Nothing can quite prepare you to be a manager.
Marcus Wermuth, an engineer from Buffer, believes that becoming a manager is not a promotion; it is a career change. I was a content creator for much of my career: producing social media content, writing articles, and planning ad campaigns. Shortly after taking up management responsibilities, I realised I was spending all my time aligning expectations, building processes, and optimising my team’s output.
My experience as a manager over the past 18 months was a baptism by fire. People suddenly expected more from me, and there was little room for uncertainty, vulnerability, or indecision. To be completely honest, I felt really alone and lost then. If you have felt that you are a poor leader, take heart — nobody was born a leader. We all learn from our mistakes. In fact, I wrote this guide to document the lessons that I’ve learnt the hard way.
If you are a new manager or a fledgling startup founder, congratulations on taking this bold step of faith! The journey will not be easy, but I hope this guide will serve you well.
Focus on Team Happiness
As a manager, your new job is to maximise team happiness while keeping them focused. Signs of a happy team include:
- Visible sense of drive and motivation
- Active pursuit of self-actualisation
- Tangible excitement for work
- Positive rapport among team members
Here are some things you can do to increase team happiness.
- Be involved and available
When you are building a new team, try your best to be available and lead by example. Explicitly state your expectations. If necessary, execute the required tasks once and elaborate on how they should be done. When tasks get accomplished and goals are met, the momentum can create genuine excitement and satisfaction for the team.
- Care for your team members and their career prospects
While you want your employees to develop loyalty to the company, no one will stay in one place forever. When you show authentic concern for your employees’ career prospects and wellbeing, they will know that you care for their professional development and personal growth. Provide regular training support and mentorship to ensure that they are consistently learning and growing. Be a coach, not a slave-driver.
- Pay people well, if you can
When you have raised significant funding or achieved profitability, do your best to provide fair remuneration for your employees. Money is the most practical way to reward good work and keep people happy. If you’re working in a startup, giving away equity to loyal and competent employees is also a good idea.
Create and Protect Your Team Culture
When forming or growing a team, we may focus too much on ‘what we can do’ — roles and responsibilities, credentials, and competency — and not on ‘how we should do it’, which is just as important.
Culture will eventually be formed within a team, regardless of the presence of an intentionally defined culture code. When you do not deliberately create and protect good culture, you leave room for toxicity. Without proper boundaries and standards, employees could impose toxic behaviour consciously or subconsciously, creating unnecessary friction and breakdowns that may fester and lower the team’s morale and happiness.
Establishing a culture code — one that is agreed upon within the team — sets a benchmark for how each member is expected to behave and work with others. Your employees will be happier if there is a set of house rules that encourages desirable behaviour. It also provides a common understanding on how they should communicate and make decisions.
A culture code document does not have to be elaborate. In my team, we abide by four simple values (made generic for illustrative purposes):
- We are data-driven: We make sound decisions through data that we can track and prove.
- We are user-centric: We provide the best user experience and help them understand our products better.
- We communicate openly: We believe that great communication is the foundation for great relationships, so we communicate transparently, respectfully and tactfully. Respect is not earned; it’s a basic right.
- We put our team above self: We set aside our egos for the team’s needs. We will selflessly contribute our best to make the team better, not to make ourselves look better.
However, a culture code is really only a fancy document unless you enforce it. For the right culture to be built, you need to reward good behaviour and punish bad ones actively.
For example, if I care deeply about transparent and tactful communication, I will actively step in and address the situation if I witness team members gossiping or hurling insults.
Maximise Your Team Output
As an ordinary employee and independent content creator, I was responsible for my output for 40 hours per week.
Now, as a manager of a team of 10, I am responsible for the team’s output for 440 man hours per week.
If I had spent my 40 hours in operational execution and left my team to their devices with their projects and workload, I would have wasted 400 man hours or $8,000 for the company that week, assuming an average hourly wage of $20 for entry and junior positions.
To maximise your team output, you first have to recognise that the output for each individual member is affected by two key variables: time and leverage.
Time is fairly straightforward — you could marginally increase team output by requesting each member to work for longer hours, but it is not a long-term solution as fatigue accrued from long working hours will lead to a decrease in productivity.
What is leverage? Simply put, leverage is what would help us increase our efficiency — the ability to achieve more results with least wastage of time or resources. Increasing our team leverage often involves finding and easing the bottlenecks in our team members’ daily work. Read on for some tips on maximising leverage.
Ian Tien’s summary of Andrew Grove’s book ‘High Output Management’ puts it incredibly succinctly: everything is process.
“Whether you’re compiling code, hiring staff, or making breakfast, everything can be modelled as a repeatable production process. Understanding the elements of production — inputs, outputs, timing, limiting steps, quality controls, variability — lets us create and improve the “machinery” needed to fulfil our organisational goals.”
Setting up processes and workflows is one of the most challenging yet fruitful tasks you take on as a manager. For every repeatable production process, it is possible to write a standard operating procedure (SOP) to denote the exact steps required for success. Establishing workflows helps your team to become more systematic with their work, reducing communication delays and human error.
Technology and Software
We tend to seek or build software solutions that can automate repeated processes, especially in tech startups and companies. Finding or building new solutions, such as project management or copyediting tools, can save a lot of time for your team in the long haul.
It is important, however, to only introduce solutions that will ease significant bottlenecks in your team’s processes. Overloading your team with too much software can potentially hinder productivity and create confusion.
Sharpening Expertise and Hard Skills
Getting your employees to acquire new skills or improve on current skill sets can have a great impact on productivity and efficiency. For most jobs, there are plenty of educational courses or symposiums your employees can attend to deepen their understanding on their areas of expertise.
Have regular conversations with your employees about how they can improve their hard skills and encourage them to seek out networking events or courses. Employees may put further education on the back burner, but you can motivate them by including it as a quarterly OKR.
It will never be easy to be a manager. It is completely normal to start out feeling unproductive. My weeks used to be filled with creating and delivering new content. Now, I spend a typical week in meetings, coffee hours, and making sure my team’s processes are sharp and updated. You may not feel like you’ve done a lot of work, but if you are doing it right, your team members will be achieving much more than you could have done yourself.