How to Succeed When Shifting from Individual Contributor to New Manager
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Bob was one of the most successful telecommunications salespeople in his company, generating $1.2 million in broadband sales to small businesses in less than six months. That success led to his promotion to sales manager, supervising 14, and he quickly set out to create a high-producing team. But his age—24—and his lack of management experience derailed that plan. Within the first three months, he alienated himself from his team.
His major problem? Bob tried to “take over” everyone’s sales and close major deals on his own. His team members thought that made them appear ineffective in front of the customers. Bob’s team also complained that he held only one team meeting a month, and, during the meetings, he relied on football analogies when speaking to his diverse staff. He also frequently criticized people’s ideas and missed many management meetings because he was out of the office on appointments. After several abrupt resignations and resulting low morale, Bob’s boss told him that he needed to improve his performance, or he would be fired. Frustrated at having gone from a company superstar to a moderate performer, Bob left the company within 60 days, believing he was a total failure as a manager.
But it’s clear that the company failed Bob as well. Bob’s bosses apparently believed in the myth that effective managers lead intuitively and instinctively. But the majority of effective managers are not born; they learn and practice basic management skills to become effective leaders. Unfortunately, many companies thrust new, untrained employees into positions of authority with little or no formal training.
If you’re a new manager and are feeling overwhelmed, here’s some good news: There are immediate steps you can take to acclimate yourself to a leadership role. While none of these are quick fixes, and they will take time and effort to achieve, by taking small steps into your new role, you will succeed.
First, you need to make the shift from being an individual contributor to being a supervisor of others. In short, you must learn to promote yourself into your new role and respect the authority that comes with the position. New managers often fail to realize that their new job is to ensure that the work gets done correctly by others, not to continue doing their former jobs. Yet many managers continue to “do” instead of “manage.” They allow themselves to become overworked at the expense of managing their team.
The majority of effective managers are not born; they learn and practice basic management skills to become effective leaders.
Second, work toward creating a productive relationship with your boss so you know what’s expected of you and your peers—and ask successful team leaders how they managed the transition from individual contributor to team leader. As you gather data and ask for support, take time to identify skills from your former role that you can still use, and identify the managerial skills you need to develop. The sooner you spot potential vulnerabilities, the quicker you will be able to ask for specific help from your company to support you in developing your leadership capabilities.
New managers also must keep the company’s objectives in mind as they begin to direct others. Because organizations constantly shift strategies, it’s easy for managers to lose sight of their primary focus. The result is that many new managers are unclear about their priorities. Seek the advice and counsel of people in upper management to fully understand your company’s expectations. Having a mentor within your company can help you navigate through corporate culture and lead a team toward your company's vision. And look to the HR department to provide guidance on assimilating into your new role and provide advice on the responsibilities of being a leader within your company.
Concentrate on developing strong interpersonal skills and your ability to talk with subordinates. Most new managers make the mistake of mimicking an assertive and aggressive managerial style. Instead, they need to learn how to make effective requests, delegate with clear guidelines for performance and provide effective feedback.
Effective managers make specific requests—including who will do what, actions needed and conditions for fulfillment—and they spell out timing and deadline expectations. The clearer you are in presenting your team’s goals and letting team members know the resources available to achieve the results, the more likely your team will respond in kind. It’s also important to make realistic requests and avoid stretch goals that may drive your team to its breaking point.
Effective managers make specific requests, and they spell out timing and deadline expectations.
Effective leadership language is inclusive. Today, as business continues to evolve, we see a more diverse workforce in terms of gender, race and nationality, and global customers are increasingly common. Effective managers must use a language that is respectful and sensitive to an increasingly multicultural workforce. Phrases like “making a touchdown,” “scoring one for the team,” “a hole in one,” “dog eat dog,” or “delivering a one-two punch” used to dominate the business world. But today, those old-fashioned sports analogies or warrior metaphors tend to undermine communication and collaboration. So, pay attention to the words and phrases you use to support others in getting the job done.
Team building is about improving the quality of communications and creating respectful relationships among team members. When properly approached, team building opens up lines of communication to address critical organizational issues, solve legitimate business problems, and achieve lasting results. Many new managers think that taking their team out for drinks, going bowling, tackling an obstacle course, or hiring a motivational speaker to come in and deliver the latest rah-rah speech are the primary ways to build a high-performing team. However, these isolated incidents rarely do anything to build a cohesive team dynamic.
Instead of large-scale events, focus on regular team meetings to develop a sense of collaboration and camaraderie among team members. You can conduct these exercises with little or no resources or cost, and the result is often priceless. Make use of smaller exercises on a consistent basis to develop your team. You'll find that 15 to 30 minutes a week engaging in some form of healthy dialogue will result in significant benefits for you, your team, and ultimately your company.
Focus on regular team meetings to develop a sense of collaboration and camaraderie among team members.
Perhaps the best thing you can do as a newly promoted manager is to realize you’re not perfect and embrace your inherent vulnerability. Saying “I don't know” isn't a sign of weakness. Instead, it can help you create an instant bond with your team members—and establish greater credibility—than acting as if you’ve got all the answers. People see through someone who’s “faking it.” (Check out Actualized Leadership: Meeting Your Shadow and Maximizing Your Potential (SHRM, 2019) by William Sparks.)
The bottom line? Even if your company doesn't have resources to invest in your role, it’s important that you acknowledge your transition to leadership, learn to take stock of your strengths, and honor your developmental areas when it comes to managing people.
Jim Jenkins is an organizational development and training consultant.
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