6 months of mistakes: Being a new manager

9 minute read

Late last year, I moved from a role as an individual contributor into a new job as a people manager. I have made a lot of mistakes in a short space of time which, of course, also means I have learned a lot.

Based on a talk I gave at Design Leadership 2019 in Melbourne, Australia, here are some of the things I have learned:

Mistake 1: I underestimated the role change

Your day will start to look quite different as a manager. I had always spent time in meetings but moving into a management role added at least six hours a week of meetings onto my schedule. At the start, I said yes to every meeting which made my calendar look like this:

While having more meetings might seem like an obvious part of transitioning to management, I underestimated the difference in how my weeks would be spent. I became a “prisoner of events,” constantly at the mercy of my schedule. I’ve had to become much better at allocating my time and saying no.

Being a manager is less a promotion than it is a career change.

Beyond time management, your whole focus as a manager is different, too. While your environment might be the same, your priorities change.

It’s important to acknowledge that you are now in a new role and you are starting at the bottom again. Moving into management often means that as an individual contributor, you’re at the senior end of the scale. It takes humility to understand that you are now on the lowest rung of a different ladder. Being a manager is less a promotion than it is a career change.

You go from very experienced… to brand new. Like when you leave primary school!

Mistake 2: I swung the pendulum too hard

This is a metaphor I’m borrowing from Paul Adams and his excellent talk on overcorrections. Paul, a VP of product at Intercom, talks about how his company was creating new problems as it tried to fix existing ones. Often this came about as a result of an overcorrection. I love this metaphor and I have seen so many examples of it in my first six months of being a manager.

In trying to give people space, I was actually denying them coaching that could help them achieve more.
As a new manager, I had a decision to make: What kind of manager would I be? Personally, I can’t stand micromanagers. In our company, we hire designers who are capable of being self-sufficient and independent. Therefore, it was clear in my mind: I wasn’t going to be a micromanager.

Instead, I focused on building relationships with those I was managing. I let everyone do what they were doing before. I would check in and make sure things were going okay, and I tried not to ask too many questions. But a few months in, I came to a realization: The pendulum had swung too far the other way. Now I was under-managing.

In trying to give people space, I was giving them too much space and actually denying them coaching that could help them achieve more.

I had to put in some effort to correct this and I’m still trying to find a balance between the two. Getting it perfect may not be possible but just being aware of the issue helps me ensure that I’m not swinging too far either way.

Mistake 3: I focused on motion over action

The concept of “motion and action” comes from James Clear. This quote sums it up quite well:

When you’re in motion, you’re planning and strategizing and learning. Those are all good things, but they don’t produce a result. Action, on the other hand, is the type of behavior that will deliver an outcome.

Often, the outcomes of my work as a manager aren’t as measurable as they once were, or they are more reliant on other people.

If someone I’m managing brings something to my attention, I always make sure that I give it some time and look into it. But I found that I was too often doing this without really focusing on an outcome. This led to lots of motion but not a lot of action.

Being a manager is less a promotion than it is a career change.

As I talked about in the first mistake on this list, I’m now more time-poor than I was in the past. Thus, I should be optimizing my time. I needed to consider what outcome I was looking for and then take action.

Now I ask: Can I help? What sort of help can I provide? When I understand the problem a little deeper, I’m able to assess how much involvement I need to have. Sometimes my role is just to listen and be a sounding board. Other times, I’ll need to drop everything and prioritize the needs of my direct reports. But at least when I stop to consider my involvement, I’m spending my energy wisely.

Mistake 4: I undervalued awkwardness

I really related to this quote from Julie Zhou:

If you were promoted inside your team, it can feel awkward to establish a new dynamic with former peers. However, you shouldn’t avoid having conversations about career goals and priorities or asking your teammates about the traits that they like to see in a manager.

If you think of yourself as a coach, and your direct reports see that your main goal is to help them achieve their goals, the awkwardness will eventually go away.

This quote caused me to reflect on what it means to have an “awkward” conversation. It’s important to build up good relationships with those you manage — who, like Julie mentions, might be former peers — in order to avoid an unhealthy relationship. But that doesn’t mean we should be striving for a relationship with no tough or awkward conversations.

Don’t be afraid of the odd awkward conversation, as it usually means an opportunity to deepen the relationship.

Performance conversations can be hard, especially if your assessment of someone is different from their own. But these conversations are also a great opportunity to give direct feedback, which shows you really care about your team’s growth. The same goes for conversations about things like pay: They can be awkward but they also provide an opportunity for you as a leader to be direct and honest. You can be generous and share more about how seemingly opaque processes in your company actually work.

Of course, we need to remember the pendulum here. I’m not suggesting that every conversation should feel challenging and awkward; that’s not going to make for a great relationship. Just don’t be afraid of the odd, awkward conversation, as it usually means an opportunity to deepen the relationship.

A nice balanced pendulum, not swinging too far either way

Mistake 5: Not being explicit enough

One of my colleagues told me a great story about one of his first experiences as a manager: His desk was next to one of the people he was managing and they talked about work on a daily basis. He provided advice and guidance in steady drips throughout the day so while there were formal occasions for offering feedback, like design critiques, a lot of the feedback was informal.

Interestingly, though, when they went through their first performance review cycle together, one of the pieces of feedback from the employee was that he would like more coaching. My colleague was shocked — he’d felt like he spent too much time coaching this person.

The issue was that he wasn’t explicit enough; the employee didn’t even realize he was being coached all day. You need to keep asking yourself the questions: Am I communicating clearly enough? Am I providing feedback as a peer or as a manager? And is that offering obvious?

What helps a new manager learn?

Learning by doing is the best way to learn a lot very quickly when it comes to management. You can read 100 books on the topic, but it’s not the kind of thing you can learn from theory alone. I’ve been experimenting with some other ways to develop these managerial skills.

Find a coaching circle

I’ve been a manager for about five minutes but I work with people who have been managers for decades. Having a group of fellow managers to chat with means that not only are you learning, but you also get the chance to help peers, prepare for potential future scenarios, and feel less alone in your role.

While talking to fellow design leaders is great, I’ve learned just as much by chatting with our development leads and managers as well. We schedule a monthly catch-up to talk about how we are doing with 1:1s and performance reviews. We share articles, books, and stories. It’s become one of my favorite meetings of the month.

I’d highly recommend looking into this. If your company is too small, you could always reach out to people in similar roles on LinkedIn to chat, or through a leadership meetup in your city.

Get direct feedback from those you are managing

While this sounds easy, it’s important for you to create a platform for your direct reports to give you feedback. You may have a great relationship but if you aren’t specifically asking for it, there’s a chance you’re missing some potentially career-defining pieces of feedback. You may need to try a few things to figure out the best way to receive the feedback but this will be critical for helping you improve.

Reverse 1:1s are one way of doing this. I’ve found that sending people a list of questions before we have a reverse 1:1 gives them thinking and reflection time, so they feel more comfortable to share when we chat face-to-face. Start broad so they can get used to giving you feedback. Over time, you can dig deeper and get more “real.”

Schedule time to “manage” outside 1:1s

1:1s are a vital ingredient when it comes to being a great manager and building relationships. However, it’s also important to spend time thinking about how you’re growing the careers of those you manage.

Time is a precious resource so I’ve found that the only way of managing this is to block out slots on my calendar for thinking time, which allows me to reflect on career plans and goals.

Growing people’s careers is really hard and I’m way too early in my career as a manager to have had any success in that area. But if you can only think about the people you manage is during your 1:1s, you’re not giving it enough time.

Hard to fit in? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely.