Nobody knows how to be a good manager the first time they step into the role. We may have a few ideas of what we’d like to do or not do, but actually becoming a leader provides a whole new set of challenges that you just can’t really predict before you have done it for a while. There are so many things to learn and remember, and the pressure is on — you are the resource, advocate, and main supporter of a whole team of people now. Their success depends on you.
So while you can’t ever expect to be perfect as a manager your first time out (or even your second or third, as most managers will tell you), there are a few key things you can prepare for to make sure you give your team the best possible support as soon as you take charge. In this post we’ve laid out a beginner’s guide to managing down to help you make the most of your new responsibilities as quickly as possible.
Changing your mentality
When you first become a manager (especially if you have been promoted to a role managing a team you used to be a part of) one of the trickiest and most fundamentally difficult issues to navigate are the social dynamics of your new position. After all — now you are the boss. Things are different. But you used to be friends and equals with these people! Is it possible to be the boss and still be friends?
Popforms founder Kate Matsudaira talked about being friends as a manager in another post, essentially coming down to this conclusion: you can’t be friends like you were before, but you can still have great relationships with your team. What does this mean exactly?
Don’t try to be friends like you used to. Things have changed, so don’t try to force them to be the same. When you were an individual contributor, the dynamics of your work relationships were different. You were free to commiserate with fellow employees, you weren’t in a position to decide “yes” or “no” for the group, and you could fade into the background of the team if you wanted to.
Now, you are an authority figure, and things have changed. Simply accepting those changes and being willing to play by new rules will go a long way towards being successful. If you try to mold your new situation to fit your old one, you’ll hurt your team and your own reputation by setting unreachable expectations and creating uncomfortable situations.
Your ways of thinking about yourself within the group will have to change as well, in order for you to serve as an effective manager. Your new position comes with certain expectations about how you will interact with your team, how you will manage their work, and how you will navigate success and failure. It’s a lot of responsibility! But here are a few big ideas to keep in mind:
Get used to being the decision-maker, but don’t do it on your own. Becoming the manager means you make the final call about what your team will do. However, it doesn’t mean you have to (or even should) make the decision on your own. Part of the reason we work on teams is because different people bring different perspectives and information to the table; it’s your job to consult with the right people and bring the right people together to help you make the best decisions possible. It is not a sign of weakness to lean on your team for insight; it is what they are there for!
Connect with people *as a manager*. As an employee, your work friendships were pretty straightforward; you talked about movies or music you like, projects you were working on, or what you did over the weekend. As a manager, your conversations will take on a slightly less candid format; part of this will come from your employees (few people want to be 100% casual and candid with their boss) and part of it will come from you being more active about managing your relationships.
You should start thinking about actively using conversations to learn more about your team, so that you can lead them more effectively (rather than just chatting casually). What means a lot to them? What is their passion? Their goal? What can you share with them that will help them trust you more or get closer to their goals? Your relationships are the key to your success, so nurturing them effectively should be your relationship-building priority.
Never take the credit, always take the blame. As a leader, it is your job to always deflect praise. This can be incredibly hard to do; after all, who doesn’t like to take credit for amazing work, especially if you contributed a lot to the success? We are trained to seek praise for our whole lives. In school, we get grades and attention for our good work, and it can be really hard to un-learn the habit of working for praise.
However, you are now the conduit between your team and your company’s leadership; it is your team who did the great work, and they deserve all the credit and rewards from above. Your reward is seeing how well your team did, not getting a pat on the head from your own manager.
And when there is a mistake, you absorb the blame. This one may be even harder than deflecting credit, but it is equally important. It is your job to address problems and errors with individuals on your team, and any problems that bubble up to your manager are for you to deal with on your own. Don’t explain away situations as caused by individuals or situations on your team. It’s your problem, and it’s up to you to take the blame and fix it for the future.
Your success is your team’s success; your failure is your team’s failure.
Don’t overthink it. At the end of the day, you have to be your authentic self. Don’t try to become a powerhouse fist-shaker just because you think that’s what a boss is supposed to look like. You were promoted because of what you’ve been doing, so trying to change too drastically likely won’t go well. Read a lot, talk to mentors, and try a lot of things, but don’t try to be someone you’re not or expect to be a perfect manager too quickly. You’ll find your rhythm eventually.
Building up individuals
One of the most important things you’ll do as a manager is to create strong relationships with the individuals on your team. It takes work — a lot of work — and most good managers feel like there is always more they could do to nurture their team member relationships. But success comes from people, and so managing down effectively and really knowing the people who work on your team is critical for your overall success.
In addition to having good day-to-day relationships with your team, you’ll also want to do some focused, individual work to grow your relationships and keep updated status on your team. The best way to do that is with regular 1:1 meetings.
One on ones can take lots of different forms, and you’ll find the format that works best for you. You may prefer to meet with team members in your office every week; others find phone calls or Skype chats work well for distributed teams; some people may even prefer to mix up off-site locations like coffee shops for their weekly get-togethers. However you choose to set up your 1:1 meeting system, here are a few key guidelines for having good one on ones that can help you make them amazing from the start:
Keep the appointment at all costs. Skipping a 1:1 is one of the easiest ways to tell the people on your team that they are not important to you. A 1:1 meeting is all about them, and by missing that meeting, you are letting them know they are a low-priority subject that can be missed or easily rescheduled.
It probably doesn’t need to be said that this is terrible for morale, and kind of defeats of the purpose of doing the 1:1 at all. So first thing: set up a weekly, reliable appointment that your team members can count on, and make it a priority. If you absolutely must reschedule, apologize sincerely and pick a new time right away. Don’t let the appointment get forgotten or you will do damage that it could take weeks to repair (especially if the person had something big they were going to talk to you about).
Ask good questions. A good 1:1 is good because it is specific and reaches a productive conclusion. The best way for you to make this happen is to come prepared with some good questions ready to ask. Just asking vague questions like “So how are things going this week?” won’t necessarily get your great answers. Especially for quieter or more guarded members of your team, you’ll need to ask questions with a specific goal in mind. Think about what topics you want to know more about from this person.
If you need help coming up with good questions, we created a free Better One On Ones tool which will email you and your team 2 discussion questions every single week for a year. Every question fits a specific category (eg. upward feedback, organizational feedback, goal-setting, etc.) to help you cover a broad range of topics and get insight into many areas of your employee’s work life.
Be a good listener. This one is often easier said than done, but you absolutely must listen *and* appear to be listening during your 1:1 meetings. This means putting your phone away (like, in a drawer, completely out of the way) and maintaining eye contact with the person while they talk. Don’t stare out the window or look at the clock; even small glances can trigger reactions in the speaker to stop talking or think you aren’t listening.
Nod and smile, and ask follow up questions as the person is speaking. It is crucial that your employee knows you are listening during your meetings; otherwise, you may as well not have them at all, since the value will be lost for them.
Take notes. If you are getting feedback or ideas from your team, write them down so you can remember them and consult them later. Not only does it demonstrate to your employee that you are listening and taking them seriously, but it is also just a good reference for you to have so you can check in with them later or share their ideas with others.
Follow up. When an employee tells you about a goal or other long-range idea, set a reminder on your phone to bring it up with them again and talk about their progress. This is another key way to build trust, since it shows your interest in their passions and goals, and demonstrates that you are listening carefully to their contributions.
Not only does it build a stronger relationship, but it is a great way begin doing some long-term coaching or mentoring for a specific employee, since you are sticking with a bigger idea over a longer period of time.
A good 1:1 is an opportunity for you to build trust and learn more about the people on your team; it should be about them and focused on their growth at its core. It can be helpful to share stories or lessons from your own past to help relate to them, but it should always be in context of the employee and their career in the end. Focus on them, ask them more questions, think about the best ways to communicate with them.
Building up teams
As you grow relationships with individuals on your team, you are also responsible for growing the bonds within your team and helping everyone work effectively together. As a leader, you are in charge of getting the best work from your people as possible, a big part of which is managing down to help them come together and do great work.
Encourage collaboration. Make it a point to reward great teamwork. It can be easy to focus on individual successes, since they are easier to isolate and call out. However, it’s a good idea to reward groups that have worked well together, which shows to your team that you are aware of and encouraging of collaboration.
As we said earlier, we are trained from an early age to want to beat out our peers and gain all the praise for ourselves; on highly skilled teams, this is a common problem, since most of your team members will be used to being the best. As such, it’s especially important for you to make praise available for people who work well with others, as a way to incentivize more collaboration (as opposed to individuals wanting to hold their peers back so they can get all the recognition).
Facilitate problem-solving. As the manager, you are able to swoop in whenever there is a problem and lay down the law. It is fast and effective — but not great for your team. It is really important not to take the easy way out, and instead to encourage your team to work together to solve their own problems. Not only will this save you time so you can focus on your own work, but it will help you create an even more powerful team of individuals that can troubleshoot problems and work smoothly together.
When people bring interpersonal problems to you, try asking questions to help people come up with their own solutions. Encourage them to talk to each other, and even facilitate meetings or other opportunities for people to connect without your help. The more you can do to defer problems to the people involved (who likely understand the situation better than you anyways) the more effective the people on your team will become.
Create opportunities. One of the most amazing things about managing down is being able to give opportunities to the people on your team. Seek out chances to make things happen for your employees (whether or not they are your star player — everyone should be given opportunities to grow and try new things) by making introductions, passing along invitations or tickets to events, and facilitating educational opportunities. You are in a position to make things possible — so take advantage of it!
It will mean a lot to your team, and will make them stronger as a whole to see that they are appreciated and encouraged to be even better at their jobs.
Being a new manager is by no means easy, but by effectively managing down you can set your team up to be as successful as possible as you transition into your new role. Managing down is all about learning how to see yourself through the eyes of your team, and provide them with the tools and support they need.
What have been your experiences with managing down? We would love to hear them in the comments.