Key lessons for young managers who lead a team
We’ve all seen our share of “How to Manage Millennials” posts, with older, “wiser” executives complaining about how hard it is to motivate this generation blah, blah, blah. I see far fewer posts directed at talented millennials who are already managers themselves.
So that we don’t get too caught up defining generations, let’s just say this is a post about managing, but specifically for young founders and managers.
Your product may be tremendous and your company may get the attention of all the VCs — but if you’re not building skills as a manager, then good luck going through the challenges of building, motivating, and retaining a winning team. Managing people will probably be the toughest thing you ever do, but it can also be extremely rewarding. Being a great manager will set you apart and get you noticed by those who you want to attract (i.e. top talent, top investors, your next employer).
I see founders all the time who think that their management problems will go away once they raise their Series A and they can trade up on talent. But it’s kind of like what they say about sharing living space in college: “If you keep having bad roommates one after another, then maybe YOU’RE the bad roommate”. Your problems will continue unless you address the root problem.
Here are some things that you need to know, or should be thinking about on a regular basis:
1) Management is about communicating.
Slack is fantastic. I love it. And there are plenty of great tools which allow teams to assign and handle heavy work loads. But when someone’s not performing, or when they ARE performing and you want to acknowledge them, or when a project they’re leading isn’t working as planned, or when they miss their targets, you should make sure you’re looking them in the eye, giving them real feedback. The next best option, in the case of distributed teams, is that you’re on the phone or on a video call. One-on-one meetings are the highest value investment of time that you can make for your team.
Sure, it’s hard to look someone in the eye and deliver bad news, to ask why someone’s not performing, etc — but welcome to the real world. There are no shortcuts.
2) Transparency is great, but strike a balance.
You have to use good judgement on who gets included in what, and how much you share across a team. Most workers cannot handle the stresses of a founder, a CEO or a senior leader. Share all of your worries with them in the effort to be “authentic”, and watch them scatter. Not that you need to tell them everything’s rosy all the time, while you know the ship is leaking — but there’s an art. Focus on the positives and the goals — and make sure everyone on the team knows and understands their role and their deliverables.
Tempting as it may be to have your team also be your best friends, you must have boundaries. You cannot manage effectively without them. Take away those boundaries at your own peril. You can be super friendly, understanding, thoughtful, etc — but that’s different than best friends. Keep it professional.
Long hours are the norm. But enter your employee’s private life and private issues, and you will quickly erase your abilities to manage them effectively.
3) Know when, and how, to part ways.
The very toughest part — firing. Always in person, always reasons given, always paperwork done beforehand, always professional. No exceptions. Firing people sucks, and anyone who enjoys this or is not struggling to sleep the night beforehand is a sociopath — but it is a skill that will serve you well as a manager. If you’re a good manager and if your company is growing, I guarantee you’ll part ways with a lot of people — and if you do it well, you’ll keep your reputation (and your company’s reputation) intact. It’s likely that you’ll cross paths with some of those people down the road, and if you’ve treated people well and professionally, you’ll be rewarded.
When to fire? You’ve already had several discussions with them about their performance, and given them concrete examples on how that performance can be improved. You’ve been very clear about what you expect from them, whether it is sales targets, client leads, deadlines met, working with colleagues, etc. And you’ve done that face to face (or on a call — see above re: distributed teams). It should never be a surprise when you finally have “the talk”.
This process can take two weeks or two months — but the rule of thumb is that leopards don’t change their spots. If you’ve done your part as set out in the paragraph above, and if they are not doing theirs, then it’s best to move swiftly.
4) You’ll never be perfect.
Management is not an exact science. There’s not always a clear right way and a clear wrong way. Just like you do when you’re building your product, you have to experiment and test which methods work well for you. I’ve seen great managers who are introverts at heart, and also great managers who are charismatic leaders. Learn what style works best for you. Read as much as you can — books and blog posts on management, and even biographies of great leaders or politicians you admire. You’ll inevitably pick up some things that work, and some that don’t work at all, or don’t match your personality. But keep trying and you’ll set yourself up for a great future.