I recently had a 1:1 with one of the new managers in my team and we were exchanging notes on his experience vs my own experience when I myself was the new manager. I shared quite a few mistakes I thought I made then (at least the ones I was aware of – because I am pretty sure I made more mistakes that I don’t even know about). This note contains the laundry list.
Before we get into that list, I should also mention that as a new manager, you typically have some license to make mistakes. Entry level manager roles are about managers who are learning to be managers. Since there is an underlying notion of learning in it, it does give you some leeway to make mistakes. If your manager did this right, they would have made you manager in an area where the downside risk of these mistakes is manageable. They would also have judged how bad those mistakes might be (by observing you how you help people around you and giving you prior opportunities with mentorships, intern manager roles etc).
It is normal to make these mistakes and learn from them. Everyone does this. Management is as much an art form as much as science and till one practices this artform, one does not get better.
Judging team by comparing them to oneself
When I became a manager for the first time some 15 years ago, I had a 3 person team. These were my former peers. We were working on a project. I planned the project and set up regular checkpoints with the team. Soon, I started to get frustrated with lack of progress. My checkpoint meetings began to become more and more prescriptive. I still remember the faces of my team members looking at me in those meetings – confused, overwhelmed and shaken.
I soon pulled all stops, worked many extra hours and delivered that project on time, essentially doing work of four people all by myself.
In one of my subsequent 1:1s with my manager, I was venting about how horribly incompetent my team was. My manager gave me a cold stare and asked a simple question – “Why did you do their work? Who asked you to?”. After the initial bout of “my manager does not appreciate what I just pulled through” victimhood, those words gave me a lot of food for thought.
I realized and then my manager told me that there was a reason he made me manager to begin with. Like all first time managers, I was doing very well as a senior IC. And I was comparing others in my team with that benchmark. In reality, my team had an experience profile that comprised of a junior person who was just starting out her career, a person who had transferred into this role recently and therefore still ramping up and a senior person who was returning from a six month maternity leave, and therefore, figuring out how to re-engage in the workforce.
New managers are not calibrated to differentiate people by their performance expectations and often make the mistake by equating their team members to their own performance – something that is neither productive nor practical.
Improving odds of success vs certainty of success
In my subsequent conversation with my manager told me something that I still remember after all these years. He said that as IC, we have almost full control over the outcome of our work barring some unforeseen circumstances.
As managers however, we do not have full control on the outcome of our team. So our job is no longer to ensure a successful outcome with 100% certainty, but instead to increase the probability of success of our team members. In the process, we have to make peace with the fact that while the probability will be maximized, it will never reach 100% certainty.
This is a pretty profound thought. As a leader of a large people organization, I know that there are all sorts of challenges in achieving that theoretical maximum success. We have some positions unfilled for example, or some people not performing to their best selves for all sorts of reasons, or there is a churn in the roadmap in some cases etc.
My job in this case is not to pull heroics to solve all these problems immediately. My job really is to create a methodical roadmap to solve problems while making peace with the fact that things are not going to be perfect. Ability to deal with this ambiguity takes emotional transition that really starts when one becomes a first time manager.
I have often mentioned that management is like getting vaccinated against ambiguity. It takes a while to develop immunity. And it takes this journey to develop varying degrees of immunity against higher degrees of ambiguity demanded by more senior roles.
So sooner the new managers understand the principle of improving odds of success, faster they will make transition into more and more ambiguous and senior roles.
The “Three Things” Rule
In the early stage of me being manager, I thought I could see everything that was wrong with my team. I had a long list to fix and make better. And I wanted to fix it yesterday. An obvious outcome from this was burnout and increased irritability which I often took out on my team. I had not yet made peace with the ambiguity of managing.
One of the ways to deal with ambiguity is the “Three Things” rule. I got this wisdom from a former senior executive at my previous company. (They managed about 1000 people). They said, they organize their week by planning to achieve just three things – ideally less than that. If you are trying to achieve something meaningful, you will not be able to do more than three things in a week effectively. These things may change from week to week. The key art of management is how to figure out which three things you are going to achieve this week and which things you are either going to delegate or defer.
Development of this skill not just starts with management – even ICs can benefit from developing this skill. However, as one grows in management scope, this is one skill that makes the difference between effectiveness and burnout.
You can have only so many balls up in the air. The question is – which are those, and which others you are going to be pragmatic about and defer dealing with.
Talking too much about performance reviews
New managers mean well. They want their ICs to succeed. They are also new to performance management and therefore, at some deeper level, the concept of performance reviews keeps scaring them.
So in order to balance all this out, they consciously or subconsciously frame any work opportunity in terms of performance reviews – i.e. “if you do not do this, you will risk a sub par rating” or some similar version of it.
Think about what this might do to the IC in your team. If your manager continuously brings up performance reviews and ratings, you will justifiably freak out. Nothing good comes out when people are freaked out. Much of our work involves some kind of creativity and imagination – both of which get suppressed by the feeling of fear and ironically, that depresses performance from an otherwise perfectly good IC.
Consider framing opportunities in terms of possibilities and impact – “if we do this, it will achieve this awesome result for product/your knowledge or something similar”. This positive conversation keeps people in creative space.
Talking too much about career
This is a variant of a point above. As I mentioned, one of the persons in my first team was returning from maternity leave and at that point, just interested in settling down and achieving some good impact. I did however make the mistake of prematurely having a career conversation with her and of course, it did not quite go well.
More often than not, this too is a symptom of new managers treating their team members by their own yardstick. It is important to realize that everyone is different about their own professional journey and might have different expectations around career progression that might be informed by their larger life situation.
Get to know your team members as people
Too many times, new managers approach work in a “Mr Spock” way. In the name of keeping the focus on work and keeping things professional, they forget that they are dealing with humans and not robots.
I used to think that small talks, coffee conversations etc are a waste of time. With all the mistakes over the years, now I think that these are extremely important ways to build strong threads of relationships that come useful even after one does not work together.
Focus on spending time to build relationships. This might mean that in some 1:1s you may not even talk about work. Time investment in building deeper relationships often pays off when you need to have difficult conversations and will need to leverage the trust to do the right thing for your team.
These are only some of the mistakes I have made. Curious to know what you think. If you are an experienced manager already, would you add to this list? Share in comments if you can.