Think back to your first day as a people manager.
You were probably brimming with excitement over your promotion, eager to prove that the skills and confidence you’d gleaned would carry over seamlessly into your new role.
But the truth is, they probably didn’t.
Even the most innately gifted individual contributors find it difficult to grow into a manager that peers and direct reports respect. 60% fail within the first 24 months of assuming their new roles.
Because transitioning to that level of responsibility is an arduous journey of continuous learning and self-development that many new leaders are unprepared to face. Just because they are qualified to be managers doesn’t mean they are capable, competent leaders. And without the right guidance and training, new managers won’t know what they don’t know.
The lack of support for new managers can have a detrimental ripple effect across the organization, resulting in poor team performance and retention problems. According to McKinsey, direct reports of managers that struggle are 20% more likely to be disengaged or leave the organization altogether.
Over time, these consequences negatively impact an organization’s ability to deliver on customer promises, hurting its bottom line. Given this considerable cost, it’s surprising how little attention has been paid to the experiences of new managers and the challenges they face.
New managers fail because they don’t have a concrete playbook, lack the necessary training, or receive inadequate training to learn this unique set of skills.
Without a toolbox of best practices and a list of clear expectations, new managers are left to fend for themselves, absorbing leadership skills by osmosis. But mimicking how senior management and their peers go about their day-to-day isn’t going to make them a leader. Let alone, a great leader.
And to direct reports, that will feel a lot like trial and error.
First-time managers need a clear understanding of the scope of their role and a map to avoid the pitfalls that often bedevil them.
Let’s analyze and deconstruct five common misconceptions individual contributors typically have when they first hit the manager level.
To lower-level employees, power seems like something you automatically get when you’re promoted to manager.
Although you certainly acquire some authority by climbing the rungs of the corporate management ladder, influence is earned.
While a new manager may now be more likely to get a seat at the table to discuss a proposal, they still have to prepare a strong business case, have a track record of proven ROI, and have a trusting relationship with their colleagues and upper management to get approval.
Reality: To be truly effective — and ultimately successful — new managers can’t rest on their laurels. They must build credibility, confidence, and trust among their employees, counterparts, and leadership.
Most individual contributors are promoted to managers based on their impressive technical know-how and prior achievements. While that previous behavior and set of characteristics are important, they aren’t the end-all-be-all. Technical competence is just one piece of the puzzle.
Artful negotiation, clear communication, and honed listening skills are often more important. And misplaced confidence in technical abilities can cause rifts between team members and even departments, slowing things down and stalling innovation.
If you’re in a customer-facing role, you’ve probably had one of those managers that was completely detached from the end user. They ignore your warnings or alternate proposals because they’re confident in the product or workaround they’ve always used. In the end, you’re forced to do it their way, leaving you to deal with the fallout, which breeds resentment instead of respect.
Reality: The qualities that paved the way for promotion are not always the ones that dictate success as a manager. To start honing their leadership skills, incoming managers should remember to take their hands off the steering wheel every once in a while and give other members of their team a chance to drive. Leadership training can help managers understand when they are leaning too hard on their technical chops and need to practice letting their team work their magic.
Because management is unfamiliar, new managers tend to crave subordinate compliance. They fear that by not making early demands, direct reports from subordinates will take advantage of them. By exerting too much control, new managers fall into a nominal power trap.
They don’t realize that compliance doesn’t equal commitment. Some of the most talented direct reports disobey their manager to get things done — you’ve probably done that once or twice yourself.
The managers people hold in high esteem are those with character and competence. They know what they’re doing but are humble enough to seek feedback from others. And they don’t ask their team to do things they wouldn’t do.
Reality: Instead of relying on formal authority to get what you want from your team, exercise influence by creating a culture of inquiry. Ask your team questions and encourage them to do the same. Giving them room to ask for help or explain their reasoning creates a more collaborative environment where people feel more empowered, committed, and accountable for fulfilling the company’s vision.
Yes, it’s essential for managers to build relationships with each of their team members. But they also have to find a way to harness the power of a group. Moving a whole department forward in the same direction requires different skills and expertise that ICs don’t normally have.
A new manager may make an exception for one team member, hoping to get into their good graces. But by doing so, they alienate the rest of the group. Managers should treat each team member as an individual and leverage their diverse strengths to build a stronger team.
Reality: Leveraging emotional intelligence to deeply understand each individual’s strengths and weaknesses and the team dynamic can help managers diffuse conflicts, project manage more effectively, and set reasonable expectations. To cultivate a healthy group culture, managers need to learn and capitalize on the different talents within their team and treat everyone fairly.
Making sure team operations are on track is a major job in and of itself. And it needs to be done.
But new managers are so focused on keeping the engine running that they miss the opportunities (or landmines) sitting in front of them. Or, they may see them but are afraid of acting on them because it would upset the status quo.
Perhaps that means ripping and replacing a beloved tool, vying for a new department, or completely revamping an existing process everyone is used to. Making those decisions is tough, but knowing when to make those changes is critical to ensuring a team’s long-term success.
Reality: Whether conscious of it or not, new managers are responsible for recommending and initiating changes that will enhance their team’s performance — not just going through the motions of their day job. And challenging organizational structures that exist above and beyond their area of formal authority is part of it.
Executives are shaped irrevocably by their first management position. Failing to tee them up for taking the big swings can limit your current employees’ and future company’s success.
So before they get that deer-in-the-headlights look, let them know what they’re in for.
Explain that becoming a manager will stretch them in unexpected ways, reshape their identities, and may cause them to feel isolated at times. Challenge their misconceptions and pave the way for their personal and professional growth. Provide the proper training and coaching for leadership evolution.
And give them a shoulder to lean on — a network of mentorship, colleagues, and peers that care about each others’ well-being and are willing to share their mistakes.