New Manager? Mistakes you're going to be tempted to make right away.

Getting a promotion - or any kind of change that leads to increased responsibility - is nerve-wracking for a lot of people. Eager to prove ourselves right away, we leap into a frenzy of doing, before we really take the time required to orient ourselves to where we are, and to deeply understand where we should be going. 

Before you give in to the urge to look like you’re doing important things! slow down, read this list, and don’t make these rookie mistakes right off the bat:

1. Don’t prioritise doing work-work over the other things that are far more important to get right first

When you’re a specialist, your job is to do work-work - you know, write that memo, review that drawing, analyse that data. When you’re in charge of a department, you have a new list of to-do’s, and it isn’t immediately leaping in to help your staff with their work-work.

The most important thing that you need to do first, before anything, is to start building relationships with the people who can make your life so much better or so much worse:

Get a mentor, stat: Find someone who has been a successful manager before, and who has an incredibly good reputation. You know, the kind of person everyone wants to work for. You’ll want to catch up with them very regularly, so you are able to get an ‘as you go’ sense-check from someone who knows. 

Get to know your boss, and their priorities: You should get yourself extraordinarily clear about who your boss is as a person, what they value, what their priorities are, and their perception of what needs to happen in your function. You may ultimately end up with a different view to your boss about what’s important for your department after working in it for a while, but getting their view upfront will be a really important context-set and, more importantly, an opportunity to start building a productive relationship. 

Get to know your staff, and who they are as human beings: You’re probably walking into a patch that already exists - that is, some part (or all) of what you’re expected to do is already getting done, in some measure. So, at least in the short term, you need the people who are doing that work to keep on doing it. Change is unsettling for the majority of people, and getting a new boss is a big change. This means that there may be a period of time when your staff are feeling wobbly about their roles and how they’re going to work with you - so put them out of their misery and spend some quality time with them as soon as you possibly can. In order to get the best out of people, you genuinely need to know who they are and what’s important to them.

Let your staff tell you what they’re doing, before you try and tell them what they should be doing: Part of your initial catch up with each staff member should involve you asking them to paint you a high level picture - from their perspective - about what they do. Don’t judge what they say. No one intentionally does meaningless work, so if something sounds unusual, don’t dismiss it. Instead, ask why that work gets done and what it links to (that is, you’re actually asking what would break if that work didn’t get done).

Which leads to the next point…

2. Don’t immediately start making changes

This bears repeating: Do not walk in and immediately start making changes. Have the humility to get to understand what’s genuinely going on first, and who’s who in the zoo, before you start burning the zoo to the ground. For want of a better analogy, the animals will stampede at the first sign of you wielding a fire brand… that is, until they know that you’re a trustworthy sort. That’s going to take a bit of time and some intentional relationship-building.

This advice holds true even if someone else (like your boss) has told you that the department is a wreck and immediate changes need to be made. All too often people (who are not down in the detail) make these sweeping statements about the performance of things, and never really seek to understand why something is happening. There are normally pretty good reasons for why something is happening, and you should find those reasons out before you make any moves.

3. Don’t try to know everything that’s going on in your department

You have misunderstood the rules of the game if you think that you need to know everything that is going on in your department. You can’t possibly be across all of that information, unless you’re doing everyone else’s job. Attempting to do your direct report’s job will deeply demoralise and disengage them (which will then make them far less productive), so restrain yourself. Instead, accept that the organisation has been structured for each role to be across a particular level of detail. If you are asked a question about a level of detail that is below you, then don’t be anxious about that - just say that you’ll find out and get back to the person asking. 

Practice confidently delivering these responses to the question, “What’s happening with [insert thing you don’t know enough about yet]?”: 

  • “Let me ask [insert name of responsible staff member]/ the team. I’ll be able to get back to you on that one soon.”
  • “Let me double check that. I’ll get back to you on that point by the end of the day.”
  • “[insert name of responsible staff member] is across that - I’ll have her send through a status update.”

Over the course of your job, people will frequently ask you questions about things that are simply not important. However, if it is an important person who is asking you, then it is often tempting to immediately start treating the thing as if it were important. Don’t do that. If you sound like you’re calm and comfortable with the question and with not having the response immediately to hand, that attitude is normally enough to keep everyone else calm while you go and find out the answer.

Underpinning all of this is what you believe about the competence and performance of your staff. The reality is that you either trust your staff to know what is going on and be doing a good job and providing you with a reasonable level of reporting, or you don’t trust them to be doing those things. And if you don’t trust them to be doing those things, then hire new people who you do trust, or fix whatever issue is causing your distrust.

4. Don’t try to prove your worth in areas that you shouldn’t

The areas that you should be proving your worth are set out in the venn diagram in this document, and these should be reflected in your job description. Don’t have a job description? Get one written immediately. And then stay within its’ confines until you’re killing it at your job, at which point you can start branching out again into other areas. 

While you’re at it, make sure that you have a one-year development plan that specifically sets out what you’re going to be focusing on. 

Until your job description and your development plan are written down, you have no way of knowing if you’re actually doing the job that your boss wants you to do. And your boss would have no idea what areas of responsibility might be falling through the cracks until that level of clarity is in place. So, it provides you both with valuable information.

5. Don’t play at a level that they haven’t hired you to play at

Very often people are promoted because they were good at their previous job. Except, a promotion doesn’t mean that you get to keep doing what you were good at - you’re actually expected to add value at a higher level, now. You need to learn how to do new things, like engaging and influencing people, and thinking strategically. Learning new things can feel really challenging to our sense of competence (and, for some, to their sense of self-worth), so we often revert to doing the things we feel comfortable to do. Please don’t do this. You’re not adding value to anyone by playing at a level below you, and you will really, really annoy your team. Sit with the discomfort and learn some new skills, instead.

Which ties into the next point…

6. Don’t do the work yourself because it’s easier than training your team to do it the way that you want it done

It can be hard to know how to communicate that you need work to be redone. There is an art to it, but it’s immensely learnable. 

Before we get to that, though, you need to ask yourself whether you were clear enough in expressing what you expected to see, and when you expected to see it. 

If you were very clear, and the work isn’t up to snuff, you’ll probably feel tempted to avoid having a conversation about that (or tempted to mitigate the fact that the timeline will now be a bit screwed up as a result of the re-do) by doing the work yourself. Acknowledge those feelings and don’t give in to them. You have the opportunity to help someone grow right now, as well as the opportunity to reduce the likelihood of receiving poor work again from this person. You will destroy trust if you redo the work yourself, because you’re implicitly communicating that something was wrong but you’re not having the conversation about it (which looks weak and or dishonest) and you’re not giving them a chance to fix it (which is unfair).

Try the following phrasing: “Thanks for sending that through. I’ve gone through it, and I’m going to need you to adjust it a bit. [list out which bit, list out what outcome you would need the revised bit to achieve]. Can you have this done by [insert time frame that you think it is now reasonable to have it done by]. Let me know if you have any queries along the way.”

Anna Stanford