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How To Excel As A First-Time Manager

Becoming a manager is an exciting opportunity. Avoid these common pitfalls for first-timers.

Congratulations on your first-time management position. Here’s what you need to know.


Are you ready for a managerial role?

Two startling trends are common when hiring for first-time management positions. One of the most frequent is that the job is offered to the best performer. Take the best engineer and make that person the engineering manager. What you need to know when this is the case is that the skills required to succeed as a manager are different from those of an individual contributor. The management job is one of making the team successful and increasing organizational capacity – not your personal competence as a hands-on contributor. Different jobs, different skill sets.

The other trend is the lack of management preparation and training. The rites of passage bear an uncanny resemblance to medieval ordeals, like walking across hot coals or tying a boulder around your waist and throwing you into the middle of Locke Lomond. Why any organization would take such a risk is beyond me, even though I was grateful for the work I’ve had as a result.


Four common pitfalls of first timers


1. The manager as the uber-achiever

When someone is a high achiever in their previous role, they tend to turbo-charge the manager role to know as much and more than any of their direct reports. They see their job and their knowledge level as a composite of all their team members. Why? High achievers have high standards, the need to be in control, and embrace hard work. Before their job was to get the right answerNow they are the answer.

When the manager is the answer, everyone else is a question. People line up at the door and take a number. When their number is called, they walk in as Question #8 and walk out as Answer #8. The problem is they are back in line the next day as another question arises in search of an answer. It’s impossible to scale this approach. 


2. An either-or management style

First-time managers tend to tell team members: a) precisely what and how to complete a task, or b) give no direction at all. Approach 1 demonstrates “I am in charge.” Continuing down this path, “This is how I would do it, so this is how you should do it.” It’s classic micro-management. The greatest harm in this approach is to experienced employees, who rank micro-management among the top reasons they quit their jobs.

The mindset in approach 2 is that people should know what to do, and as the manager, you shouldn’t have to look over their shoulders. Not only that, you have your own work to do. Clearly, this is not helpful for leading people to get a job done.


3. Not seeing yourself as others see you

Not realizing that others see you differently is a common error, thinking that as a manager, you’re the same person, just a different job. You’re doing what you did before, only with the added responsibility of managing the team.

Guess what? You may be the same person but your job is different. You are responsible for creating the conditions so that your team can succeed. The perception your team has even if you were previously a co-worker- is that you are different. You’re the boss! Your words and your actions are viewed through a different lens. There’s something for you to learn when others perceive your authority as “the buck stops here.”


4. Focusing solely on task execution

Is there anything more important than getting results? From a manager’s perspective, yes.  Achieving the desired results is always the goal. However, as a manager, the focus needs to be on how the team performs – the alignment of processes, resources, and individual responsibilities – and the relationships that must be managed throughout implementation. If the focus is only on getting results without looking at organizational alignment, the tendency is to fix people and push them harder, when it could be the system that needs to be fixed.


Honing your managerial skills

  • Delegation is the first skill that all first-time managers need to acquire and develop. The inability to delegate creates ongoing havoc and uncertainty and can be a career killer. Even worse, if an organization has promoted uber-achievers to senior managers who cannot delegate and insist on micromanaging, keep an eye on the exit door, especially of the top talent in the organization.
  • Learn and practice a broad range of management styles. It’s not that one style fits all. Situations differ. People differ. Management styles need to change to meet these differences.
  • Self-awareness is important for your ongoing effectiveness as a manager and leader. It also speaks to your ability to create an emotional connection with others and build relationships.
  • Pay attention to the conditions surrounding team performance. There are times when personal motivation or issues impact someone’s performance. There are other times when the organization is misaligned, like when good performers struggle with lousy processes. In this case, fix the processes, not the people.

Learn these lessons and Congratulations! will be well deserved.


Dr. Alan M. Patterson is an organizational development consultant, specializing in executive and leadership development. Having led hundreds of clients for over four decades, Dr. Patterson continues to ignore standard coaching methods, opting to pursue and lead clients down the path of meaningful careers that are not only successful but also rewarding. He’s worked with everyone from the Federal Reserve Bank to Hewlett Packard to Major League Baseball and the United States Navy. His new book is Burn Ladders. Build Bridges. Pursuing Work with Meaning and Purpose. Learn more at dralanpatterson.com.


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