Advice for a new manager

Welcome to the world of management! If you’re smart, you’re probably a little scared about what comes next —nobody should take lightly that they are now not only responsible for their work, but also the work and career progression of another human being. It can be incredibly rewarding and incredibly difficult, and nobody gets it right all the time. With that said, there are some things I’ve picked up along the way that might help.

As a manager, your first responsibility is now to ensure that your line report has everything they need to do their job and is comfortable at the company. Every other part of your job is still important, but it now comes second. If you’re doing a great job but your line report is struggling, guess what — you’re not doing a great job anymore. Think about that when you prioritise your time and work.

If you’re doing a great job but your line report is struggling, guess what — you’re not doing a great job.

Your job: clear a path

Most of your job as a manager is to clear a path for your line report to get on with their job. You should be able to assume that they can manage their own workload (unless evidence shows otherwise), and that you are there to make sure they have what they need to keep going, not to manage their day-to-day tasks.

To clear that path, you need to advocate on their behalf, often without them even realising it. In meetings you might mention that people should talk to your line report about something, champion solving a problem they’re facing, reject work on their behalf if it’s too much, work in the background to smooth things over, etc. This sometimes involves having awkward conversations on their behalf.

It’s a delicate balance, though — you want to help them, but never take over and limit their own development. For example, they need to learn how to have their own awkward conversations, so encourage them to have the conversation themselves when the problem is with a peer, and maybe only step in when the conversation is with more senior people.

You want to help them, but never take over and limit their own development.

Keep looking for the times when you need to intervene, and when it’s a good time for them to learn. Ideally over time, they will learn to clear their own path as you hand over more and more opportunities to develop. And hopefully, they’ll raise in seniority and find new paths that need clearing, and you can help with those, too.

Recommended reading

The first management book I read was First, Break all the Rules and I think it’s an excellent starting point for new managers. It taught me a two key things that have shaped my management style:

  1. You don’t have to treat everyone the same — fairness is a pretty overrated concept when it comes to managing people, as people need different things. For example, some people may need an hourly one to one every week, some may need 15 minutes. Find what works with each individual person and go with that.
  2. Don’t waste time on getting from “bad” to “good” — if someone is bad at something, try to work around it or get someone else to do it rather than trying to get them better at it (if possible). They will be good at other parts of their role, and it’s much easier to help them get to “great” on those things. You’ll waste a lot of time if you focus on the things that they’re not good at, rather than leaning into what they excel at.
You’ll waste a lot of time if you focus on the things that they’re not good at.

First, Break all the Rules also outlines the 12 critical questions that predict whether an employee is happy in their job — this list is a great starting point to work from . You’ll have varying levels of control for some, but you’re aiming for “yes” on all 12.

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  3. Do I have the opportunity to do what I do best everyday?
  4. In the last 7 days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does my supervisor or someone at work seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission / purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last 6 months, has someone talked to me about my progress?
  12. This last year, have I had the opportunity at work to learn and grow?

Your first meeting

Now that you have some groundwork, let’s talk about details. Here’s a few useful things to do in your first meeting as their new manager:

  • Confirm a one-to-one / catch up meeting schedule (a half hour weekly is a good place to start, but this usually depends on company culture).
  • Agree a rough agenda of what you’ll talk about at those one-to-one meetings, so they know what to expect.
  • Ask if they understand what their role is and what you’re expecting them to do.
  • Ask if they have any concerns or questions.
  • Ask if there are any outstanding HR / personnel issues that they want to talk about, like working arrangements, flexible working requests, etc.
  • Ask if there’s anything you can help with right now.
  • Find out if they have any personal development plans, career plans, etc. that you should be talking about and working from together.

The first few months

Once you’ve started working together, here are a few questions that will help you get a better idea of how to work with them:

  • What kind of work do they enjoy? Not enjoy? It’s useful to have a good idea of where they want to go in their work, what motivates them and how they get energy. Then you can match the work that you ask them to do to that, and to explain why you’re asking them to do something.
  • How do they like to receive praise? Constructive criticism? Some people like their accomplishments announced in the company Slack channel, and some people just like to know that their boss’s boss knows about their great work — finding out what matters to them is very helpful. It’s also very good to lay some ground rules together about how you’ll give feedback to each other before you have to do it.
  • Do they think that they’re doing the right work? Do they feel like it’s making an impact? You’d be surprised at how often people just don’t ask their employees what they really think about the work that they do. This is a simple way to show them that their opinion matters and a good way to find problems that need solving — this question often turns up valuable insight for the company.
You’d be surprised at how often people just don’t ask their employees what they really think.

Skills to develop as a manager

Now that you’re a manager, there are a few skills that are very handy to work on:

  • Giving feedback. this one is huge, so i’ve dedicated a whole section to it after this one. TL:DR — do it early, often, and as clearly as possible.
  • Active listening. If you’ve never practiced active listening, now is a great time to start trying it out — it’s a simple way to demonstrate that you value what they are saying. Try practising with a friendly colleague who is also a manager.
  • Setting expectations. It’s almost impossible to communicate clear expectations all the time, so practice this often. Make it clear when they should check with you about things, what they don’t need to check with you, when you need to review work and when it’s fine for them to handle it. Regularly ask them what’s not clear at the moment, and then work to clarify it.
  • Setting boundaries. Clear boundaries are just as useful in work as in the rest of your life. If you need quiet time on Tuesdays or don’t like to be interrupted when you’re reading, tell them. Tell them if you’d like regular updates or a weekly summary. Ask what they’d like, too. Keep checking in and revising these boundaries as you work together.
  • Asking open questions. It’s very common for people to not tell you how they really feel unless you invite them to do it. Make sure to ask questions like “is anything worrying you right now?” and other open questions that make it clear that it’s okay to say “negative” things.
  • Receiving feedback. You want to hear negative things, but sometimes it’s very hard to not take it personally. Try to remember that it’s not really about you as a person, and most problems are down to lack of communication or clarity. Also try not to react in the moment, especially if you feel defensive. Practice saying “thank you, i’ll come back to you on that” and then discuss their feedback with your manager and/or peers before deciding how to come back to them.
  • Internal networking. If you haven’t got a strong internal network, it’s a good idea to start developing one now. You’ll need the support of your peers both to help clear the path for your line report, and also to give you advice, practice and guidance as a manager. “Networking” sounds intimidating, but I really just mean developing good relationships with your peers. It’s as simple as asking if you can pick someone’s brains over lunch, or asking them for their opinion on a thorny issue.
It’s very common for people to not tell you how they really feel unless you invite them to do it.

Tips on giving feedback

Giving feedback is probably the hardest part of being a manager — it can cause a lot of anxiety for both parties, and often people just outright avoid it which causes much bigger problems later on. It’s always going to be tricky, but here are a few tips to make it more manageable:

  • Agree feedback upfront. As mentioned before, it’s much easier to give constructive feedback if they’ve already invited it. Asking “how comfortable are you with direct feedback?” is really useful to do early, and don’t forget to talk about how you like to receive feedback yourself (and give them explicit permission to give you constructive feedback, otherwise you may not get it).
  • Actually give feedback. So many people just don’t give feedback. Give both positive and constructive feedback, and do it often so you both get used to it. If you don’t know how to give feedback, check out the BIFF model — it’s a really simple method that’s easy to remember once you’ve practiced it.
  • Don’t be vague. It’s very hard, but don’t dance around the specifics, and don’t succumb to the temptation to speak in generalities. If you aren’t explicit enough, they will misinterpret your feedback and it will lead to huge problems later on (trust me). They will appreciate your clarity in the end, even if it’s horrible at first.
  • Try to give feedback it as quickly as possible to the event happening — ideally on the same day or next few days. If you wait too long memories will fade, things get confused and you might decide to just leave it, which is a bad idea.
  • Practice giving feedback. If you’ve got to give some feedback that you’re really dreading, try role-playing with a friendly manager colleague and practice it a few times (remember to do it in a way that protects your line report’s privacy). This will help you both!
  • Never assume that they know where they stand with you. People are forever wondering what their manager really thinks about them, so tell them early and often how you think things are going, even if it feels like stating the obvious. In fact, state the obvious all the time — assume that unless you have told them something three times, they’ve not heard it.
People are forever wondering what their manager really thinks about them, so tell them.

What changes now that you’re a manager

When you become a manager, your relationship with your employer and team members changes — you’re no longer just an employee, but also a representative of the company. This means that a few things will change:

  • People will look to you now as an example of how things are done. If you stay late, they might think they need to stay late too. If you always work while you’re sick, they’ll think they have to. If you send emails at 10 p.m., they have a signal that they should maybe be checking them at 10 p.m. Keep that in mind.
  • You will now speak on behalf of the employer sometimes. Keep that in mind when big changes happen, company strategies are being communicated, or other big events. When things are big and scary, your line report will be looking for you to reassure them that their job and future is okay. They can feel unsettled if you signal that you’re worried too or unhappy. If you have your own doubts or concerns about company changes, take those to your own manager or peers.
  • Your mood will now impact other people’s moods and work. Try not to leak your stress too much, as your line reports will notice it and respond to it. They might also feel stressed, start trying to protect your feelings, or might adjust their own work in ways that you don’t want because they don’t want to stress you out. Stress and vent with your peers or own manager whenever possible.
If you stay late, they might think they need to stay late too.

When you screw up

Finally, you will screw up. Everyone does. It’s usually because you’re too busy, or because you’ve got something you’re scared of addressing and you let it go unsaid for too long.

When you screw up, apologise unreservedly to your line report and work twice as hard to regain their trust. Make sure they know that you’re not taking their trust for granted. Follow up regularly about what you’re doing to remedy the situation, and don’t stop talking about it until they say that they are okay.

When it happens, try not to be hard on yourself. Every manager makes mistakes, and the good ones recognise when it happens and learn from it. This is where your internal network comes in handy — talk to other managers about when they have screwed up. They all have, and it helps you feel better when you know that you’re not alone.

When you screw up, apologise unreservedly to your line report and work twice as hard to regain their trust.

What you’ll get out of it

If all of this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is — being a good manager means you’re flexing a lot of new professional muscles and taking on more responsibility. It’s demanding, but can be incredibly rewarding. Here’s what you get out of it:

  • You’ll level up on communication skills. Managing people adds a whole new level of complexity to communication, as you’ll be communicating on behalf of yourself, your own manager, and your line report regularly. Managing those communications well will give you a lot more practice and skill in communicating clearly overall.
Being a good manager means you’re flexing a lot of new professional muscles.
  • You’ll learn to have difficult conversations. It’s hard to be a conscientious manager and not develop the skill of managing difficult conversations. After a while you’ll find that giving and receiving challenging feedback is much easier in all parts of your work, not just with your line report.
  • You’ll develop a support network. Building up your internal network will pay huge dividends not just for your work as a manger, but for you overall. Remember that the 12 questions apply to you as well, and a “best friend at work” (or just a strong support network) is invaluable for helping you feel happy and fulfilled at your job.
  • Their wins are your wins. When you’ve been coaching a line report towards a big goal and they nail it, it feels amazing. You helped with that! You’re playing a part in someone else’s progress, and that’s incredibly rewarding.
When you’ve been coaching a line report towards a big goal and they nail it, it feels amazing.

The reality is that you’ll never be a perfect manager. Nobody is. The only real way to even be a “good” manager is to accept that being consistently “good” is an impossible goal — you can just do the best you can each day and invite as much feedback as you can take. As long as you take it seriously, you’ll be great. Good luck!

Many thanks to my own internal network for their advice and additions to this piece — in particular Ceri Shaw and Kate Ho.


About me: I’m Head of Awareness @freeagent. I’ve worked as a programmer, web designer, researcher and online publisher before joining FreeAgent as a digital marketer with an emphasis on content marketing. I look after the Content & Awareness team at FreeAgent. You can follow me @danaeshell

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