Getting started as a new manager

Jason Fried, Founder and CEO of Basecamp, recently wrote about how easy it is to be a bad manager. (If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you do. Managers will recognize their own experiences in his writing. If you’re planning to become a manager, it’ll give you a heads-up on what to look forward to. Spoiler alert: No matter how good you were at your previous job, as a manager you will be a beginner again!)

Fried notes that professional managers have typically spent most of their career doing something else and get promoted to management. In management, they have brand-new, complex situations to figure out. They also have to learn the enigma known as “people” and get good at knowing people react to situations they face. Fried’s summary of the “new manager” experience is accurate:

“When you practice being a manager, you’re already on stage. Your flubs have consequences. Fucking up could cost you or someone else their job. It could cost a business money, customers, reputation.”

I shared Fried’s article with my team members, which led one of them to wonder: If you’re learning as you go as a new manager, and your mistakes could have big consequences like costing you or someone else their job…how do you prevent big mistakes (or at least catch them quickly)? How do you ensure your learning curve as a new manager doesn’t cost anyone a job?

Here’s my answer:

When the stakes are high, a good way to mitigate the risk of your big decision is to bounce your thoughts off somebody more experienced who’s been there, done that. If you’re a new Manager reporting to an experienced Director, seek them out to say, “Hey, ____ is going on. I was planning to do ___ about it. What do you think?”

Notice the new manager didn’t just ask for an answer. They’ve put thought into how they would handle the situation and are asking the mentor for feedback. The mentor could respond in a variety of ways:

The worst answer for your growth as a manager to get back is, unfortunately, the easiest to dish out to the impatient and overwhelmed: the mentor gives you the answer with no explanation or discussion: “No, that won’t work. You need to do ___ instead.” When you get that type of answer, you’d be smart to at least ask why so you actually learn something. (If this is the only kind of answer you ever get from that mentor, branch out and find a new mentor that will challenge you to grow.)

A good answer from the mentor would be them telling you what they think would happen, based on their previous experiences. This allows you to discuss alternatives with them and come up with the best approach.

A better approach is a more Socratic method where the mentor asks you questions back and makes you self-realize what would likely happen in your situation and whether your approach was best. While this approach can be maddening when you’re impatient and want the answer RIGHT NOW, you’ll learn a lot more with this back-and-forth approach where you have to think through the questions your mentor throws your way and talk through your reasoning.

This “getting advice” approach works best if the person you’re talking to is, in fact, more experienced than you are in the problem’s domain. While it doesn’t hurt to bounce ideas off somebody else even if you’re on similar footing, you must be aware that you both could think a decision makes perfect sense and not realize that you’re both blissfully walking blindly into a minefield due to your mutual inexperience.

My other recommendation comes from a talk I attended from Angie Hicks (the co-founder of Angie’s List): Make the best decision you can at the time, but involve your own manager as soon as you sense things are going awry.

Even if your manager doesn’t need to do anything yet, giving them a heads-up about what negative reactions you’re observing from an action you’ve taken keeps them better prepared to help you if they need to. (People are sometimes embarrassed if their decisions caused a problem, and they want to hide it while they quietly fix it themselves. This can allow a minor issue to turn into a big problem, especially for an inexperienced manager. Catastrophes are harder to clean up than minor issues.)

There you have it. As a new manager, get used to the notion that you are starting over as a beginner. Be prepared to make mistakes and learn. To make safer mistakes, seek out guidance from those that have walked your path before…especially those that challenge you to think through your options and the likely consequences of your choices. Finally, make a decision and move forward, but rope in your own boss as an ally as soon as you sense things aren’t going according to your plan.

I like building better software development teams. I’m currently Director of Software Engineering at Angi (Angie’s List).