5 Key Lessons Learned from First-time Management

2017 has been my most professionally challenging year ever. This was due in no small part to the fact I became an official manager at its start, with two direct reports. Although I was de facto managing people’s workflows for at least a year before then, and I have managed far larger teams of individuals, it was an intriguing and rewarding experience by and large to experience management in a true corporate setting. So, without further ado, here are the five key takeaways I’ve gleaned thus far from the day-to-day responsibilities of managing, in no particular order.

Leverage your personality.

Unfortunately, my workplace persona quirks include occasionally emitting a quietly sung word in a song’s phrase or silently head-bobbing at my desk to music or mediocre-to-atrocious puns. (Yep, it can be just as annoying as it sounds, so I constantly work on curbing these indulgences.) Most of the time, it works within my team’s camaraderie, but especially if you can also tend to come off as either overly bombastic or, at worst, pompous, you have to harp on egalitarian themes to compensate. Even better, you can’t be sensitive in any way to people poking fun at said mannerisms, because that way they can blow off steam if need be. And it is best of all to check your team’s mood frequently and react accordingly, because to everything there is a season. Yet as you may be able to guess, such gregariousness and humor can help create a welcoming environment.

Sticking with just a handful of persona-delineating traits gives people boundaries and consistency, which are crucial to maintaining a team’s stability. My colleagues know that if it is a particularly busy time for me, I tend to remain silent, and can respond accordingly. Moreover, I can puncture tension or stress with a silly observation if need be. My team is odd in that one of my reports is nearly as experienced as I, while my department as a whole is very congenial and closely knit, so being able to signal around the limits of your ego is critical. Frankly, I still most often fail with regard to simply indulging in silly or mildly amusing hijinks too much, even if my team and other colleagues find them enjoyable. It’s useful in that I clearly show that I don’t take myself very seriously at all, but I usually take it too far still, and thus must still work on toning it down.

There are other examples of deployment, but relying too much on your personality can also lead to a major pitfall, such as:

Favoring radical candor over cruel kindnesses.

I am a big proponent of radical candor. But it is devilishly hard to maintain. Nobody likes to disappoint people or chide and correct behaviors. Yet if one refrains, it is embracing a false kindness that is actually crueler than being candid, as inevitably either a flaw grows to such a serious level that it can result in a very poor outcome or performance remains mediocre and the employee typically grows frustrated.

As a relatively young manager, the key hurdle is being able to assume a level of gravitas and empathy to communicate difficult truths thoroughly and clearly. Empathy, luckily enough, comes fairly readily as I worked through both of the roles my direct team handles, so I know the frustrations and difficulties faced. (If you don’t have that benefit, you frankly have to ask for it to be communicated to you much more frequently and clearly, soliciting clarity and honesty.) Gravitas is much more difficult for most, because there are the traps of bluster or presumption or, most damning of all, the demand for respect and consequent self-justification. That simply doesn’t work, especially for me, given my youth and level of experience. So that leaves only one option: radical candor concerning your own flaws and level of experience. As a first-time manager, I most frequently fall back on an approach resembling that of a team lead rather than a more senior manager, e.g. “I have done it this way in the past, but is it the best way? I don’t know, to be honest, so let’s explore this together.” The crucial concept underlining such an approach is that since you are the one in charge, responsibility ultimately lies with you, and thus you are the decider.

That approach only works well if buttressed by two more key concepts.

Respect is best earned via demonstration and offering of loyalty.

You can’t demand respect – that is probably one of the surest ways to lose it. In a team of relatively young people with not a ton of experience, I simply can’t afford to regard myself as meriting the respect of my peers based on slight seniority or the fact I was chosen as manager or significant outperformance. Even if all of those are true, only outperformance is likeliest to work, and sadly, I am not skilled nor talented enough that I outperform on every single project. Accordingly, what works best is extending respect to your team members for their relative merits and continually reiterating and demonstrating that respect as warranted. This is further reinforced by shows of loyalty, e.g. lobbying for promotions or raises and praise in public settings, as people may admire significant intelligence or hard work, but ultimately people care and respect those whom demonstrate they care for and respect them. Those first two are important as well, but proffering respect is even more important for first-time managers in particular.

Sincerity also cannot be emphasized enough, which ties back into personality. My personality type lends itself to exaggeration and overly effusive praise, and thus I must be wary and rein it in as appropriate. Conversely, if you are more taciturn, your encomia may carry more weight, but you have to remember to voice it likely more frequently than you would normally do so.

Exhibiting trust by offering ownership.

There are no ideal situations in business. At some point, you simply have to trust someone with an important project, try to hand them all the tools to succeed, and then pay consistent attention and offer constant support to mitigate any potential issues. Giving people a clear sense of ownership is crucial – and people usually can sense when you are still working behind the scenes. Everyone appreciates support, but they have to know and appreciate they are being entrusted with an important task, and it is primarily on them whether it succeeds or fails. At no point must one state the clear truth, which is that you will stand up for them and take the blame if the endeavor fails as it would be your fault ultimately, but all credit is theirs. Instead, the fact you have their back must be implicit.

There is one final key lesson I learned:

Consensus must allow for respectful dissent, which can be healthy.

This is a key piece of radical candor, yet also ties into personality. I am a terrible liar and also disagree with certain choices made by clients or even my superiors. Obviously I don’t need to proclaim when the latter two occur, but I must be upfront with my team members should they also express concern as I cannot dissemble and, more importantly, they deserve to hear my reasoning. Of course, one must also ground your explanation of your differing opinions in the context that the decision has been made and you could well be wrong too. The important thing to remember is that dissent is not bad – actually, it is often good. If your team feels secure to dissent (in a respectful manner) but signal that they will still abide by your decision, that is a good sign, as there is more than sufficient trust and camaraderie present. If you also adequately explain why you disagree with the choice made by the client or your own boss, then you are exhibiting respect once again by showing that you appreciate their level of sophistication and maturity considerably. Plus, it teaches a valuable lesson, namely, few to no business decisions are foolproof.


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