The other day I was having coffee with a client, and we had a good laugh about our first experience of being managers. Little did our teams know that we were making it up as we went along and scrambling to rectify mistakes before they become disasters.
Why did they give me the job?
I got my first manager job when I was 22. At the time I had no idea why I was chosen – I didn't ask for it. I was in a government body and most of the team were in their ‘40’s: they must have been affronted and were at the very least curious about why I was chosen and what I was going to do.
Looking back on it now, it must have been because I was quick to learn, good at my job and enthusiastic. However I certainly didn't know what I was doing as a manager. In an odd way, my naiveté worked to my advantage, because I did the job confidently and without overthinking things. I didn't know what I didn't know.
Everything went along swimmingly until there was conflict. Then it became very difficult and I realised that I needed leadership development. Badly.
Learning through mistakes
In another company, I was promoted to sales team manager after exceeding my targets as a salesperson – once again an unsolicited promotion. An older team member who was the logical choice for the position was passed over. This created upset and hurt for him, and a challenge for me. This time I had more consciousness about what I was doing: I knew the importance of looking after the person as well as driving the team. I’d like to think that I dealt with that situation empathetically.
Looking back on it, we were often promoted to manager because we excelled at our jobs – but that didn't mean that we had management skills. It’s the old story of promoting successful technical and functional people to management – without any management or leadership training. My own experience has given me a passion for helping managers to get leadership training early in their leadership journey.
I’ve had a number of management roles since those early days, and I’ve always learnt from my mistakes. Here is some of my learning:
It’s not just about your team
I was once charged with transforming a non-performing team into high performers. I did, and we were fantastic. But what I did, inadvertently, was create an ego-oriented silo of excellence. We were alienated from the rest of the organisation. I learnt a big lesson here: that’s its not just about your team - it’s about the organisation. Success needs to be shared with and across the organisation.
Take your time with recruitment
Don't be too quick to recruit. Don't recruit someone if you are uncertain. Letting non-performers go costs money, and saps your time and energy in the process.
Performance management is an ongoing task
You need to manage performance on a daily and weekly basis. This way problems and conflicts are dealt with early. Dealing with conflict and poor performance is always one of the toughest things to deal with.
Firing people for non-performance is not easy. Someone once gave me a valuable piece of advice about this: a termination should never be a surprise to the recipient. What this means is that you should be communicating clear expectations and managing their (non) performance all along the way, so that when you call ‘time out’, they already know it’s coming. It’s a fair way to play.
Advice for new managers?
You don't need to know everything. Seek counsel from your team and leverage their strengths. If you keep your team informed about the wider company goals and issues, they will have a sense of ownership and do their best to contribute. It’s also good to empower people to make decisions. Insist that people come to you with solutions, not just problems.
The most important think is to keep learning. Just because you’re good at your current role, doesn't mean you’ll make a great manager. Without some training, a new manager is really just experimenting on their team, and there’s bound to be some fallout. You know the saying: people don't leave organisations - they leave managers. And good people are too valuable to lose.
A client recently asked me about the status of leadership skill development for new managers. I said I believed things are getting better, however, companies need to get in earlier in a manager’s career with real time training. We have been working intensively on this for the past year with Coachlive!
The way in which we support and develop leaders has never been more important. With current uncertainty and drives towards innovation, the need for leadership skills is paramount.
People going into their first leadership role need to develop a leadership identity and survival skills. This is where building the leadership pipeline starts!