When you’re promoted from an individual contributor to first-time manager, you’re stepping into a different type of career and becoming a beginner again. To be sure, the creative skills that got you promoted in the first place will help you excel at tackling leadership challenges. But as legendary executive coach Marshall Goldsmith puts it, “what got you here won’t get you there.” You’ll need to develop additional skills to be an effective leader and let go of habits that don’t serve your new objectives.
I see so many new managers stumble in their first few months on the job because they hold on to old beliefs about what success looks like and how to best spend their time. To ensure that your energy and creativity go to the right places, shift your mindset in five key areas: your relationships, team, time, work, and creativity.
At the heart of it all is switching focus from yourself onto others, because you’re no longer measured on your output — it’s about the output of your organization.
Shift 1: Relationships
It’s common to build close relationships with your peers as an IC, so what happens when you suddenly need to manage them? Unfortunately, the truth is that these relationships can’t stay the same — especially friendships.
It can be tricky to navigate this transition and redefine relationships, both for you and your new direct reports. But trying to manage friends is trickier. It can hurt growth for both of you, and you can’t afford for your friendships to affect your judgment about key issues, especially when it comes to performance and compensation.
As a new manager, take a moment to explicitly acknowledge this changing dynamic, and think about how you might redesign your alliances. Change your mindset from, “We’re peers, we’re on the same level,” to, “My relationships — even my friendships — are changing, because now we’re in a manager-to-direct-report dynamic.”
Next, discuss the transition with your soon-to-be reports. Talk about what’s shifting and what might be difficult. Set new expectations for how you want to communicate on a regular basis, and for how you’ll deal with issues when they arise, so that you’re prepared.
Establishing a communication baseline is critical in all relationships — we teach a module on it in our workshops — but it’s especially important for this stage of your career.
Shift 2: Team
As a leader, you don’t just have a direct, vertical team (functional) — you also inherit a horizontal (cross-functional) team.
Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, writes in High Output Management that a manager’s output equates to the output of their own team plus the output of teams they can influence. New managers often get so caught up in their direct reports’ work that they forget it’s only part of the equation. It doesn’t matter, for example, if your team delivers the best mocks in the world when your cross-functional team isn’t shipping high-quality products. When this happens, you’re still failing.
To incorporate this idea into your work, create structures that help you leverage your cross-functional team for higher impact. One of my most productive meetings as Head of Design was a daily standup with the Heads of Engineering, Product, and Ops. We’d discuss how key initiatives were going, where teams were struggling, and how we could give them what they needed to succeed. This was my core team, and it illustrated the importance of cross-functional teams to others.
Shift 3: Time
If you thought you were busy as an IC, your time as a manager is even more limited.
People and projects will constantly demand and split your attention — probably more than you’ve ever experienced in your career. Ruthless prioritization is absolutely necessary.
First, learn what’s important versus what’s urgent. Leaders fail when they put their energy into urgent activities instead of important ones, so look at everything that takes your attention and decide what’s truly strategic, versus what’s just a hallway question or a distracting ping.
And second, learn to say no. Goldsmith says, “Half the leaders I have met don’t need to learn what to do. They need to learn what to stop.”
It’s the same for most of the managers I’ve taught and coached. New leaders in particular need to be more adamant about saying no to:
- Taking on IC work.
- Maintaining all the cross-functional relationships, when they should be delegating some of them to their team (in my earlier example, I met with the leads of cross-functional teams, but not with all of their direct reports).
- All initiatives their team doesn’t have time for.
If your IC mindset was, “I focus on delivering projects within the timeline,” shift your manager mindset to, “I’m developing new strategies to evaluate where to spend my time for the most impact. I’m managing my efforts by learning to say ‘no’ as much as I say ‘yes.’”
Shift 4: Work
As a leader, your work is no longer about having the answers. Unless you’re playing a hybrid maker/manager role, you shouldn’t worry about the pixels and the words. Your job is to focus on the people: delegate early and often, and coach people to produce their best work.
Leading through others rarely requires you to directly tell them what to do. More often than not, it’s about listening so they can find their own paths to success. Use questions like:
- What are the possible solutions?
- Where do you want to go from here?
- What support do you need to accomplish it?
Your reports should be thinking through the answers, and as a manager, you’re now officially exempt from answering all of these yourself.
You might be starting from scratch as you learn how to coach and delegate, so you’re actually investing in a new craft and skillset, going from expert (IC) to beginner (manager) all over again. The investment is both necessary and worthwhile.
Shift 5: Creativity
Leadership itself is a creative practice, and the creative skills that previously helped you as an IC can be applied to many business and management challenges.
This is one of the most critical mental shifts for creative leaders. When we don’t experience the creativity in the day-to-day, the job isn’t sustainable.
And yet there are many leadership concepts that can benefit from creative and design skills:
Team culture: Systems design
Team culture can’t be designed top-down. However, it emerges from elements that you can design. Proactively nurture your culture by developing incentives, elevating certain behaviors, creating routines, and using an experiment-and-iterate approach.
Managing through change: Communication design
Your team will go through various changes, like reorganizations and shifts in product strategy. You can help them through even the biggest changes by designing an experience for them — sharing objectives, setting expectations, and ensuring good communication.
Vision: Storytelling and creating new things
As a leader, you contribute your vision to help your company move forward. Your creative skills will help you solve problems and craft the story that will circulate your ideas throughout the organization.
So congratulations on your promotion — but don’t set sail before equipping yourself with the beliefs and skills that will make you a strategic, effective manager. After all, it’s a big step up from being in a lone rowboat to being captain of a ship.
5 Shifts for New Leaders — Cheat Sheet
Mia Blume is a Design Leadership Coach living in San Francisco, California. A former design leader at Pinterest, Square, and IDEO, Mia founded Design Dept. to transform the way creative leaders work. In 2017, Mia founded Within — a series of leadership retreats for women in design.
Join our Design Leadership Fundamentals workshop for more insights into becoming a manager.