Last year, I shifted into a managerial role for the very first time — and simultaneously felt inspired and overwhelmed all at once. I wanted to succeed on behalf of my team, of course, but I also felt like a total noob every single day.
Looking back on what I’ve learned, here are 12 keys to nailing that initial leadership gig for yourself, your colleagues and your career as a whole.
1. Set expectations from day one.
I used to work as a graphic design assistant, and I vividly remember bringing a few advertising concepts to a client only to receive the dreaded “it’s just not what I had in mind” feedback. Then tell me what you WANT! I thought to myself. I can’t read minds!
As an employee, you need to know what your manager wants in order to deliver on expectations, and as a manager, you need to outline your expectations so your employee can be successful.
We’ve all been there. And it happens on both sides of the managerial coin: as an employee, you need to know what your manager wants in order to deliver on expectations, and as a manager, you need to outline your expectations so your employee can be successful.
“At my first ever office job, my manager laid out the expectations for me in terms of day-to-day things, like, check in with me in the mornings when you arrive, please touch base before leaving, I expect you to be on time and if you’re going to be late, just text me,” said Gillian Rose Hassell, Director of Development at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi. “I appreciated those ground rules straight out of the gate, and now, anytime I onboard someone new, or have someone working directly under me starting, I try to cover all the little things that people always have questions about at the start, such as time off, office culture, dress code, and things like that.”
Finally, don’t over complicate it: expectations can range from communication preferences to work styles to office hours to meeting schedules to strategic goals. Establish frequent, regular quick meetings or conversations in order to stay aligned with your team. Talk about expectations to avoid miscommunication, errors, or delays, and be transparent with one another.
2. Care about the people you work with.
This one should be a no-brainer; in short: don’t be a jerk. You’re likely spending anywhere from 35-47 hours a week with these people, so get to know them on a personal level and be a decent person. There’s no need to become besties, necessarily, but building relationships is essential to getting the job done — together.
Besides, we humans are often more alike than we are different. As my friend Ken puts it, “People need to feel like a person, not a number.”
The older “expert” who’s been with the organization for 25+ years, the younger colleague who can’t seem to show up on time, the new mama struggling to balance work and home, the testy colleague glued to his laptop — everyone has their own lives, and you never know what people are dealing with at work and at home, for better or worse. So ask questions, and get to know the people you work with. If your employees trust you — if they know you’re there for them, you’ve got their backs, and you’re invested in their personal and professional growth — they will be more productive and easier to collaborate with.
3. Delegate, delegate, delegate. (Delegate!!)
Startup founder Penelope Trunk once said, “If you died, your work would be delegated in three days.” Gulp.
She’s right, though. When you shift from a regular ‘ole employee role to a leadership one, you’ve got to hand off certain tasks to others in favor of new responsibilities. Stop doing stuff someone else can do just as well, if not better, so you can focus on elements of your next role. Trunk continues: “Delegating your old job should take three days. You find people who are taking a step up when they accept pieces of your old job so that they are excited. You give them an explanation of how to do it and tell them where to go when they have questions. Remember how quickly the girl who dumped you hooked up with her next-door neighbor? You need to move that fast, too.”
If your employees trust you — if they know you’re there for them, you’ve got their backs, and you’re invested in their personal and professional growth — they will be more productive and easier to collaborate with.
Also, know you can be direct and kind. As a boss, there’s no need to pretend like your team is doing you a massive favor by completing their daily tasks. (“If you have a second, could you pretty please review this document by tomorrow morning? Hope that’s ok!”) Your team is actually looking for you to set the tone, be clear about expectations (see #1) and deadlines, and guide them forward. So do it.
When you become a manager, delegate and move on. Mic drop.
4. Make time for the work you’re (and they’re) good at.
For me, the most challenging aspect of becoming a manager involved less actual work time. Case in point: I’m a writer, but in a corporate environment, my butt is chained to meetings several hours of the day. I spent the first month of my managerial role wondering how in the hell I would ever get anything done.
Then I realized that I had to carve out time for creative, strategic work like speechwriting and communication planning. It simply wouldn’t get done otherwise, due to distraction, interruption, and lack of free time to think, test, and try new things. So every week, I schedule mini-meetings on my calendar for writing, and I hold fast to those windows of time (and go off-site whenever possible).
However, that doesn’t mean as a manager, you get to keep all the cool, fun work for yourself and pass off the boring stuff to your staff. It means you prioritize appropriately and match skill sets to projects, for yourself and your team members, so everyone can be put to good use.
5. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed.
I once pulled my boss aside and said, “I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.” She laughed and exclaimed, “Welcome to the club!”
Almost all leaders have momentary thoughts of “I don’t know if I’m cut out for this”— especially women. As a first time manager, you’re doing things you haven’t necessarily done before and you’re responsible for more people. Trust that you’ve got this.
Almost all leaders have momentary thoughts of “I don’t know if I’m cut out for this” and “Am I even doing my job right?” or “I wasn’t ready” now and again — especially women, who often suffer from imposter syndrome or self-imposed second-guessing. Take a deep breath. As a first time manager, you’re doing things you haven’t necessarily done before, and being asked (and expected, and paid) to step up. In addition, you’re now responsible for more people: their to-do lists, their success, their growth. That’s a lot.
Moving outside your comfort zone is, well, uncomfortable. (Duh.) But the only way out is through. Take a leap of faith that you’re in the right place at the right time, and trust that you’ve got this.
6. Find a mentor, pronto.
Fact: as a leader, you’re bound to make mistakes. That’s just part of the job, and part of managing work and employees in general. So you’ll need to find a mentor — someone you trust — and build an ongoing relationship from there. Rely on this person to talk through certain issues, ask for critical insights, or do practice runs for situations.
Things I’ve asked my mentors over the years: What’s the best way to communicate bad news? How do I handle so-and-so’s personality? What do I do when someone is consistently underperforming? When is it best to renegotiate budget? How’s my leadership style coming across lately?
Depending on your role, you’ve got your own list of questions or topics, and the good news is that someone else has already dealt with (most) of it before. So utilize them as a resource. Let them help you.
7. Teach people how to fish.
There’s an old saying: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” At work, this translates to something like: teach people how to problem-solve versus solving their problems.
One of my biggest mistakes as a new manager involved thinking I had to offer a quick solution every time someone had a problem or question. I thought I was helping, but instead, I was only creating more work for myself as well as encouraging team members to rely on me for everything. Yes, sometimes I could do the job quicker or better, but that didn’t help me, or anyone, in the long run.
Teach your staff how to find the information they need. Ask them to develop a suggestion or proposal instead of waiting to be told what to do. Help them produce high-quality work on their own, which doesn’t mean you won’t be involved, but it does mean you won’t need to hand-hold or micromanage along the way.
8. Listen more than you speak.
Ever been in a meeting or 1:1 with that manager who rattles on and on, and you can never get a word in edgewise? Me too. In my opinion, the best managers know when to speak up and when to listen. It takes practice. You’ve got two ears and one mouth, so use them accordingly. Set a good example of making sure all perspectives are heard, and give your employees the gift of your full attention first. Don’t accidentally dominate conversations, and remember that people may need reactionary time before responding as well.
Listen more than you talk. The best leaders understand that they aren’t always the smartest person in the room.
“The best thing you can do is approach your new role with a humble attitude, a learning mindset, and an open mind,” says Karla Cook of Hubspot. “You were promoted because your company’s higher-ups saw potential in you, but that doesn’t mean you know everything or that everyone below you somehow knows less. In fact, the best leaders understand that they aren’t always the smartest person in the room.”
9. Remember the work will always be there.
A couple months into my managerial role, I remember firing off emails at 10 p.m. regarding a huge work assignment for the company. One of our directors responded and basically said, “Hey, thanks, but get off the computer. Hang out with your family. Don’t burnout. The work will still be there tomorrow.”
It’s easy to feel, in a managerial role for the first time, like you need to work extra to catch up or meet expectations or overdeliver. And sure, sometimes that is true. But that is not the baseline for forever, and like anything else, if you don’t practice self-care, you cannot be a good manager. Keep a solid perspective: not everything is an emergency, and not everything needs a million hours of work devoted to it. Model the difference for your employees; show them what self-care looks like whenever possible, so they know they have permission to do what’s best for them.
10. Find your leadership style, and own it.
I’ve always been a quieter person IRL, and for a long time, I thought that meant I wasn’t a good fit for leadership. Because in my mind, leaders had big personalities: outgoing, brash, loud. But over time, I felt encouraged to bring my own attitude and vibe to the leadership table, which translated to being observational, thoughtful, and a good listener.
If you don’t practice self-care, you cannot be a good manager. Keep a solid perspective: not everything is an emergency, and not everything needs a million hours of work devoted to it. Model the difference.
While skills of integrity, vision, and communication (and many others) may be a common thread for all leaders, personality traits range — and that’s a great thing. Rather than imitate others, find your own style to figure out the best way you need to be a leader. If you’re not sure, ask yourself why people view you as a leader in the first place, and then cultivate it as a strength rather than a weakness. Know what you stand for, and decide how you want your team to grow under your direction. We’re not all supposed to be the exact same, anyway, so set yourself apart.
11. Keep line of sight to the big picture, and share that vision.
Part of being a leader means that you understand the broad details of your company’s mission, vision, and culture. Doing so allows you to translate that work for your team and other members of the organization, and it also empowers you to build a shared sense of purpose to answer the question, “Does my role here matter?” As a new manager, you should be able to speak to things like strategic goals, financial picture, engagement levels, opportunities for efficiency, and operational models. It doesn’t mean you have to fully understand or be responsible for any of that work, necessarily — just that you can find a place of impact for yourself and those who look to you for direction.
12. Celebrate wins.
You know how amazing it feels when your boss acknowledges your hard work? Do that for everyone on your team. Take every opportunity to celebrate both small and big wins, even if it is as simple as a verbal thank you: “Hey, thanks for your great attitude this week. I know we’ve got a lot going on and I appreciate your willingness to stay positive.” Invite people out for happy hour after completing a big project, put a little card on someone’s desk, or send a quick email of gratitude. These tiny acts of recognition go a long way in terms of reminding everyone that they matter as much as the bottom line.