Employees with exceptional technical capabilities are often promoted to management. Suddenly, and often unexpectedly, nothing looks quite the same as it did when you were ‘one of the team’. Here are seven things you probably didn't know about the transition to first-time manager – and a few expert tips to help you hit the ground running.
You've made it. You've shown leadership, teamwork and strong technical skills that impressed your superiors. Congratulations! Now that you're a manager, however, you'll need more than just years of specialist experience to get by.
Truth #1: Being good at your job doesn't qualify you to lead the team
The first unfortunate truth of becoming a people manager is that the technical work you really excelled at is no longer your job. Vanessa Gavan, founder and managing director of Maximus International, says early management transitions are challenging on a psychological level. They require a significant reframing of the way you view the world. Critically, the technical skills with which you built a successful early career will not be sufficient to see you succeed in a management role.
Gavan cites the example of a top salesperson promoted to lead a sales force. Once appointed, they focus almost purely on what made them successful in the first place: securing deals. Meanwhile, the sales force has no sense of direction, no focus and no accountability. There is no scope for ‘people management’ because the new manager doesn't know how to manage people.
The solution? If you're making the transition to management, try to focus on understanding what's required of you in your new role – and get help in the areas where you need to upskill.
“Organise yourself to adapt quickly,” Gavan says. “Define what you are good at, and what you most need to learn in the new role.”
Ask for training, find a mentor or go on courses. There are lots of great management courses available, including those offered by the Australian Institute of Management.
Truth #2: People will expect you to have all the answers
Managers are often appointed because they have shown good natural leadership skills or good judgement. However, as a manager, people will no longer come to you hoping you can give them advice, answers or guidance – they will expect you to do this. For new managers, it can feel overwhelmingly as though it's your job to have all the answers and provide them on the spot.
Well, you can relax. No leader has all the answers to every challenge or problem (though some might feel they do).
There are two tactics that can be effective here:
- Don't feel like you need to give an immediate answer: Take questions and comments on board and let your employee know you'll get back to them once you've had a chance to investigate the situation thoroughly.
- Turn the situation back on the questioner: Ask your employee what they think the optimal solution is, and give them the green light if it seems like the best course of action. This not only encourages your employees to use initiative and make their own assessments, it can also help you build a strong team who you can rely on to do the thinking and decide on the best solutions.
Truth #3: Delegation is your new best friend
As an employee, you took on any project or assignment that was thrown your way with gusto and delivered beyond everyone's expectations. You worked long hours if needed, checked your emails on weekends and were always there with an answer for the client or the boss. You personally oversaw the delivery of work to your own high personal standards, impressing everyone around you.
Unfortunately, now that you're the manager, you won't have time to tackle every project yourself, oversee every document, talk to every client or fix every mistake. So it's essential to build a strong team around you and master the art of delegation. If you can accept your new role as supervisor and distributor of work, it will help you avoid getting bogged down in details or feeling overwhelmed.
Truth #4: You’ll feel swamped by all the little details – so take a step back
Along with the ability to delegate, you'll need to develop the ability to focus on the bigger picture. Getting your head out of the details when you're used to being hands-on can be very difficult. It's critical to focus your attention on the important things first. Let everyone know what the priorities are and seek buy-in from key stakeholders to allow you to get those things done.
“New leaders need to work out what are the ‘big things’ they have to get in order to make a success of their time in the role and progress further,” Gavan says.
Truth #5: You are no longer a ‘colleague’ – so you’ll need to set new boundaries
In order to successfully delegate all of this work, you'll need to have the respect of your team and everyone within the business. Every new leader must reposition themselves within the business in the context of their new role. This often means changing the way you communicate with, and respond to, other team members – even people with whom you've been friends for a long time, according to Gavan.
“Don’t expect others to blindly follow you. You have to stand for something. Leaders need to make meaning and set a direction that inspires others to follow. Work to define the way forward, engender commitment and at the same time reset relationships and authority expectations. It is most important to focus on respect, rather than being liked.”
Resetting relationships and authority expectations can take some time, as can winning over your new internal stakeholders.
Truth #6: You'll have a whole new set of (more demanding) stakeholders
Where you may have previously been client facing, as a manager you now have a whole set of new internal stakeholders to report to and work with. That can bring unexpected, and previously unseen, challenges for new managers to navigate.
Working with internal stakeholders, who have high-level business objectives as their priority, will require you to reset your thinking. While you may have been used to a certain level of autonomy as a senior member of staff, in order to really achieve your goals as a manager you'll need to win support from your internal stakeholders.
Conversely, your internal stakeholders (including those who appointed you) will have certain expectations of you in your new role. Learning to balance your priorities with your employee's needs, and the demands of your internal stakeholders, is a key management skill – and it only comes with experience.
Truth #7: New responsibilities mean new stresses – so don’t forget to ‘switch off’
Leaders at all levels often face the challenge of being ‘always on’ and ‘overloaded’. The pace of work, globalisation, technology enablement and hyper-competitiveness are all forces that perpetuate this issue.
“When appointed, many new leaders talk of feeling overwhelmed with broader scope, complexity and decisions requiring an answer and hand-offs of their old responsibilities. All of this comes at a time when they are exposed to more scrutiny, increasing workload and challenges with work–life balance.”
To give yourself the best chance of success, make sure you take time for yourself and switch off when you leave the office – even if it's just for a few hours.
Nothing in your earlier career can effectively prepare you for promotion into management. It comes with its very own set of challenges, priorities and stakeholders. However, by focusing on the big picture, setting realistic expectations and time frames and delegating well, you'll give yourself the best chance of success.