Getting into people management is probably one of the most coveted steps in anyone’s career. It is also the step met with the most anxiety and maybe sometimes fear. Many people usually describe it as hitting a wall. If you get into people management you need to change your whole paradigm. Most of the qualities and skills that made you successful as an individual contributor (IC) will not be entirely applicable in your new situation.
The goal of this article is to give you a framework for the first few weeks after becoming a people manager. It is about what you need to drop and what you need to develop when getting into people management.
Time to read
Time to read: 12 minutes (based on 150 words per minute).
Have you ever been in a situation for which you have been preparing for a while, only to find yourself wondering what now? Finding out that reality is very different from your imagination? Have you ever thought that you should have probably prepared better and spent more time preparing? Many first-time managers get into this situation as soon as they get into people management. Impostor syndrome, feeling out of place, feeling like a fraud.
This article is about tapping into your skills that made you visible as an IC and transferring them into people management. Not every transition will be one-to-one, but once you were also a novice in your IC role. Did you have impostor syndrome back then? Probably, yes. But did you overcome it? Absolutely!
What is the problem with people management?
What is preventing us from immediately and successfully transition to a people management role? The same reason why lawyers and doctors don’t usually make it as good investors. Being a lawyer and being an investor are two different jobs (job families even). If you are a rock star IC, then you probably have a well-deserved belief in your skills to tackle almost any problem. And you are tempted to transfer that belief into your people management role, but be careful. While you have been doing an excellent job, now you want to inspire and lead other into doing an excellent job. You know how to roll up your sleeves and complete any task and now you need to learn to work through others.
But just like lawyers and doctors can learn to be a very successful investors by transferring the framework they used to become excellent lawyers and doctors, you can also use the framework from your IC role into your people management role. By the end of this chapter will not yet be a rock star people manager (I wish it were that easy), but you will hopefully have a renewed confidence in your skills.
Personal story on people management
I have been a people manager in the past and I have a pre-existing love/hate relationship with people management. My role over the past few years has been in management without authority which is an equally challenging beast of its own. So, when the leadership team asked me to step in and take ownership of one of our teams, I reluctantly agreed. I tackled the situation like everything in my life – I bought a bunch of books, I selected a few people to talk to, and I promised myself to jump into the hole and learn by digging myself out of it.
How can you get better in people management?
First of all, I am broadly using the term people management for any situation where you have direct reports. It can vary from having one person report into you to having many (including other people managers).
Step 1: Make a plan
I recently watched the move King Richard about Venus and Serena Williams’ dad and how he helped them become the legendary tennis players. In this movie there is a quote which really resonated with me and with my whole life so far, so I would like to start with it.
If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.Benjamin Franklin
Let’s get one thing clear – even if you are a tenured and senior manager, you cannot just ad-hoc yourself into a people management role. Your first step will be to make a plan. Try to answer the following questions
- How many people are you going to manage?
- Who are they?
- Where can you find details about them?
- Who are you?
- Why are you going to be their manager?
- How can you help your direct reports?
- What are their goals?
Then sit down and write everything down. You will most likely need to work on this plan and to keep refining and updating it multiple times.
Step 2: Plan your learning
When Elon Musk decided to start his company Space X he taught himself rocket science by reading books and talking to experts. I cannot compare myself to him, but this is also my go-to approach for anything new. Remember the lawyers and the doctors? When I decided to get my personal finances in order, I selected tens of books and diligently started reading them (more details about personal finance here: How to Self-organize Your Personal Finances).
I will not recommend any specific books yet, since I have only read a few of them already, but hopefully by the end of the year I will also product a list of books for first-time managers. For now, you can do the research yourself. In addition to looking up online, you can consider asking your mentor(s), or other people managers, or anybody else that you trust. Collect these learning materials and start going through it.
Step 3: Delay your immediate urge
As we already said, you have been a successful IC and you are now in a new environment (or you are a lawyer and you open your portfolio planning tool). You will feel the urge to start acting: meeting your direct reports, helping them in their day-to-day activities, making changes. Stop! Unless this is a brand new team, the employees have already built a certain team dynamic. And as much as a people management change disrupts that dynamic anyway, all those people probably know how to do their job better than you do. So, resist the temptation got into firefighting mode and start solving the problems that appear important to you.
Your best course of action is taking the first week or two for steps 1 and 2. Having said that, there might be legitimate situations when you will need to act fast. But all I am saying is to think carefully before you act. Remember that your instincts are fine tuned to your IC role and now to your people management role. If you are familiar with the concepts of Daniel Kahneman’s concepts in his book Thinking Fast and Slow (link to Goodreads), use your slow, deliberate brain more often while you are still teaching your fast, intuitive brain.
Step 4: Earn trust
At some point during the first weeks, you will start meeting your direct reports. I would recommend one-on-ones with each of them, but this might depend on the size of the team. Remember that you will get tested in the beginning. Some of the people you now work with will come with questions. Others will resist the change. Hopefully, most of the employees will adopt a wait-and-see approach.
Once you start having those meetings, make sure you prepare well for these meetings. Review all materials available. Talk to the previous manager and get as much information as possible. These are your people now and you better start getting to know them. The first one-on-one should be more about establishing the relationship, managing expectations, learning from and about each other.
Steven Covey in his book The Speed of Trust (link to Goodreads) has a very useful framework for thinking about trust. When you have any kind of relationship between two people, there is the concept of a trust account. You can made withdrawals out of it (e.g., when you ask somebody to do something) and you can also make deposits in it (e.g., when you build trust). Think about that and make more deposits than withdrawals.
Step 5: Listen
You’ve probably seen all those great movies about inspirational leaders who stand in front of the crowds and start motivating them with their speeches. Well, you are not there yet. Again, as much as you want to be active, give instructions, and set the direction, you need to listen more than 50% of the time. And this is true for any setting – one-on-ones, team meetings, org-wide events (e.g., town holes, fireside chats).
So, when those first one-on-ones with your direct reports finally come and even though you have prepared the agenda in advance, remember to listen! You are there to develop your employees, to help them grow, not to show off. Your reports’ professional problems become your own problem. Even some of their personal problems might need to become your own problems.
Step 6: Be a leader
There is a big distinction between being a manager and being a leader. You need to be able to do both in different situation, but it is really important to know the different.
- Managers …
- … direct.
- … structure.
- … correct.
- Leaders …
- … coach.
- … affirm.
- … participate.
Managers define the methods and the tools, while leaders define the goals and empower their employees to define the path.
Step 7: Define your vision
Throughout my career, I have always had a vision of the near-perfect manager. One who sets clear goals and empowers, supports but allows occasional mistakes, guides but does not hand-hold. So, when I get into people management, my vision was to become the manager I always wanted to have.
Define what this means for yourself. Of course, take into consideration the circumstances and the environment. And share this with your employees. Ask them to open and course correct if you are not practicing what you preach.
Step 8: Reflect
If you were a rock star IC, then you probably have very good time management skills. Use them! Schedule some time for reflection. Compare your assumptions with how the events actually unfolded. Review your notes about your direct reports and think about anecdotes that confirm or disprove your initial thoughts.
Be very careful about biases. Halo/horn fallacy could make you be unfair to an employee whom you like/dislike on a personal level. You could be biased by recent events (recency bias). Try to look at each situation from a different point of view.
If I have to define one action which I believe will make you a better people manager it will be LISTEN! Listen in way bigger proportion than speak.
We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.Epictetus
First-time managers usually make a lot of mistakes in the first few weeks and months on the job. This is normal, somewhat expected, and it happens to most of us. Hopefully, by creating a plan, engaging in learning, being deliberate, and reflecting on your experience, you will be able to make it through these trying times on your way through people management.
What are the next steps?
If you have liked my article, please proceed to my contact page, where you can view various ways to contact me.