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By Jimmy Guterman


Jimmy Guterman is editorial director of Collective Next and a curator of TEDxBoston. Previously, he served as a senior editor of Harvard Business Review.

Perhaps the hardest part of becoming a manager is learning what and how not to do. It’s so very ironic: you became a manager because you’re good at what you do, but the skills that got you this cool new job aren’t the ones that are going to help you excel at it. To paraphrase the leadership guru Marshall Goldsmith: what got you here isn’t going to get you there.

First-time managers don’t gain their positions due to their management experience; they don’t have any. They tend to get where they are because they’re strong individual or group performers and their bosses see potential in them. But managing isn’t just doing the same job at a higher level. It’s an entirely new type of work. If you’re a manager, especially a new manager, there’s a good chance that you can do the job of your subordinates better than they can.You might think it’s easier to do the job yourself than have someone do it; you might think it’ll be faster if you simply correct your subordinates’ work rather than walk them through how to do it better. You’re right on both counts in the short run, but those are rookie manager mistakes you’d be smart to avoid.

My first real management job was as an editor of a magazine. I knew the areas the magazine covered pretty well, and I had a good track record of writing well for similar periodicals. And while I had edited other peoples’ work, it was only on a freelance basis — no one had ever reported to me. In the first days of my job, I was appalled by the messy, raw copy my writers submitted to me. The sentences were flabby, the arguments were weak, and worst of all – sometimes my writers’ opinions were different from mine. I was frustrated and nervous: How was I going to succeed if I had to contend with such poor quality work?

It took a while for it to hit me: that’s why I was there. If everything that came in was perfect, there would be no point to having me. I recalled my own writing work that editors had improved. I thought that what I handed in was pretty good, but they did improve it. Who knows what they thought of my original submitted drafts? Their job was to have an eye on the big picture, to delegate the right assignments to me, and to make sure my individual contribution made sense as part of the whole.

And so my job, I realized, was to let the writers write, to help them get better at what the magazine needed them to get better at, and to communicate what they needed to know so they could succeed.

If I took their work away and did it myself because I thought I could do it better and faster, I would never have ended up with the strong staff I did end up with. I might have succeeded as a writer, but I would have failed as a manager. If you want to excel as a manager, give your staff the tools they need to get their job done and then get out of their way so they can show off and enjoy their mastery. It’ll make you look like a master, too. Just remember, as Michael Armstrong writes in How to Manage People, delegation requires, courage, patience, and skill. Meanwhile, Steven Spear’s Chasing the Rabbit does a good job of spelling out how to delegate effectively.

For more on mastering the art of delegation, check out these resources:

The Busy Manager’s Guide to Delegation by Perry McIntosh and Richard A. Luecke

An Ideas Into Action Guidebook: Delegating Effectively: A Leader’s Guide to Getting Things Done  by Clemson Turregano

Delegation & Supervision  by Brian Tracy


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