You’ve just been promoted to manager. Pat yourself on the back, but don’t pop the champagne just yet. Experts say your odds of success are just 40%.
The statistic doesn't lie: Transitioning into management is hard. Expectations are high and you’re in an unfamiliar role. Right out of the gate, you probably won’t have the savvy and skills to lead a team. Chances are that you might have a bad case of imposter syndrome, too.
Take a deep breath. If your goal is to be a great manager, treat it like you would any other business target — with a deliberate plan.
Unless you’re replacing someone, there’s a good chance you’ve been given fair “warning” about your promotion. Take the opportunity to read up on management best practices. Leaders Eat Last, The Happiness Advantage, and Radical Candor are all great books to start with.
“If you lack any skills that you’ll need for the job, find a way to learn them. And learn them early, before it becomes a problem. Take a course, read books, or reach out to senior leadership for advice,” said Ellen Mullarkey, VP of Business Development at Messina Staffing Group.
If you’re joining a new company, ask for reading material ahead of your first day. The company handbook is a good start — but depending on the role, you may want more detail. Reading content about your industry and competitive landscape will give you a better sense of the company’s focus and mission.
If you’re starting this journey at a new company, the most important thing you’ll need to grasp won’t be found in a book. Prioritize understanding your company’s culture and everyday norms first. While you may have been brought in to change the culture for the better, you still need a baseline.
You’ll hear directly from your reports, but you’ll need an unbiased assessment. Policy permitting, ask your HR team to give you a digest of your team’s engagement survey data. If multiple teams fall under your purview, which ones were the most and least engaged? What concerns or issues did employees bring up in their comments? HR can serve as your confidant and partner in making this transition a smooth one.
Set up a listening tour and get to know your direct reports. Schedule informal one-on-ones, making it clear that nothing needs to be prepared or presented. Ask reports about their personal lives, hobbies, and even their daily commutes. Stay engaged and, without interrupting, relate your own personal interests to theirs. These meetings are just as much about direct reports getting to know you.
“Talk to them about more than work. Ask about their family, their pets, and what they like to do outside of work. Learn about them as a human being, not just a member of your company. Employees don’t like to be treated like cogs in a machine, so show them that you don’t think of them that way,” said Mullarkey.
If your reports were peers before your promotion, don’t assume that you already know everything about them. Invite them to reflect on their perceived strengths and weakness. What work would they like to be more involved in? What are their long-term career aspirations? Topics like these don’t necessarily come up in casual conversations between individual contributors.
Getting to know your team goes beyond pleasantries. In your next 30 days, get a better sense of what each member of the team excels at. There are a few different approaches here. Consider asking each report to take stock of their usual work week in a shared document. What tasks are they spending the most time on? Do they feel those activities are worth their time? Be clear that this isn’t about identifying redundancies in headcount or belittling their hard work.
“Spend time with each employee one-on-one to understand their strengths and where they may need your assistance as a manager. Even though you will want to treat each employee fairly and equitably, it does not mean treating them identically,” said Stan Kimer, President at Total Engagement Consulting. Exercises like these help you get a lay of the land and identify opportunities to reassign work.
Another approach for picking out strengths and weaknesses is to employ a will-skill matrix. This exercise simply asks employees to map out which responsibilities they have high or low interest in and high or low skill in. In other words, the matrix is a way for employees to self-identify what they’re best at. Comparing will-skill matrices may give you an opportunity to reshuffle responsibilities to play to employees’ strengths. The exercise will also be valuable when you need to delegate tasks moving forward.
By now, you’ve met with your reports and, in all likelihood, leaders from outside your team. While these relationships will help you be more effective, they’re valuable for other reasons. You need internal mentors and confidants to lean on — you’re in unfamiliar territory, after all.
“Find a successful manager you really respect and ask them to be your mentor for the first several months. This person also could be your own direct manager if they see one of their keys roles as providing you strong coaching,” Kimer said.
You may not have to look outside your department for that support. If you’re coming into a new organization, you’ll need to lean on someone for institutional knowledge. “Build strong trust with the experienced, seasoned people you’re managing. You can then lean on them and use them as strong advisors to help you successfully navigate the area you are managing,” he said.
Based on all of your conversations and observations thus far, run a SWOT analysis to determine what projects your team should prioritize. SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Consider each of these with respect to your team, department, and company as a whole:
Based on these findings, rank your top opportunities by impact and ease of completion. You’ll want to focus on the most worthwhile tasks first — while always shelving anything that’s low impact, high difficulty. This approach is referred to as an impact or prioritization matrix and can be useful for managers and even individual contributors for determining what to prioritize.
Once you’ve identified your top opportunities, work backward and assign goals to each. What needs to happen for each to be realized? Ground your goals by applying the SMART model:
Involve employees in the goal-setting process and make them co-owners of the ones most applicable to their day-to-day work. That will help you secure buy-in and give you ample opportunity to recognize and eventually reward direct reports.
“Set goals for yourself and involve your team in achieving them. Setting goals will make a great first impression on your direct reports, and the fact that you're involving them in getting them achieved will ultimately build trust and respect,” said David Bakke, a management expert at DollarSanity.
Being a first-time manager, it’s tempting to feel like you’re single-handedly responsible for all the goals you just set. While the buck stops with you, you aren’t going at it alone. Empower your reports to take the lead on the goals you co-own and have them report on progress during your one-on-ones. Delegating responsibility might be one of the most important virtues of leadership.
“Independent contribution is like paddling the boat and management is like standing at the helm of a boat. You can't do both at the same time effectively,” said Dr. Nicole Gravagna, a neuroscientist and management coach at NeuroEQ. You need to be there to help steer clear of waves, or worst case, navigate through the rough seas ahead.
But management isn’t all about standing back. If your team is falling behind, don’t shy away from rolling up your selves. After all, you’re working toward the same goal. “Later on, you might decide you need to paddle...This idea of purposefully switching between the functions of management and adding your own contributions helps new managers become immediately more effective,” Gravagna said.
Management isn’t something that can be mastered in 90 days. Even the most seasoned manager has room to grow. That’s why it’s critical to regularly ask your reports for feedback in your one-on-one meetings. That vulnerability might be key to being a successful manager in the long run. If direct reports don’t feel like the relationship is collaborative, that sentiment will come through in engagement surveys.
“Remember, the two measures of success as a manager are your numbers in relation to your goals and the satisfaction of your employees. So it’s crucial that you allow the feedback channel to remain open so that your employees can contribute to your team’s objectives and keep growing professionally,” said Jagoda Wieczorek, HR Manager at ResumeLab.
Opportunities for feedback don’t have to wait for formal meetings or one-on-ones. Tools like Lattice make it easy to share in-the-moment feedback between peers. You can learn more about how technology empowers teams to build feedback cultures here.
Your first few weeks as a manager won’t be perfect — they never are, even for veteran leaders transitioning to new companies. But making mistakes along the way doesn’t necessarily have to jeopardize your credibility.
“The best tip for anyone that found themselves new in a manager position is to own up to their mistakes. In my experience, employees and colleagues hold bigger respect for people that admit when they failed in their role or when others failed because of them,” said Mike Sheety, Director at ThatShirt. Transparency and vulnerability are leadership virtues, not flaws.
As a new manager, your first 90 days have a big impact on your odds of success. And that sobering statistic we mentioned earlier? By having a plan, you can be an exception to the rule.