Welcome to people management; you’re f&*$%ed

I think when most individual contributors daydream about being promoted to manager, they imagine how much more impact they’ll have, how finally they’ll get help with all the work that’s crushing them, how satisfying it will be to update their LinkedIn profile, and how proud their family will be when they share the promotion news. They think of something like this:

This image is by one of my favorite artists or all time, Richard Stine

The reality, of course, is that in many modern companies you’ll be expected to serve your team (so you’ll just have more people to please, like the swamp-colored dog on the bottom). Even outside of that expectation, you’ll naturally put pressure on yourself to be a good manager for your team – we all know, after all, that people join companies and leave bosses.

Another sad truth is people often get promoted because of how great a job they did in the role they were in, which had nothing to do with the people management skillset. In startups especially, new managers get zero training ahead of time; they’re lucky if a management training program exists at all and its half-yearly installment rolls around when they’ve been in the role for five months and feel like they’ve made every mistake in the book. New managers are left to fend for themselves, and, as we all do under stress, defaulting to management behaviors – good and bad – that they’ve observed from their own bosses.

The actual mental state of a new manager is much closer to this:

This is my favorite Internet meme of all time

The new manager fancies themselves the eager dog learning a foreign skill, faking it till they make it. They imagine their team, management chain, peers and customers mercilessly judging them on the daily. It’s easy for a new manager to feel like they’re f&*$%ed. If that’s you, what do you do?

New manager toolkit: where to start

I’ve been asked by dozens of new managers where they should start and what’s most important to get right in the beginning. I think the answer must address your mental state, clarifying what’s expected of you and your team, the cadence and structures you’ll use with your team, and places where you can find more answers on your own. That’s the minimum kit I recommend.

Your mental state

I’m here to tell you: as a manager, you’re not alone. Your support network includes:

  • More senior managers in your company, including in other functions. Realize that the majority of the people management skillset is not function-specific. I don’t think there’s any manager out there, regardless of seniority, who thinks they’ve got it figured out or who doesn’t remember the overwhelming first year as a manager. People generally want to help. Find mentors you’ll feel comfortable talking to, and ask them for help and advice.
  • Your peers in your “recent promotes to manager” class. They can be especially helpful if they are a few weeks or months ahead of you, still remember the crazy and can help you get situated in your particular company and org at the particular point in time.
  • The team that reports to you. While it might sound crazy, you can and should lean on them to help you as you get up the people management learning curve. This can involve things like honestly sharing with them that you’re trying to master 1:1s and ask for their notes on how you can improve, or getting folks to volunteer to do the first draft of the team’s values.
  • Books, podcasts, and online resources. See below.
  • Your own humanity, principles, and values. Remember: a people manager is responsible for people, and people, unlike business results and metrics, have lives. That includes you. Any job, especially people management, will benefit from your bringing your whole self to work and holding space.

What’s expected of you and your team

Can you clearly and succinctly recite what your manager and your manager’s manager expect from you and your team? If not, pursue those answers, and don’t stop until you have them. It’s not just you anymore that you’re responsible for. Set your people up for success by figuring out and sharing with them what the company needs y’all to do.

This step is easy to miss and/or deprioritize. You may even have a ready “answer” in your head, something like, “obviously, they want me to deliver on the number and make sure the team is happy.” Yeah, that’s not good enough. What’s more important right now – the number or the team? How will you measure “team happiness?” What else should you watch out for – like does your manager expect you to hire four people in two months? Clarify, write it down, and get your manager to confirm the total set of expectations in writing.

You’re too focused right now on learning your new job. Don’t add your manager’s job (i.e., setting priorities for you) to the list of things you’re trying to master.

Cadence and structures to put in place with your team

I know I’ll forget or screw up important things if I don’t put them in some sort of structure and if they’re not on the calendar. Even if you, unlike me, are blessed with perfect memory and focus, get this clutter out of your head and into your people’s heads and calendars. Set expectations for your team around the following:

  1. Your expectation of each team member. Remember how you clarified with your leadership what was expected of you and the team? Now that you’ve done that homework, it should be a rather trivial exercise to figure out how to deploy your team against those expectations. This should be a specific set of goals to be achieved over a specific period of time. For more project-based roles like BizOps or Marketing, this can take the form of quarterly OKRs. For more process-specific roles like Sales Development, it’ll manifest in targets of weekly activities and monthly qualified opportunities.
  2. How you’re going to operate as a team. On what cadence and how will you set your team goals? How often and for how long will you meet? What will be the agenda for that meeting? Who will be expected to prepare and present what? What team-wide roles do you need volunteers for, e.g., who’s going to organize the quarterly team offsite?
  3. How you’re going to operate in manager-report pairs. See this post for what I’ve found effective with my teams.

Where to look for more help on your own

Here’s the short list of resources I recommend to new managers:

  • If you’re going to read one book, make it Radical Candor. The accompanying podcast is also excellent. Kim, the author, was my manager for about three months once, and most of the good kind of management learnings I’ve picked up come from her during that brief time. I vouch that the theory presented in the book is practicable and beneficial to you and your team.
  • If you’re going to listen to one podcast, make it Manager Tools. Don’t let the from-the-eighties intro jingle and white-haired-white-dude sound scare you. These guys are good. What I especially appreciate about them is that they leave no stone unturned in addressing every possible objection that’s keeping you away from productive behaviors like giving effective feedback. Still not giving feedback in the moment because you’re unsure/afraid/have a philosophical objection to it? They have like four hours of content to cover every possibility and kick your butt into doing the right thing.
  • If you’re going to add one website to your bookmarks, make it re:work by Google, specifically Project Oxygen. Google has done a lot of research on their own teams, which at their size is actually possible. They share their condensed learnings and best practices, including some useful downloadables. If it’s good enough for Google, it’s probably good enough for you.

I hope you feel less alone in the beginning of your people management journey with this New Manager Toolkit. Have more specific topics related to being a new manager you’d like to see covered in Barely Managing? Comment below!

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