The one thing you need to get right as a manager

So, you have just been promoted into a management job. Congratulations! Or should I extend my condolences? Just kidding. You should be proud of what you have achieved! However, there are a number of new challenges that lie ahead of you, and I’ve seen new managers struggle over and over again in making the transition from engineer to managing people.

A new managers nightmare
Often freshly promoted managers respond to the challenges in their new role by putting in more hours. They continue wearing their “senior engineer” hat; committing to points in a sprint. On top of that, as managers they are also asked to take care of their teams, drive alignment, plan and coordinate. For a while, the extra motivation that comes with the excitement of a promotion carries them forward, but soon enough the cracks are starting show.
I have seen managers overcommitting, struggling and eventually burning out on more than one occasion. First your personal life starts to suffer: you hang out less often with your friends, you stop going to the gym and can’t switch of anymore.
Then, things at work start going south. You start missing deadlines, people stop relying on you. As people see that you are overworked, they start leaving you alone, simply to avoid adding to your stress. That of course adds to your stress levels, as now you are missing out on important meetings and decisions are being taken without you in the room. 
You are not the only one suffering, people around you are taking a hit as well. Your team sees your stressed out, they stop engaging with you, and information stops flowing towards you.
If things go wrong (which they inevitably do), you are not the calm and cheerful person you used to be. Instead, you react to problems by taking charge, barking orders and criticising people. This undermines the bit of relationship that is left, and disengages people around you. If you are lucky people will simply try to avoid you, but more than enough people will actively start looking elsewhere. As your team drains talent and conflicts become the norm rather than the exception, your stress levels go through the roof, you stop sleeping properly, eating healthy … you are burning out.

It does not have to be that way
The good news is, it does not have to be that way. If there is one lesson that I wish that somebody had taught me when I moved into a management role, is that your number one priority as a manager is to make people around you successful. Moving up the ladder and taking on responsibilities for a team of people means expectations towards you have changed. 
Before you became a manager, your company expected you to deliver what an individual can deliver. Now as a manager, you are expected to deliver what a whole team, an entire group of people can deliver. The first thing that you need to realize is: the only way you can deliver as a manager is *through your team*. By the way: working through a team does not mean telling everybody what to do, if only it was that easy. Instead, you will have to invest in a healthy relationship with your team, as this is the only way that allows you to get things done as a manager.

Your number one management tool: Relationships
There is something in the human mind that requires us to have trust in each other to be able to work with each other effectively. This is especially true for the interaction between managers and individuals on the team. Your first order of business is to establish a healthy relationship between you and your directs. 
The relationship between managers and individual contributors has seen a lot of research over the last 40 years. The LMX (Leader/Member Exchange) has established itself as one of the most successful theories in this field. Studies have shown over and over again that a healthy relationship between managers and their direct reports has influence on employee engagement and team performance. This is why one-on-ones (1:1’s from here on) are the number one most important tool in every manager’s toolbox. This is where you create and grow relationships, and a strong relationship is the foundation that everything else at work builds on top of. So let’s take a look at how to run effective one on ones.

Running effective 1:1's
People use different ways to schedule their 1:1’s, and you will have to experiment a bit to find out what works for you. I strongly suggest you start with 30 minutes every week. This gives you enough time to have a meaningful conversation without turning it into a meeting that zaps too much energy. 
Here is another key point: put your 1:1’s on the calendar, 30 minutes every week, and stick to the schedule. Don’t move these meetings. Find a time that works for you and your direct report, and stick to that time at all cost. The temptation to reschedule these meetings is strong, at the end of the day they are just 30 minutes chat’s, right? Could happen at any time! You could not be more wrong. First of all, rescheduling these meetings sends the signal to your directs that something else is more important than them. I’m pretty sure that this is not a message that you want to convey. 
Another positive side effect is that these meeting will become the rhythm by which your organization ticks. These meetings will become your core vehicle to delegate, get things done, sort out problems and grow your people. Keeping the rhythm means keeping your organization moving forward at a steady pace. Resist the temptation to reschedule these meetings at all cost!

What do I talk about in my one on ones?
This is something I see a lot of managers struggle with. What is a good agenda? Should I talk about projects? Should I only talk about private life? The answer to these questions is pretty simple: all of these, and none of these. You decide. Remember that the main purpose of 1:1 meetings is to build and strengthen relationships. This requires a good mix of topics. Talk about what is on your mind. Ask about what is on your direct’s mind. I found it helpful to split the agenda into two parts: 15 minutes for my direct, 15 minutes for me. Other than that, the agenda is pretty flexible. Remember, it might feel a bit weird when you start rolling out your 1:1’s. That’s ok.

Especially if you are new in an organization, and people are not used to having regular 1:1’s. You can always use the time to either ask your directs to learn more about what they do, how the organization works etc., or share how your onboarding is going. Over time, as your relationships start building and people develop trust, you will realize that these meetings will be the most important thing in your calendar.