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5 Rules of the Road for a First-Time Manager

Updated: Jan 30

If you’ve recently become a manager, the world can suddenly feel like your oyster. 

After all, a people management role is still a common sign of progression in many companies, a route to broader scale and scope, an opportunity to build influence and leave a legacy. 

That’s well and good. However, in my experience, moving from an Individual Contributor (IC) to a manager role is not an easy or intuitive transition. Deep functional expertise doesn’t really prepare you for the kind of transformation that a leadership role demands and expects. 

I’ve definitely enjoyed many ups and downs on my journey across different companies, cultures and working environments (in person, remote & hybrid). I’ve learned some valuable lessons along the way. 

Here are my 5 rules of the road for first-time managers: 

1. Start letting go of the ‘HOW’: It’s now about the WHY and the WHO

People management, at its most fundamental, is about changing your world view from one primarily focused on the ‘How’ (Execution) to the ‘Why’ (Priority & Strategy) and the ‘Who’ (Roles & Responsibilities). 

This is easier said than done. Chances are, you’ve gotten to where you are today because you’ve excelled at the ‘how’. It’s easy and comforting to cling to an area of competence, particularly if you’re dealing with the angst that ‘imposter syndrome’ inevitably brings. This may feel reassuring in the short term, but it comes at a huge opportunity cost. Every minute you’re unnecessarily getting into the weeds or micromanaging your team, you’re not doing the job you are meant to do. And what’s worse -  your team doesn’t feel trusted, so it’s a lose-lose situation. 

Don’t get me wrong, you may need to be more vigilant and step in if you have non-performers on the team who need active coaching and supervision. But that should be an exception you need to solve for (hopefully for the short term), don’t make it the norm. 

2. Communicate upfront; align frequently

  1. Orchestrate the team’s energy in the right direction: Be clear on critical projects (goals / milestones), align on resourcing & prioritization.

  2. Be specific and transparent on what success looks like for your team. Explain how their work ladders up to a broader organizational goal. 

  3. Share your preferred communication style upfront so they know how to collaborate with you [+ ask them to do the same]: Eg. do you prefer quick notifications via Slack, detailed updates via email etc. 

  4. An effective, recurring 1:1 is the key mechanism for you to manage the relationship with each of your team members in a structured manner. 

Think about organizing your conversations in the following ways: 

How can you help them?  

i) This can be as open ended as:  ‘Where would you like me to lean in more? In what projects, would you like to move ahead with more autonomy and if so - what are the ground rules we should align on?’

ii) When you have a sense of their broader career goals & development opportunities - this might be facilitating a new connection or mentor relationship, suggesting training opportunities, advocating for them to lead certain projects that can help them build influence or be a stepping stone for their next role. I personally believe that being able to add value beyond the day-to-day is one of the most valued attributes that good managers have -  particularly in large matrixed organizations that can be notoriously difficult to navigate at lower levels. 

What would you like them to help you with? What are your expectations? 

Be open with your team on what key projects you need to be plugged into and at what level of detail, and at what level of escalation or goal attainment (or miss) you need to be brought in to help resolve the situation. Be as specific as possible. Remember to prioritize, otherwise you will run out of bandwidth very quickly. 

3. Build your own sounding board: a peer manager community 

We are all trained in our respective functions (marketing, finance, HR) - either via higher education or we learn actively on the job, but most first-time managers don’t receive any formal training before they take on managing people. So we ‘wing’ it, after all - how tricky could it be? Turns out, very! 

It’s important to normalize asking for help or support when you’re new to the journey. While we all have our individual styles of leadership, we’re not alone.  I’ve always found it useful to trade notes with other managers (or a mentor) who may have experienced a situation similar to mine. I think that the detachment from my personal situation gives them the ability to have an honest, balanced perspective and illuminate angles that I can’t see just yet. 

4. Feedback is critical: don’t operate in a vacuum

As part of keeping lines of communication open and transparent, build a process to give your team feedback and for your team to do the same. 

Giving Feedback: 

  • There are many frameworks available to structure feedback. I like the ‘Situation - Behaviour - Impact’ framework because it is rooted in context and specificity, which reduces the risk of bias and makes it easier to act upon. 

  • While you have your own feedback to share with your team, it’s often useful for them to get a broader read across the organization. Solicit feedback from their stakeholders and peers across key competencies / projects and keep an eye out for recurring patterns or themes that come up. 

  • It will feel awkward and uncomfortable to deliver critical feedback. There’s no getting around it. As much as possible, make it about an objective ‘action’ that’s backed by data / evidence and not about the individual’s personality or identity traits. 

  • If your relationship is founded on trust and respect, critical feedback will land better because your team member knows your intention and values your input. Even so, make it a point to emphasize why you are giving the feedback. I quite like the preface that Adam Grant recommends:  “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”

  • Remember to give your team member space and time to reflect on what you’ve shared; don’t push him/her for a response or solution in the moment. 

Receiving Feedback: 

Aim to receive feedback from your team preferably twice a year. If this process is organized by your company, that’s great. If not, develop a lightweight feedback survey on your own. 

Baseline feedback should ideally be anonymized and aggregated, so your team can be candid without fear of retaliation. Also offer up an opportunity for your team to elaborate on their feedback with you 1:1 - if they are open and comfortable to do so. 

Remember that areas of feedback should cover the entirety of the scope of your role as their manager - from providing strategic direction, upholding values and culture, as well as supporting their development. 

Positive feedback from your team feels wonderful, of course. Your choices feel validated, and you genuinely feel that you’re making a difference to someone’s life. 

The pain of negative feedback can be equally visceral - like you’ve been punched in the gut. You may not agree with everything, some of the feedback may feel unfair. That’s fine. Take the time to think and reflect, particularly if there are specific examples shared of what didn’t land well with the team. 

I always give myself time (and grace) to process negative feedback, particularly if it has the potential to damage my ego. I try to sleep over it, so I don’t fall victim to ‘amygdala hijacking’ and get defensive.  It’s only after this that I can unpack each piece of feedback calmly and progress to a solution-oriented approach. 

5. Be patient. It takes time to build trust. 

Last but not the least, manage your own expectations on timelines. True deep relationships take time to build and strengthen vs. transactional engagements that can be successfully completed in a shorter time frame. Trust compounds over time…repetition and consistency really matter. There is no shortcut.

Priyanka is a Jump Mentor who has more than 16 years of global leadership experience across B2B/B2C companies such as Google and Dell. In her career journey, she has made multiple career pivots and has benefited from the breadth of learning that these opportunities bring. Learn more about Priyanka here.



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