with managing personalities and resolving conflict. The leaders we spoke to reflected that management was, first and foremost, about the human element.

“Everything you’ve read or learned from practicum means nothing compared to leading actual people. You learn of management as it relates to the numbers and metrics, but books don’t teach you the fluidity of the humans you’re leading,” said Jaylen Bledsoe, CEO of Flare Partners. Arguments over stolen lunches, office politics, and perceived slights come with the territory. You’ll need to navigate a rainbow of personality types and communication styles. Few managers were prepared for just how “human” their day-to-day concerns would be.

“Learning how to lead with compassion while still maintaining high workplace and productivity standards is one of the trickiest lines a good manager has to walk,” said Matt Erhard, Managing Partner at Summit Search Group. Boiled down, management is about balancing business with humanity.  “If I were giving advice to my younger self, the main thing I would tell him is to remember that everyone is only human,” Erhard said.



Management, at its best, is a selfless pursuit. When things go well, you redirect kudos to your direct reports. But in tough times? “When you’re the boss, all of your weaknesses are front-and-center every day. It’s always hard to be the one leading, where people expect you to be perfect and that’s not possible,” said Amber Henrie, CEO of In The Lights.

With all the hardship, it’s tempting to wonder why so many aspire to lead. But for all the challenges, the reward of seeing reports grow and succeed makes up for it tenfold.

“Leading has been the most character-defining thing of my life, and it’s still the hardest and most rewarding work I do every day,” Henrie said.