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What I wish I knew before I became a manager for the first time

The road to being a good manager is filled with trial and error. Here are six tips to fast-track your success.

What I wish I knew before I became a manager for the first time
[Photo: AJEL/Pixabay]

When I was promoted to management, I was thrilled and terrified at the same time. My excitement came from the milestone this step represented (and the nice raise that came with my added responsibilities).

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My fear came from the unknown: how would I balance being firm with being approachable, how would my colleagues–who knew I was a new manager–react, what policies and regulations did I need to learn, how would I balance my already overscheduled calendar with these new responsibilities? The list went on and on.

This promotion was well over a decade ago, but I still draw on the lessons I learned in the first three years of managing staff. Here are the most important insights from my early experiences:

1. Get to know your staff early and let them get to know you

I was tempted to be overly professional with my employees, but realized that I didn’t know enough about their preferences, personal goals, and life outside of work. Building trust is easier when the manager and employee see each other as people–not just workers. Spending a little time to talk about interest, hobbies, and life goals in casual conversations helped me better understand the passions of my team–which helped us create a stronger connection and perform better.


Related: The simple equation every manager needs to build (or repair) trust 


2. You’re the manager–not the friend (or therapist, or social director)

I struggled mightily with wanting to be liked by my new direct reports, even feeling left out when they went out to lunch without me. It took me several months to accept that in my new role as manager, I shouldn’t focus on being liked, but on being a great partner in helping my employees succeed.

Setting the right boundaries with employees took a lot of practice. When managing an employee who was struggling with issues in their personal life, I had to gently (but firmly) let them know it was impacting their performance and reputation at work. It was important that this employee understood that I couldn’t solve their personal challenges, but the human resources team could be a valuable resource, given the breadth of our benefits package (which included support for family therapy and other employee assistance benefits). I emphasized that my role was working with them on a plan to improve their work performance or explore alternate work arrangements within policy to help them succeed.

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3. Consistency with (and between) staff members is critical

Fairness and consistent expectations are invaluable to employees. I didn’t appreciate how critical this was early in my management experience. There are numerous studies that outline the positive impacts associated with maintaining trust and meeting employee expectations, which typically drive employee commitment and engagement.

As a new manager, I worked very hard to be demonstrably fair in handing out assignments and in making management decisions across the team. When a choice assignment arose, I would articulate how and why the decision was made to work on that project, using consistent criteria. It was important that I reward those who were being more successful–but also that the criteria for success was widely known and very objective.

Similarly, there were times where I was faced with a situation where I had to veer from stated norms. The business world moves fast, and successful managers don’t stick rigidly to a rubric when the dynamics have changed. In those situations, I learned to communicate as much rationale as possible to the staff, so they understood why a certain exception was being made, and whether the exception represented a new norm, or not.


Related: How well can you trust your boss? Here’s how to tell 


4. Clear goals make it easier to evaluate employee success

One of the tasks I was most nervous about as a new manager was evaluating employee performance. Over time, I learned that well-defined employee goals helped me as a manager, while also providing my employees with much more focus.

For example, instead of writing a goal that asked the employee to provide “excellent client service,” a stronger goal would include specific metrics, such as those captured from client feedback surveys. Using the SMART goal framework takes more time, but results in a very specific definition of success in the role. This removes a significant amount of subjectivity to the process of evaluating employee success.

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5. Developing goals together improves employee engagement

When I first started managing staff, I thought that writing their goals for them was the best approach. I quickly learned that I should have discussed both the approach to setting goals as well as the goals themselves with my employees.

Some employees wanted to collaborate more than others, but all of them appreciated being asked about the process and being provided with the option to partner with me to develop their goals. I also had to be clear about which measures or objectives were non-negotiable, and which had some flexibility, so as to avoid any frustration.

Working with HR, I also decided to give each employee the freedom to develop a completely custom annual goal if they so wished, which was up to them to develop and propose back to me. A more collaborative process removes some of the mystery from goal setting and ensures employees understand not just the goal itself, but the rationale for them.


Related: The emotionally intelligent manager’s guide to leading remote teams 


6. You don’t need to have all the answers

When my new employees came to me with challenges or problems, I felt compelled to “prove my worth” as a manager by providing all the answers. It took a few less-than-ideal recommendations for me to slow down and realize that my role was more about helping my employees find the best solution, which didn’t need to come from me.

I learned that when faced with a challenge, I should default to asking the employee what their ideas would be to address the problem, and if they were truly stumped, I could network with other company experts, or we could explore our networks to see if we could find others that could provide us with advice and ideas.

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The lessons above are some of the most important I learned when I moved into management. It is a tremendous responsibility to have the opportunity to lead other team members, and I hope that sharing my experiences helps you quickly succeed in your new management role.


This article originally appeared on Fairygodboss and is reprinted with permission. 

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