“Saving Your Rookie Managers from Themselves” by Carol A. Walker

Not many of the HBR articles speak so clearly to the challenges I experienced as a new manager (and still experience) as this one.

(photo: community-manager by Enrique Martinez Bermej

In the fourth entry in HBR’s Must Reads on Managing People, “Saving Your Rookie Managers from Themselves”, Carol A. Walker identifies several areas likely to be tripping-up new managers: Acting as a Role Model, Delegating, Thinking Strategically and Coaching.

It all starts with recognizing that being a manager is very different role than being an individual contributor on a team.  

Individual contributors typically focus on execution towards achieving the team goals.  They may coordinate with other teams, mentor other team members, and may even be involved with helping to shape the goals, and establish priorities.  But fundamentally they are hands-on with the work of the team.

Managers, on the other hand, are usually hands-off from the work of the team.  They help to recruit the team, establish the vision and goals, set priorities, align the capabilities of the team members with the work to be done, monitor the work, evaluate the team, and coach individuals towards higher performance.  Managers’ contributions to the work is through the employees they manage.

One common problem is that most companies promote employees into management based on their technical competence.  But management is very different from individual contribution.  So much so, perhaps, that there is very little overlap in the competencies required to succeed in these two different roles.  

Sidebar:  So why is it so common to promote high performers into management?  I can think of a couple of reasons:

1) Credibility.  If someone hasn’t at least demonstrated the ability to understand and execute on the work being done, how would the employees trust their judgement?

2) Domain Expertise.  Related to #1 above.  If the manager is to help employees improve in doing the work, it is necessary for them to at least know how to get the work done efficiently.

3) Hiring Pipeline. If you aren’t promoting from within, then you’re hiring externally.  The further up the management hierarchy you go, the more important it is to get your hiring right.  It’s often seen as less risky to promote a high-performing employee from within, than to take a chance on hiring an external manager who might have plenty of management experience, but has little or no context of the business and work at hand.

Note: I speak of the work ‘promotion’ into management, but in actuality it’s more like a step sideways or diagonally.  At many companies, including Bazaarvoice where I’m working, there are separate career ladders for individual contribution, and management.  And it is possible to be promoted into the upper echelons of responsibility and pay, without being a manager.  

After being promoted into management, it can be a difficult transition, and new managers often “fail to grasp how their roles have changed – that their jobs are no longer about personal achievement but instead about enabling other to achieve.”

Acting as a role model

One of the first areas likely to be tripping up new managers is recognizing the importance of their behavior, language, communications style and comportment.  Like it or not, managers set the model for acceptable behaviors in the teams that they manage.  It’s common knowledge that the tone and culture of an organization are set from the top.  New managers might not realize “just how long a shadow they cast once they assume leadership positions.”

“Staff members watch them closely, and if they see professionalism and optimism, they are likely to demonstrate those characteristics as well.”

This is true of both positive behaviors and negative behaviors.  It’s especially important that managers learn to avoid projecting anxiety.  When times are tough, or there is a lot of organizational change, a manager that focuses on the problems instead of solutions, that expresses their fears instead of their ideas, will tend to encourage their staff to do the same.   Although it may be difficult, and appear fake, it’s vital that leaders project confidence even during time of stress.  

The real challenge is to be authentic and honest about any situation the team or company faces, and yet to focus on the tasks ahead and the opportunities that are possible.  Delivering bad news about company or team performance – without watering it down – and yet still articulating optimism is a skill that I have always admired when I’ve seen it in leaders during my career.  If you have to deliver bad news – and anyone who manages for long enough will have to – it’s worth your while to write it down and practice.

Delegating

One of the biggest problems new managers have is learning to stop ‘doing’ the work.  When deadlines loom, or things break or big opportunities arise, the natural tendency is for the new manager to jump in and “just do it” – since their ability to accomplish the work is what got them promoted in the first place.

When I first became a manager I don’t think I did nearly as good a job delegating as I would have liked.  All too often if there was something urgent that needed doing and stretched the capacity of the team, I would jump in and help.  For example, one of the data services that our team used had a data loss.  It wasn’t a big problem because we had a copy of our data.  Because I was the most familiar with our copy of the data, and because the team was all busy with their tasks, I stepped in that day and wrote some scripts to restore our data and get our system back up and running. 

While it may be nice to see that the manager is willing to roll-up their sleeves and help out with the work, it many ways it can undermine the sense of ownership and responsibility that should really rest with the team.  With regard to the example above, I reflected and realized that I screwed up and missed an opportunity to:

1) Let one or more members of the team learn about a part of the system

2) Let the team take ownership of the successful running of our product

3) Let one or more members of the team enjoy the satisfaction of solving an urgent problem and getting things working again

After that experience I vowed to remain hands-off from critical components in our system – even in emergencies.

The fix is to teach and support new managers so they understand the difference between being an individual contributor, and being a manager. 

“Understanding this new role is half the battle for rookie managers, and one that many companies mistakenly assume is evident from the start.”  

Thinking Strategically

This issue is related to the one above.  New managers tend to still be very tactical and reactive.  If there are any fires, the manager needs to be involved in seeing that they’re all put out.  Even if the manager is delegating the work, new managers may be too focused on managing the immediate work at hand.  It depends on the particulars of the team, division and company, but usually managers need to be involved in understanding and shaping the why of the work, not just the who, what, where and how.

One of the challenges is that tactical work is usually more tangible.  It feels like you are accomplishing something.  Whereas some strategic work may not be so immediately fruitful.  I can see at least two types of strategic thinking that managers need to engage with:

1) The first is in the direction of Product Management: managers should have a solid understanding of the context and vision of the product that they are building.  This means understanding the market, the competition, who is buying the product, who is using the product, etc.  

2) The second area of strategic thinking is in organization process and efficiency.  Managers have more responsibility and accountability for the success of their work.  Therefore they should spend some time thinking about processes, rules, tools, activities, rewards, and other factors that can affect performance.  This includes setting aside time to read, discuss and apply what they learn about improving organizational effectiveness.

For some reason as a new manager I felt guilty about spending time on these two areas.  Now I’ve come to see that it’s an important part of the role as manager.

Communication & Coaching

I can also relate with the final area of concern for new managers: communication and coaching.  As Walker mentions, “it’s human nature to avoid confrontations, and most people feel awkward when they have to correct others’ behavior or actions.”   One of the biggest mistakes by new managers is avoiding addressing critical feedback to their staff.  Walker provides an example:

“The typical scenario goes something like this: A staff member is struggling to meet performance goals or is acting inappropriately in meetings.  The manager sits back, watches, and hopes that things will magically improve.  Other staff members observe the situation and become frustrated by the manager’s inaction. The manager’s own frustration builds, as she can’t believe the subordinate doesn’t get it. The straightforward performance issue has now evolved into a credibility problem.  When the manager finally addresses the problem, she personalizes it, lets her frustration seep into the discussion with her staff member, and find the recipient rushing to defend himself from attack.”

The first time that I, as manager, had to deal with a performance problem I definitely let it drag on for too long before I addressed it.  Which meant that it had grown in significance to me.  Although I did eventually address the issue head-on in what – I believe – was a constructive and positive manner, it probably would have been better for all involved if I had addressed it as soon as I had first clearly perceived it.

I think I delayed giving feedback because I feared how it would be taken.  I wanted my team members to be enthusiastic and enjoy their work – and few people like to hear critical feedback.  But fortunately I had a very good relationship with the employee, and they understood I had their success in mind when I raised the particular issue and suggested some approaches for improvement.  It was a great relief that the feedback session went well, and the employee clearly put in the effort to address the situation.  

In the article Walker identifies a few concrete strategies for delivering important critical feedback, such as:

  • Ask them to reflect on their performance.
  • Focus on the employee’s career goals, and what they need to do to achieve them.  Frame the performance issue as a current gap to achieving their goals.
  • Focus on the desired actions and behaviors, don’t personalize the performance issue (don’t focus on attitude or personality).

Even though it’s still hard and I’m still apprehensive, I try to address issues of performance within a week of when I’ve evaluated and concluded that there is, indeed, an issue.

Conclusion

In my experience most managers are promoted into management and are expected to know what to do based on their collected observations of their past managers, and by copying their manager-peers.  It’s a trial-by-fire kind of thing, and I wonder how long it takes most managers to adapt.

Although the article title mentions “Rookie Managers”, the reality is that even experienced managers struggle with these issues.

About brendansterne

Director of Innovation Labs, Indeed.com
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