“Pam” (not their real name) is a new manager at our company, and they recently asked me for tips on acclimating to the leap from individual contributor to leader. My first reaction was “congratulations.” My second reaction was: “If I knew then what I know now!”
Pam asked me what pitfalls I had seen new leaders encounter over the years, and for tips on how to avoid them. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, “Mistakes, I’ve made a few, but then again…way too many to mention.” I’ll mention a few of those mistakes in this compilation of my top five potholes to avoid as a new manager.
5 Tips for New Leaders
1. Don’t rush to give an answer. It’s easy to feel pressure to be the source of all wisdom when a team of professionals is looking to you for guidance. My first year as a leader in a corporate setting was spent giving advice and answers that I had 80 percent confidence in. Not a recipe for long-term success! The phrase that should come out of every leader’s mouth when confronted with a challenge or issue that doesn’t require immediate action is, “Thanks for bringing that to my attention. Let me think this over so I can give you a thoughtful response.” This gives you the opportunity to think clearly, with the benefit of modeling a considered and considerate thought process.
2. Avoid the trap of thinking you’re on the leadership journey alone. Many of us are separated today due to COVID-19, and we miss the informal interactions with peers. Going for a coffee, walking out of the office in the evening together, sharing a cab or car-pooling, all of that is in the past and hopefully not-too-distant future. As a new leader, schedule time to reach out to other new leaders in your organization and outside of your organization. In her book, The Memo, author Minda Harts speaks about the importance of networking among Black women, and her wisdom is applicable for all new leaders. Choose to be the leader who reaches out, not the leader who hibernates.
3. Start learning, and don’t stop. Learning must be a passionate and lifelong pursuit for anyone in leadership. Watch clips of speakers on YouTube. One of my favorites is this conversation between author and speaker Simon Sinek and the late founder of Zappos, Tony Hsieh. If you are a reader, read what you can about making the shift into leadership. Julie Zhou’s The Making of a Manager is priceless! Finally, managers often are called upon to coach their direct reports who are individual contributors. However, I have heard from managers from a variety of companies that their leaders (directors, VPs, I am talking to you!) aren’t held to the same standard. As a new leader, don’t just ask for coaching—demand it.
4. Remember who pays your salary. Once you become a manager, at any level, results are less about what you contribute and far more about your ability to inspire others. Inspiration today is seldom about delivering a speech people will remember years from now. Inspiration, paradoxically, means listening far more than talking. Abraham Lincoln’s quote, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt,” would have been helpful for my early career as a manager. Resist the temptation to fill the silence with the sound of your own voice, whether leading a team meeting or conducting a tough conversation around performance. This isn’t rocket science, but it is harder than it sounds.
We’re bombarded daily by messages from traditional and social media, and it’s almost impossible to experience the pleasure of having someone solely focus on us. A former supervisor of mine used to have me recite my accomplishments and challenges in a weekly one-on-one meeting. She looked like she was focused on me the whole time, except for the fact that every 29 seconds she would reach for her computer mouse to move it so a screen saver wouldn’t pop up. She wasn’t completely listening, or at least what I had to say wasn’t as important as ensuring she didn’t have to type in a password when our meeting was finished. Give the gift of pure focus on the people you lead, and their loyalty will be your reward.
5. Remember that the spotlight is always on you. I took an afternoon off to see a baseball game in Denver years ago. It was a sunny day, mid-week, and spring was in the air. On the following Friday, I completed my timesheet and marked it as a “sick day.” One of my direct reports spotted this in our interoffice mail and confronted me. I sputtered through a lame excuse equating “sick” with my mental health need for a day off. Our trust was broken and it took years to rebuild.
You bought the spotlight and aimed it at yourself when you accepted the role as a leader. Fudging a timesheet, putting in less than full effort, creating special rules for yourself that don’t apply to others, are all leadership potholes that get deep quickly. Ask for mentoring on this topic, and question peers on how they hold themselves accountable. You also can ask your boss. How you handle the increased responsibility of leadership and how you react in the constant glow of the spotlight will be a forecast of whether you can make the next jump in a leadership career.
Being in charge of machines is far easier than being in charge of people. However, the latter is far more rewarding. Remember that as a new leader, you are in this role because people in the organization see you as a leader and are confident in the traits you have. You didn’t land the job or the title because of luck, or because you’re the last warm body in the room. Embrace the challenge, pass along what you learn to others, and stay confident in the dark times so you can celebrate the successes.