The lessons I learned from my first experience as a manager
Shortly after my promotion to Software Developer and Junior Product Manager, I was given my first professional assignment that involved managing people. That assignment required me to teach 2 co-workers, who had recently joined the company, to work with Bolt CMS [an open-source, in-house developed content management system]. Needless to say, it became a learning experience of my own.
Let me share with you some background about the situation:
- I’m 23, working part-time during my master studies, whilst my co-workers are around 20 years my senior
- By now, I have already earned the confidence of my manager, and I continue to justify that confidence. One of my co-worker’s job, however, was on the line. I felt responsible for that as it was their ‘last chance’.
- On the positive side, my manager — who’s extremely good at doing his ‘managing people’ job — was there to help with advice and support throughout. While I was teaching my co-workers the platform, he was teaching me people management.
For simplicity, and to protect their privacy, I will call the 2 people I managed Tim and Lucas.
Let’s dive straight into the lessons that assignment taught me.
The attitude of the people you manage matters.
Tim and Lucas both had the right mindset in terms of what was asked of all three of us. From the beginning, I communicated with them the fact that this will be a learning experience for them just as much as it is for me.
We made a roadmap, in which Lucas and Tim’s goal is a level of understanding and confidence working with the system, whilst mine was steering the ship, pushing and pulling until we got there. Our attitude was one of a team pulling together, working together, each of us there to support the other. That mattered a ton!
Tim and Lucas had different learning styles, and started off from a different level of tech knowledge. As a manager, you have to respect that.
When people start off from a different level of tech savviness, naturally their learning paths will be different. To add to that, every person learns differently. In my case, one of my managees had a strong process of learning a lot of background information before diving deeper into the subject, whilst the other (just like me) preferred learning by doing. No approach is better than the other. The best approach is the best only insofar as it is the most appropriate one for that person. As a manager, you have to understand and respect that.
In school you are often measured against a common scale, in real life and in work that should not be the case. Alongside my manager, we developed a separate set of goals for Tim and for Lucas. Overall, on a scale of 10, one had to go from 3 to 8, whilst the other had to go from 0 to 5. Going from 3 to 8 is just as challenging as going from 0 to 5. Therefore, celebrating the success of reaching level 1 is as important as celebrating reaching level 8 is.
When I take responsibility, my managees will do it too.
I am not going so far to say that the success of the people that you manage depends solely on you, because that is unrealistic. But I learned to take responsibility when inevitably expectations did not reflect reality. From my own manager, here is the one sentence that helped me during the conversations we had with Tim and Lucas when things did not go as well as we had anticipated:
What, in your eyes, did I not communicate or do well enough in order to enable you to reach the goal we had in mind? — me
Note, this wasn’t a manipulative question. I genuinely listened to what they had to say. At a human level, what happens when you ask this question, is that people will give you feedback at the same time as they will take their own share of responsibility. Note also that the question is about the future, not pointing fingers, but about moving forward and learning together. At the end of such a meeting, we would come up with around half of things I had to be better at, and the other half of things they had to improve on.
Ask for feedback. Act on the feedback you get.
This goes in tandem with the previous lesson. Learn to listen, learn to ask for feedback (remember and appreciate: it is not easy to give feedback to people higher up the hierarchy). You should assess that feedback and act upon it.
For example, during one of those reflective meetings, the feedback I received was this:
“When I’m stuck, you’re there with a solution in mind that you give to me. I think there’s a better way to do this, let me give you an example with children. When you teach kids maths, they learn not when you explain, but when they apply the knowledge you give them by themselves.”
That made me think about my school days, about the teachers I thought were best at the job they had. Those same teachers challenged me, gave me pointers and advice, but they let me arrive at the solution through my own mental process. As a manager, you have to allow the people you work with to arrive at the destination in their own way.
Continuously give feedback
The feedback loop is a two-way process: you get feedback, and you give feedback. To be frank with you, I don’t think I have been as successful at giving feedback as I have been at receiving it. But having said that, there are two components to giving feedback that, in my eyes, make feedback worthwhile:
Be authentic — people really, really value authenticity. We like and support authentic brands (take it from Angela Ahrendts, former VP of Retail at Apple). That’s why we bonded when I told Lucas and Tim that this was as big of a challenge for me as it was for them. Authenticity is a soft skill, but a very hard one too!
Celebrate every milestone — can you name a time when your manager celebrated your achievement alongside you and you were not happy with it? I can’t either. To quote Angela Ahrendts again (and bear in mind she is Apple’s highest paid executive, ever!):
I learned from my parents: celebrate, just celebrate. My parents celebrated everything. My dad was an only child, my mom grew up in an orphanage, ironically. And so they celebrated every holiday. So I learned the power of celebrating. — Angela Ahrendts, fmr. Senior VP at Apple
Real life projects are better than dull assignments
This is a very simple one. Most of us value our time and we’re precious about it. We do things because we see value in doing them, whether it is going on holiday to embrace the joys of life, or getting up in the morning for work knowing that we’re going to solve problems that other people struggle with.
As much as you can, give your managees assignments that create value: for them in terms of learning and personal growth, and even value to the business. Most people will feel better about themselves when they solve problems for others.
The bar should be high. Like, 110% high
Carrying on with the topic of purpose and motivation, what my manager told me right from the start was this: if you think that with hard work and good effort Tom and Lucas can complete a given task in a day, then that effort is 100%. What you should communicate as your expectation is 110%. At first, they will probably achieve between 50–80% and it’s your job to help them go forward. Then they will reach 100% — the realistic goal. Your job is to push them forward still, to go that extra mile because that’s how they learn and that’s how they will grow their expertise and their professionalism.
I took this advice at face value and it did not fail me. So, I guess it works.
Ask for advice
I didn’t come up with those life and career lessons by myself. When sh*t happened, I asked for advice. In your first managerial assignment, chance is you will have your own manager to report to. But rather than just reporting, engage with them and extract their vast experience and knowledge. At the end of the day, you’re facing the same situation that they did 5–10–20 years before.
It won’t always work out
At the end of this assignment that the 3 of us faced, it was decided that one of the two guys will be let go.
Sometimes things are out of your hands no matter how hard you wish it’s different. I’ve learned to respect colleagues’ choices: after all, they are grown-ups and can take decisions for themselves. Be there to help and elevate one another, but also step back if that’s not what somebody wants.
Bonus: Your work day changes, you will perform less while managing and that’s OK.
Right at the beginning, I bumped into a problem that made me feel a little insecure about myself. When you’re given a job to manage people in addition to your normal work responsibilities, this is not “in addition” to what you do. It is “in place of” something else that you would do during that time.
Looking back, my productivity during those first few days likely dropped by 30–50%, and I didn’t feel right about it. Towards the end of the assignment, it was around 80% of what I would normally do. 80% is a number I feel comfortable with, because those other 20% I spend managing actually deliver 80% more out of the people I dedicate this time to. So no, do not feel bad about your own productivity and your own work.
Thank you for reading/skimming all the way down here. I value your time, and I hope you found my experience useful for your own development.
Till next time. 😉