So You Wanna Be a Manager…

Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash
If we want people to fully show up, to bring their whole selves including their unarmored, whole hearts — so that we can innovate, solve problems, and serve people — we have to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard, and respected. — Brene Brown

When someone tells me they are interested in becoming a manager, I am simultaneously excited and skeptical. I want to make sure they really understand their motives and what they’re getting into. Once I know they’re not just in it for the title, I work with them to assess their current strengths, growth opportunities, and management maturity. Some of the things I look for:

  • How self-aware are they? Do they see themselves accurately?
  • How well do they handle conflict?
  • Are they able to work with others?
  • Can they delegate and teach?
  • Do they have realistic expectations of what it means to manage?

Management and leadership is a never-ending adventure that requires ongoing work to do well. Everyone has room to grow. I just want to understand our starting point. Depending on where that is, here are some skill areas and corresponding resources I typically recommend over time as a learning path, adjusting to their specific situation.

Know Thyself

Leaders must tackle their own issues before they can effectively help others. To help with this, I usually recommend:

  • Dare to Lead by Brene Brown. It is a great resource on how to better understand yourself, work through why you want to be a leader, and how to lead from the heart.
  • Visionary/Operator/Processor/Synergyst Testing by Predictable Success. I’ve found this helps leaders understand their own styles and how they may complement or conflict with their team.
  • Talk therapy. Many people should take some time to work with a trained therapist to reach a healthy level of self-awareness and address ongoing issues. The more they understand themselves and how they react to situations, the more constructively they can handle even the toughest conflict and stress.

Developing a healthy relationship with the team starts with having a healthy relationship with oneself. It will be a tough and worthwhile journey into leadership. Arm yourself with healthy coping methods and self-awareness for the bumps along the way.

Get Ready for Hard Conversations

You’ll be thankful for the work you’ve done on yourself as you navigate challenging conversations filled with emotion. You’ll need to be prepared to talk about where someone fits within the team and the organization, salaries, interpersonal relationships, overconsumption of shared resources, and more. In addition to helping my managers learn to understand themselves, here are some things I recommend:

  • Crucial Conversations training from VitalSmarts. They’ll learn how to work through challenging discussions, de-escalate tension, and more skills that I continually practice.
  • Manager Tools podcast. This gem is full of practical advice that is easy to apply. I learned how to do much more effective 1:1s, a key part of managing effectively.

Having good, hard conversations takes practice and reflection. You will mess up, and you have to learn to take every opportunity to have those conversations, keep a cool head, and strive to do better in the next one. And the next one. And the next one…

Prioritize and Align

It is impossible to do everything well. Your team will work on whatever you ask them to do, so you need to be smart about what those things are. You also need to help them coordinate efforts to ensure you’re all moving in the same direction. To help, I recommend:

  • Essentialism by Greg McKeown. Reading this helped me appreciate just how important it is to identify the most important work and give it adequate focus. Now I work with my team to do less but better.
  • Product Roadmaps Relaunched by C. Todd Lombardo. This book provides guidance on how to define these oriented around outcomes vs. things that will be created. Measuring the work’s impact leaves the space to adapt direction as you learn more.

Defining a vision and a strategy as a decision framework will help the team know where they’re all going, how their work is helping you get there, and what they shouldn’t be working on right now. We shoot to only take on what we are confident we can do in a typical workweek without feeling overwhelmed. It allows us to take the time to do our work well and connect with our customers. We also leave the space to adapt to new information as it comes in through experiments, feedback, and more.

Learn to Let Go

While you double-down on tough conversations and prioritization for your team, you’ll simultaneously need to learn to let go of doing everything yourself. I have seen many people struggle to understand and embrace the difference. To help with this mindset shift, I recommend:

  • The Leadership Pipeline by Stephen Drotter. The book details the work involved in moving between levels, including transitioning into management and to managing managers. Each change requires new skill sets and temperaments, and a deep understanding of motives for making the move.
  • Turn the Ship Around! by L. David Marquet. This book inspired me and has shaped my leadership style. In the book, the author describes how, even in the most top-down cultures (the Navy), it is possible to try new approaches that give people at every level of the organization autonomy and corresponding authority.

Management is about setting direction through clear expected outcomes and providing them the support to help your team make them happen. It is not about telling people what to do. You are there to help them grow and to think for themselves. If you do it right, you’ll as much learn from them as they learn from you. Your contributions will change from when you were an individual contributor. To succeed, what you value will need to change, too.

Be Honest with Yourself

Last but not least, I encourage people to really reflect on why they want to manage. As I said before, it’s not about being the one that tells others what to do. It’s also not about the bigger office or access to perks. You have people’s careers in your hands, so you need to understand all that is involved and respect the magnitude of your impact. If you are not excited about helping others unlock their potential and dealing with the messiness of humans — it is not for you. And that’s perfectly okay.

If you derive joy from supporting others in their accomplishments and giving them all of the credit, you thrive in tough conversations, you never want to stop learning, and you deeply appreciate people as people, go for it. Take your time, work through the transition, and ask for help along the way.