My online dictionary defines conundrum as a confusing or difficult problem. The dictionary editors might as well use the act of moving from individual contributor to new manager as the leading example.
Sure, every experienced manager navigates this awkward career step. However, few do it with grace and aplomb. Instead, the process is more akin to an elephant in dance slippers tripping and crushing everything in its path rather than a delicate ballet routine.
And while the tripping points are consistent across new manager experiences, including navigating challenging conversations, learning to delegate, and developing trust, experience suggests the seeds of success or failure for the new manager are sown even before the promotion. Promoting managers are well-served by helping their aspiring managers cultivate a beginner’s mindset through a series of discussions and live-fire experiences.
Beware This Common Trap with New Managers:
At least one of the systemic issues I see in many new manager development processes is what I reference as the scaling trap.
Think of the high producing sales representative suddenly turned sales manager or the talented software developer magically morphed into a software team leader. Their promotions are moments of celebration and recognition for their excellent work, and at least in most minds, logical next steps for their career advancement.
The promoting manager feels great about helping their high performer reach the next rung, and the newly minted manager fully expects the magic to transfer and scale with the new team. And while good things might happen with the superstar contributor turned new manager, don’t count on it.
In reality, the new manager has no real context for what it is they are supposed to do much less how they are supposed to succeed—two things they mastered as contributors. And when their known formula for success doesn’t transfer to and scale with the team, the new manager’s confidence deflates, a bad case of “I’m the boss syndrome” breaks out, and it’s just a short drive to the new manager adopting a chronic case of micro-mismanaging.
Someone—the promoting manager—forgot to impress upon the individual’s frontal lobe Coach Goldsmith’s classic words, “What got you here won’t get you there.”
The Critical Importance of a Beginner’s Mindset
I love Harvard professor Linda A. Hill’s perspective in her research-backed book, Becoming a Manager: “Becoming a manager is a transformational experience for which there are few shortcuts.”
I’ll see Ms. Hill’s claim of “few shortcuts” and raise her with my view: there are NO shortcuts.
Succeeding as a new manager is a long, hard slog filled with opportunities to misstep and misfire, often to catastrophic results.
It’s easy to find research that suggests fifty-percent or more of first-time managers fail during their first year in the role. The costs from these failures pile up when you consider the ripple effects of poor morale, reduced engagement, and increased turnover that all follow a former great contributor thrown into the managerial pond.
While the risks are genuine, this story of struggle and failure isn’t the one that has to unfold.
Proper pre-promotion exposure to the realities of the job through mentoring discussions, ample exploration, and even some practice at the role all help the aspiring or new manager begin to internalize the truths of this challenging transition. Ms. Hill says it wonderfully in Becoming a Manager: “First-time managers have to unlearn the deeply held attitudes and habits they had developed when they were responsible simply for their own performance.”
First, they have to adjust their attitude about the role.
Here are four ideas to help all parties involved in the process support the new manager during the awkward start-up process.
4 Ideas to Eliminate the New Manager Conundrum:
1. Promoting Managers Must Have “The Talk” with the Aspiring Manager
No, not that talk! This talk is the facts-of-life-as-a-manager discussion that starts with, “Just about everything you’ve done before hasn’t prepared you for how incredibly difficult this is going to be.” It gets a bit more blunt from there.
The new manager must learn the painful reality this is a “You-centric” role, not the “I-centric” one they’ve occupied thus far in their careers. Success is defined differently, and accountability is now spread across a larger group of individuals and issues.
Most aspiring or new managers fail to understand the fundamental rewiring they have to perform on themselves. It’s a frustrating and challenging process where what was second nature now must be second-guessed.
2. Send The Aspiring Manager On a Treasure Hunt
I encourage promoting managers to send their prospective new managers out to talk with a broad cross-section of organizational leaders and managers about their start-ups as first-time managers.
While the discussions are eye-opening, I look to the aspiring manager to share what they’ve learned through the interviews in the form of a presentation. Talk is good, but I want the individual to process on it, and the presentation provides an opportunity for additional thinking and learning.
3. Try Before Anyone Buys
Everyone wins when the aspiring manager spends some time on-the-job without really being in-the-job. Projects offer a great try-before-you-buy opportunity.
I love the ambiguity and challenge of projects where the aspiring manager is accountable for outcomes but carries no direct authority over the team members. This situation shows the individual the importance of building trust, gaining support, clarifying roles, and particularly of providing support to a group of experts who know how to do their jobs.
Project teams are typically adept at calling a time-out when the manager or lead misfires. They’re also good at crying foul over micro-mismanaging, and highlighting what they need to succeed with the initiative.
These are powerful learning opportunities for the aspiring manager.
For the promoting manager, make sure to build team feedback for the aspiring manager into the process.And don’t just assign the project and re-engage at completion. Use the time to observe and coach.
4. Ask the Team What It Needs from the New Manager
In my experience, most individuals and groups understand what they need from a manager better than the manager does. One of the simplest and yet most valuable approaches for gaining critical context for what the team needs from their new manager is to ask them.
Try “Angela’s Question” which goes like this: “At the end of our time working together when we’re successful, what will you say that I did?”
With a bit of facilitation, there are always nuggets of gold for the new manager to mine in these conversations. The output of one of these sessions provides an opportunity for the new manager to develop a “Manager’s Charter” outlining their view to their responsibilities and accountabilities in support of the team.
Of all of the activities outlined above, Angela’s Question stands out in my experience for its power in helping shift the focus from “I-centric” to “You-centric.” Once this happens, the odds of the individual learning to succeed as a manager improve significantly.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
The new manager conundrum is never solved by a passive approach to mentoring and coaching. This is a full-contact activity for all parties involved. Helping the individual cultivate a beginner’s mindset sets the stage for a powerful learning experience and improves everyone’s chances of skipping over the costly misfires and missteps that derail many first-time managers.