What I Wish I’d Known as a First-Time Manager

Advice from 10 people on stepping into a brand-new leadership role

Anna Goldfarb
Feb 7, 2019 · 6 min read
Credit: sorbetto/Getty Images

our first management position will probably come with some growing pains. Sure, it’s exciting to land a larger office, new title, and pay bump, but all those things come with new expectations. You’re held to a different standard now: In addition to doing your job, you’re also supposed to be a leader, coach, and mentor to your subordinates — and you probably shouldn’t be letting off steam with them in the break room or participating in office gossip sessions.

The transition can be especially tricky if your employees don’t respect you, if there’s any kind of personality clash, or if you don’t have adequate support. It can feel overwhelming to navigate. It can be lonely.

Below, people who have been there talk about what they wish they’d known before stepping into a managerial role, the challenges they faced in their new positions, and how they coped.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

A new title doesn’t automatically translate to respect.

I thought that because of my new title, my employees would automatically respect my authority. That didn’t work very well. Some resented my promotion; others just didn’t want to fall in line. I told my manager, “You’ve got to have a meeting and tell everyone I’m the new sales manager,” but he said telling them wouldn’t do it — I needed to earn the title, and only time and hard work would make that happen. Ultimately, he was right. Working with the salespeople in the trenches day in and day out is what really elevated my status. I wish I knew that having a title doesn’t make you a manager — being an effective leader is what gets people to fall in behind you.

— Barry Kronhaus, 53, entrepreneur, Lake Worth, FL

It’s hard — but important — to maintain boundaries.

I wish I hadn’t tried to be so connected with my staff at first. I had started by having lunch with them, and really had to move away from that because it became too intrusive, especially because I was privy to management concerns and news that I couldn’t share. I also went out for drinks with them a couple of times, but that made them feel too comfortable with me, so I had to start pulling away — and then I pulled away too much. It took me a while to find a happy medium.

— Estelle Erasmus, writing coach, New Jersey

Relationships matter.

I was so busy focusing on learning the tactical pieces of my job that I didn’t spend the time building relationships with the people above me and my peer group. Then I got caught up in a political battle that I couldn’t win, as I didn’t have the allies I needed on my side to defend me, and got fired as a result. In retrospect, I didn’t handle the challenge well at all. I was 24 years old and had no idea how to manage up.

— Roberta Matuson, president of Matuson Consulting, Boston, MA

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

I sometimes have to put my type A personality aside and say to myself, “I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m drowning.” After several anxiety attacks, I learned to speak up and ask for help. I’m lucky enough to work in an environment that is super supportive, where there are dozens of other folks in my position, or senior, to offer advice or jump in and help problem-solve. But I wish I had more management training, especially on the people-management side. I’d advise people in similar roles to get feedback that is specific and actionable in order to grow and earn trust from your team and peers.

— Alisha Miranda, 32, digital project manager, Philadelphia, PA

I was totally out of my element as a young manager. I take responsibility for all of my missteps, but I also wish that my bosses had given me better support and training from the start. I remember back when I was interviewing job candidates, I got a slap on the wrist from my boss for calling candidates’ references within earshot of other employees in our open office. I was ashamed, but also frustrated — how was I supposed to know not to do that? I had never done a reference check. I wish I had at least asked them for more support. But part of the problem was that I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

— Lauren Sieben, 29, freelance writer, Milwaukee, WI

Give useful feedback.

I wish I knew how much simpler and more effective direct feedback is — even when negative — versus trying to coax people along. Far too often, being nice hinders being effective. When I learned to give proper feedback, the people I managed responded brilliantly.

— Marc Lewis, 33, editor and creative director, Raleigh, NC

People need feedback, especially when they’re doing good work. If you don’t let people know how you feel about the work they’re doing, they can become paranoid, but if all you do is provide criticism they will learn to resent and avoid you. On the other hand, if you praise everything they do, you can inadvertently reinforce unwanted behaviors. I once worked at a place where, if you were a manager who couldn’t provide feedback well, you didn’t stay a manager for long. They had a very simple format: “I value you because (insert something you value about the person) and I think you could be more effective if you (insert the change you would like to see). Whatever the method, I wish I was much better at feedback before I became a manager.

— Phil La Duke, 56, business consultant and author, Detroit, MI

Personalize your support.

I try to frame my role as a manager more like a coach than a taskmaster. Once someone understands the rules of engagement, I work to frame projects and requests as “goals” instead of to-do lists, and ask my teammates how they would like to approach reaching that goal. I offer guidance and support, rather than explicit instructions. Everyone is motivated differently, and very few people are motivated exactly the same way that I am. Figuring out what each individual really wants out of their day means that I can help them get that, but there is no “one size fits all” for keeping people motivated and on track.

— Alex Hillman, 35, co-founder at Indy Hall, Philadelphia

Trust your team.

As a first-time manager, I wish I would have delegated the parts of my role that became routine. As you grow in your career, it’s crucial to pass work on to your teams so that you’re able to contribute in a more strategic way and give others the necessary experiences for their growth. I’m the type of person that likes to solve things quickly and move on, so I found myself doing tasks that I knew I could complete quickly versus allowing a direct report or a colleague to really own and solve their way. You have to give your teams the opportunity to own things and grow. Today, I’m still an involved leader, but not a micromanager by any means. I let the team be as autonomous as possible and I’m available if my support is needed.

— Kimberly C. Ramalho, 50, vice president of communications and public affairs at Lockheed Martin, New Jersey

The biggest challenge has been recognizing that I can’t do it all. Previous to becoming a manager, your only responsibility is making sure you do your own job at a high level, but once you become a manager, the performance of your subordinates becomes your responsibility. Your immediate instinct may be to take over when you find them underperforming, but this quickly leads to situations where you are overwhelmed with workload or you begin stepping on toes if they feel you are doing their work for them. For me, the solution has been to have faith in my subordinates. I put more of my focus on making sure they understand their instructions, they have good morale, and that they are well-trained. If those three points are taken care of, I am always surprised by the extra quality of work they come back with.

— Emmanuel Frost, 30, CEO and co-founder of Brand Alignment, Buffalo, NY

Anna Goldfarb

Written by

Writes about relationships and pop psychology for The New York Times, Vice, and more. Author of “Clearly, I Didn’t Think This Through.” Lives in Philly.

Anna Goldfarb

Written by

Writes about relationships and pop psychology for The New York Times, Vice, and more. Author of “Clearly, I Didn’t Think This Through.” Lives in Philly.

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