9 Lessons for the First-Time Manager

6.6.19 - First Time Manager

Illustration by Irena Gajic; Story written by Emily Ludolph; Story provided by 99u

Congratulations! You’ve been bumped up to a leadership role for the very first time. Maybe it’s something you’ve seen coming for awhile, or maybe it’s come about because the scaling startup or creative studio you work at suddenly needed a management layer. Whatever the case, you feel like you’re on the path to greatness and everything’s coming up roses and dollar bills.

That is, until reality hits and that promotion glow gives way to panic: How the heck do you manage a team?

Julie Zhuo, VP of design at Facebook, was just 25 when she became a rookie manager at the rapidly growing tech giant. Her knowledge was limited: “All that I knew of management could be neatly summarized into two words: meetings and promotion,” she says.

Now, years later—after countless rounds of feedback, wasteful (and useful) meetings, deer-in-the-headlights experiences hiring (and firing) employees—Zhuo has outlined her experience as a first-time manager in a new book called The Making of a Manager. 

We’ve summarized a few of the book’s most actionable insights, including how to get the most out of your team to the importance of being direct in your feedback. Read on, and may all your meetings be a good use of time.

1. If ‘everything is fine,’ someone is lying.

When an employee tells you ‘everything is fine’ for too many one-on-ones in a row, it’s time to probe deeper. It may mean that an employee is actually too shy or scared to tell you they’re struggling. You can’t help if you don’t know so earning the trust of your team is your top priority. As a manager, it’s on you to build a pattern of positive reinforcement toward transparency, criticism, compassion, and vulnerability. Then, when someone shares that things aren’t “fine,” they’re demonstrating that you have a good trust dynamic between the two of you. Sure, the situation may not be fine, but the relationship is great, and that’s the more important thing.

2. Fuel strengths.

Ambitious people often want to know where they fall short so they can fix it. While pointing out flaws is valuable, it’s an exercise that overlooks what people are hired for: their strengths. When your employees jump to the “needs improvement” section of their reviews and skip over the “strengths” section, redirect their focus. Highlight the specific value they bring. It’s more powerful to strategize around strengths versus weaknesses. Make sure your employees know that the value they bring is what you see in them and what you expect them to grow. A next-level manager can do this, not only with individual employees, but with whole teams.

3. Define ownership.

Make sure everyone knows who is responsible for what. When responsibilities aren’t clear, things fall through the cracks. Individual team members, unsure if they dropped the ball, get defensive and next thing you know you’ve got a toxic environment on your hands. No matter how blue sky the brainstorm, make sure that every meeting ends with clearly defined ownership of next steps. A follow-up email with marked out to-dos isn’t a bad idea either.

4. Lose the ‘compliment sandwich.’

Being nice is a good thing, but delivering critical feedback between two fluffy compliments isn’t as nice as you think it is. “Lobbing over a few superficial words of praise to temper a hard message comes off as insincere,” says Zhuo. The best way thing to do, is to be direct and dispassionate. Be firm and own the critique. Ultimately, you’re giving it because you believe they can do better. And that’s the best compliment of all.

5. Get a receipt when you deliver feedback.

Zhuo advocates creating a constant cycle of feedback and she’s careful to make sure it achieves the desired outcome. Make sure the message is being received as delivered. Everyone feels vulnerable and self-protective during feedback, which can lead to defensiveness and misinterpretation, Zhuo suggests making employees repeat back what they’ve heard at the end of feedback rounds. Then, she always follows it up with an email summary.

6. Diversify your team like a stock portfolio.

As a manager, you have to exist in multiple temporal realities. Your job is to keep things moving in the short term, while still planning for the long run. Zhuo advocates for managing your team like a stock portfolio: keep one third working on projects that happen in a few weeks, another group working on medium-term projects, and the third executing the early steps of ideas whose impact won’t show for years.

7. Don’t prolong a bad fit situation.

Many new managers think their job is to support individual team members to success. It’s not. Your job is to help your whole team achieve great outcomes. If you find yourself sinking a significant portion of your week (30% to 50%) into supporting people who are struggling, you’re missing a bigger problem. “If you don’t believe someone is set up to succeed in his current role, the kindest thing you can do is to be honest with him and support him in moving on,” says Zhuo. “When you decide to let someone go, do it respectfully and directly. Don’t open it up to discussion (it isn’t one) and don’t regard it as a failure on the part of your report.”

8. Know the goal of every meeting or cancel it.

Remember those meetings you and everyone around you used to dread? Now that you’re a manager, they’re happening on your watch. Make sure your meeting has a purpose—whether it’s making a decision, sharing information (it better not be something that could have been sent over email), providing feedback, generating ideas, or strengthening relationships. Once you’re clear about what the meeting is for, you’ll be able to prep correctly, make sure the right people are there, and—if it turns out it’s for relationship building—order pizza.

9. Delegate to show trust.

Giving people big problems to solve is a sign of trust. Early managers yearn for control. They want to prove they can do the new job. And they often become micromanagers, terrorizing their reports as they try to anticipate, solve, and dictate every situation that comes across their desks. Don’t just give your employees space; give them trust. Your goal is to delegate until you put yourself out of a job. You should be building a deep bench of the next generation of managers so when it’s time for you to move up there’s someone ready to take your spot.



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