First-Time Manager? Start Here.

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Author of Real Leaders Don't Follow
4 min read
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My favorite people to coach are first-time managers. They’re always either stupidly optimistic or scared witless. I get a real kick out of knowing that they have no idea what they’re in for. It definitely brings out the evil in me, sort of like when people who’ve been married forever meet newlyweds.

Nah, just kidding. Although my first time managing was decades ago, I’ll never forget what it was like. And yes, it was equal parts exhilarating and terrifying, that’s for sure. And while I wouldn’t dream of depriving you of the experience (where’s the fun in that?), there are a few things I wish I’d known then.

Take the job. A friend once told me, “I’d rather be a great engineer than a mediocre manager.” Smart guy; dumb logic. Truth is, he didn’t start out as such a great engineer. Look, I get that you have no freaking idea what you’re doing. Nobody does; it comes with the territory. Just take one step at a time. The first step: take the job.

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Forget about leadership. You know all the fluff – I mean “content” -- you read about leadership these days? Ignore it. All of it. Your job is to manage. Leadership is a set of traits you use to motivate people. Mostly, it comes with experience – watching how others do it and your own trial and error. That is how you learn. Watch, do and learn.

Be a sponge. Management is all about people. Find a few role models, both positive and negative. Some traits or methods you’ll want to copy. Others you’ll want to avoid. Why reinvent the wheel? Just ask a lot of questions and use your gut to determine whom you should listen to. Don’t worry; you’ll develop your own style in time.

Identify your stakeholders. Clearly, your boss is one. Sometimes your boss’s boss is another. And your peers are also stakeholders, some more than others. Any manager with a vested interest in your success and vice versa, is a stakeholder. Periodically meet one-on-one. Share strategies and plans. If you don’t agree, hash it out.

Make sure your goals are clear and aligned. If I had to identify the number one hindrance to organizational effectiveness, it’s poor goal alignment and clarity of metrics between managers and their stakeholders. You need to own your goals and that usually means a little back and forth with your boss and, sometimes, your peers.

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Know what you don’t know. Want to know the best kept secret in management? The more experienced and successful you become, the more you’ll come to realize how little you know. That’s called humility. It’s a good thing. You’ll have a great career if you learn not to take yourself too seriously. Don’t be a know-it-all.

Embrace the many wonders of failure. Everyone and his brother talks about how great failure is, but nobody explains why. It’s simple, really. When you try things and they work, you gain knowledge and make money. That’s good. But when you try things and they fail, you gain wisdom and character. The latter is arguably worth more.

Grow a few layers of skin. The business world is not for the faint of heart. Competitive markets can be brutal and not everyone processes fear and pressure the same way. The last thing you want to be is thin-skinned and overly sensitive to criticism.

Try not to be a bully in a china shop. Remember when I said forget about leadership? There’s one exception. If you throw your weight around, you’re just asking for trouble. Sooner or later, you will run into a more nimble and powerful adversary … and you will fall hard. Trust me on that. You catch more bees with honey than with a net.

One more thing. Always keep your priorities straight. Want to know what your priorities are? Your priorities are meeting your goals and getting the job done, simple as that. The most effective way to do that is usually the right way. And the beauty of it is, that’s true whether you’re managing someone else’s business or your own.

Now get out there and kick some butt.

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