My own challenging first-time management experience aside, I’ve worked with hundreds of first-time managers in a variety of programs, and there’s just no way to sugarcoat reality for this job. Surviving the early phase is a bit like what it must feel like to scale Everest without oxygen. You feel like you are spending an inordinate amount of time gasping while making scant forward or upward progress. This article shares the number one challenge at start-up and offers some practical guidance for overcoming this challenge.

Navigating the Number One Challenge of the First-Time Manager

No one wants to work for you.

There, I said it. It’s nothing personal. Well…actually, it is. Regardless of your path to this promotion, chances are one or two of your team members wanted the job. Others probably hoped for someone a bit more seasoned. And yet others just view you as the latest jerk to train and tolerate until you either flame out, or your incompetence gets you promoted out of the group.

Your first big push must focus on establishing your credibility.

You’ve got to give the group a reason to give you a chance. In the event you are new to the group (instead of promoted from within), these individuals have no idea if you are competent or caring, and the one question they are all asking themselves: What does he/she mean for me?

No matter the business rationale or the praise outlined about your capabilities in the promotion announcement, every person on your team wonders whether you will impact them in some negative manner.

  • Will I be fired?
  • Is she going to reorganize?
  • Will my job change?
  • Do I have to justify myself again?
  • Will I have to work with different people?

And somewhere in the back of their minds is a tiny little voice wondering/hoping: Will this be good for me?

Defend Versus Discovery Mode:

If you consider that we operate on a continuum that ranges from defensive to discovery, your team is squarely in the defensive mode. Your goal is to carefully help your team members shift from this closed-minded, fear-driven state to something a lot closer to discovery.

To help with this task, I coach first-time managers to use the clock and calendar wisely. There are some tasks you want to rush to complete and others that require some time before you tackle them.

11 Critical Do’s and Don’ts During Your First Quarter as a Manager:

  1. Do not rush to change the operating routine. The group is already delivering results. Don’t assume they are broken. In fact, work hard to listen, observe, and praise the good work already going on in the department.
  2. Do not rush to assert a mandate. Unless your boss has instructed you to turn things upside down on day one (unlikely), not a single person is or has been waiting for you to show up and tell them how to do their jobs. You will have ample time structure and reform or refine things over time. Your first few months on the job must be focused on listening, observing, and learning.
  3. Do rush to connect both in a group setting and individually with everyone on the team. The group setting should be one where you can ask questions and ask for guidance and ideas. Ask for their help in understanding how work gets done. Individual meetings should focus on learning about people’s roles and again, soliciting ideas on business problems or opportunities.
  4. Steer clear of career discussions early in your tenure. More than a couple of your new team members will have issues with their titles, compensation, and long promised but never materializing promotions. Indicate that until you know the people and their capabilities as well as the operation of the department, you are refraining from career and development discussions. Commit to these around the end of your first quarter.
  5. Find opportunities to display your trust in your co-workers. They may be apt to ask for decisions on issues they would otherwise handle. “I’m not sure. What do you think?” should be your standard answer.
  6. Find opportunities to provide small victories. If there are easy fixes to vexing problems such as, “I need a new laptop to do my job,” seize these and provide some victories. You are being watched by everyone, and helping them score a series of small wins will boost their interest in you as a manager.
  7. Build opportunities for informal dialog. Keep your door open. Go to lunch with groups or individuals. Engage with remote associates. Again, listen, observe, and ask questions, and where relevant, provide wins.
  8. Don’t strive to become everyone’s friend. You can’t. You’re the boss. If you were part of the team before the promotion to first-time manager, get used to your new reality. Whether or not you want to admit it, the relationship has changed.
  9. Share the goals you have received from your manager with your team. Work to ensure that their goals are in sync with yours.
  10. Begin to assert your core values of fairness, transparency, and accountability, with an emphasis on accountability. There are dozens of opportunities per week to reinforce that everyone is accountable for quality and for living up to commitments.
  11. Remember and live the Golden Rule of Credibility: The Do Must Match the Tell.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The goal at start-up as a first-time manager is survival. You need to both prove your competence and showcase that you care about your team and team members. None of this is achieved by dictating or pontificating. Everyone is watching. Listen, ask questions, and create small victories now to gain support for the changes to come.

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