Friday, October 15, 2010

Letter to a New Manager

Today is Bosses Day, and in honor of the occasion, I’d like to share some thoughts with you on the business of bosses, in the form of a letter to a new manager.

Dear New Manager,

Kudos! You have achieved a significant milestone in your career. You are a manager. You have worked hard to get the promotion, and you deserve it.

But enough about you. Because it’s not really about you. You now have employees reporting to you and, whether you realize it or not, it’s all about them.

Some of your employees will hate you, and some will revere you. Some may look up to you, and others will want to be your best friend. What I know for sure is that your life will change. Similar to an adult who becomes a parent for the first time, you now have responsibility for these employees that you call a team.

As a former employee, boss, and boss of bosses, I’d like to share a few thoughts with you as you embark on your new role:

Recognize that each employee is unique. You will be asked to implement personnel programs by your management or human resources team that (by definition) assume that all employees fit into the same mold. At times you will be asked to rate your employees against a pre-determined set of skills or leadership qualities. These instruments assume that there is a particular type of employee that is best suited to the work you do – that one size fits all. But it’s just not true that extroverted big-picture thinkers who like to drive things to closure make the only good employees. Great employees come in all shapes and sizes. It’s your job to find the unique magic in each and every one of them. When you do, and only when you do, will you truly have what your HR department calls a high performing team.

Don’t forget that you are the boss when you are away from work. It’s just not practical to expect that you will never socialize with your employees. Bosses are often promoted from within their own teams, and it’s also just not practical to expect that you will suddenly have a new circle of friends. But even when you are at the bar for drinks after work, you are still their boss. It’s the rare employee who is able to separate what you say and do as a manager from what you say and do as a friend. By all means, keep your friends. But think twice before you bad mouth your own boss in front of them, or spill the beans on a new program that is yet to be announced. And always remember to not let your friendships color your decisions about your employees.

You will be privy to new information – some of which cannot be shared with your employees. This might be confidential product information, organizational changes, or impending job cuts. Whenever a large company is about to announce a new program, the rumor mills kick into gear. You will be asked to confirm the rumors, and the employees with the greatest access to you may come right out and ask you what is going on. Don’t lie. (Don’t ever lie – you will never be trusted again.) Tell them when you aren’t able to answer their questions. But recognize when changes will directly affect your team – don’t leave them in the dark. When in doubt, use the “How would you feel?” test. If you were about to put a down payment on a house and your manager knew you were going to be laid off the next week and didn’t tell you, how would you feel? You need to walk a very fine line.

Exercise influence (not control) over your employees. You are the manager. You have power. Don’t let it go to your head. Really. Yes, you will be able to make decisions about performance assessments and salary increases – but a lot less than you think. Yes, you can tell your employees what to do – but they will soon tire of that. So how will you get things done? By getting buy-in. Your employees are far more likely to produce a quality product if you build a vision with your team, listen to their ideas, and facilitate their successful execution of that vision, than if you simply order them to do it. Do you like taking orders?

Be a model for your team. The easiest way to lose credibility with your employees is to ask them to do something you wouldn’t do yourself, or to expect them to “do as I say, not as I do.” Don’t ask your employees to work over the weekend unless you are willing to do so as well. Don’t expect your employees to give a project their full attention if you’re focusing your attention on the next step in your career. Don’t expect your employees to show up for your mandatory meeting if you are never available when they ask to meet with you. You get the idea.

You may find yourself in the odd situation where a few of your direct reports make more money than you do. It’s not unusual. In fact, it’s fairly common, especially if you are relatively early in your career. Most corporate salary plan structures have a time dimension as well as a job scope and performance component built in. It’s also possible that some of your employees will be in technical jobs at a higher level than your own. When they come to you for help resist the urge to say, “That’s why we pay you the big bucks.” Recognize the fact that your job is different than theirs, and that things will level out over time. Just let it go.

Know that your employees don’t have to like you. One of the biggest mistakes new managers make is to try to get everyone on the team to like them. This isn’t high school. It’s not a popularity contest. You didn’t get the job because everyone likes you; you got the job because you have the qualities needed to lead a team. You will make decisions that are unpopular. You will need to tell employees they made a mistake. When you tell an employee that he’s not getting a salary increase, don’t expect them to like you – at least not at that moment. But you can deliver unwelcome news and still retain your employee’s respect, by being honest, fair, and clear.

Recognize that your employees may be smarter than you. Whether you are a young employee who is destined to be an executive or a senior employee who has the most experience on your team, you don’t know more than your employees do – at least not all of the time. And even when you may be the expert, you owe it to your employees to listen to their ideas – all of your employees, not just a few. That’s how they will learn, and grow, and produce more for the company.

You are responsible for your employees’ success – each and every one of them. Foster an environment where everyone’s ideas and contributions are respected. Never pit your employees against each other, and they will treat each other with respect. Find the right opportunities for each of your employees to help them grow. These might be daily assignments, special projects, or new jobs. Don’t allow yourself to compete with your team. Don’t tell your employees the answer – even if you know it, even if they ask. Instead, lead them in the right direction. Give them the space to think, and grow and excel.

Don’t (ever) ask an employee to do your dirty work for you. Don’t even think about it. If your team is going to miss a deadline, don’t send your team leader alone to inform your boss about the situation – even if it’s his fault. You are responsible for everything your team produces (or doesn’t produce). Own up to that responsibility. Don’t ask a team leader or another employee to deliver a negative message to a colleague. If the message is yours, deliver it yourself. Remember, you’re the boss. It’s your job to make things work.

Make decisions. Your employees need you to make decisions. Without clear direction your team can’t be successful. When they ask if they should make the widget blue or black, take the question seriously. Understand when they need an answer by, and then make sure you make the decision on time. If it’s not your decision to make, then involve the right parties to get the decision made.

Thank your employees. Not all the time, not every day, and surely not when they don’t deserve it, but also not just when they do something spectacular. Spectacular performances are few and far between. Yet everyone needs feedback. If the only time you give your employees feedback is when they have done something wrong, they will feel under-appreciated and morale will spiral downward. When an employee does something unexpected, contributes in a new way, pitches in to help a team member, or brings you a suggestion for a new product idea, these are the behaviors you want to reward, even if it is just with a simple “Thank you”.

You will, at times, need to put your employees’ interests above your own. This may seem counter-intuitive. After all, you’re the boss now, your employees should be trying to please you – and they will. But just like you would sacrifice for your family, you may have to sacrifice for your employees. This could mean saying no to a schedule you know your team can’t meet, despite pressure from above, and despite the fact that it may hurt your own assessment. Or it could mean letting a key employee accept an opportunity in another area, even if it means you need to stay in your role a few months longer.

Go with your gut. There are rules and guidelines you will need to follow. As a manager, you are an agent of your company, and you need to represent the company to your employees, clients, and the outside world. If your company is like the one I worked for, the guidelines may have limited flexibility. Make the best decisions you can within the scope of the guidelines, but listen to your gut. Never do anything that goes against your personal values. If it feels wrong, it probably is. If your company or your manager asks you to do something that goes against your own core values – and it’s something you can’t reconcile – then it’s time to think about getting out.

Most importantly, recognize that your decisions affect your employees. Just like you, they are people. Never trade off their best interests for your own. Never throw them under the bus. Never steal their ideas and try to pass them off as your own. It might work initially, but in addition to the credibility you will lose with your team, the bad karma will catch up with you. Know that your actions and decisions will affect your employees’ lives on a daily basis. You can make or break their day. Your actions and decisions may also have long-term effects of their careers as well. Always act with integrity.

As a new manager, you will find joy in awarding and promoting your employees; you will share in their success. At times – more often than you think – you will need to do something unpleasant. That might be delivering an unwelcome assessment, telling an employee they won’t be getting a bonus, or telling a team that their jobs have been eliminated. Yes, this comes with the territory.

You are embarking on what may be the most difficult and daring role you have ever had. It may also be the most rewarding and satisfying experience of your career. Do you still want the job? If so, then congratulations! I’m sure you’re up to the challenge.

What advice would you like to give a new manager?


Anonymous said...

Great article! I wish all my managers were like this.

Anonymous said...


and not just of note to new managers - something every manager should read every once in a while.

And every manager's boss should read ahead of appraising them.

Well I'm allowed dreams aren't I ?


Colette said...

Peter, you're allowed to do more than dream!

Anonymous said...

As a non manager I think this is a great article because it helps me at least to see the other side of the fence.


Colette said...

Dave, that's such a good point. Employees often don't realize what managers are up against, and managers who have been their too long forget what it's like to be the employee.

Meg at the Members Lounge said...

Having been on both sides of the fence, I can completely relate to this! I just wish a few of my bosses had taken this advice, especially the part about lying. That never pays off.

This letter is a keeper!

Colette said...

Meg, thanks for your comments! Yes, having been on both sides really helps!

One Womans Eye said...

Well said! Now if you can just get this into the hands of new managers!!

Colette said...

Yes! Wouldn't it be great if every new manager came hardcoded with these rules?

SteveB said...

Outstanding! You should write a book.

Bronson said...

Great article. I like the bit about saying Thank You and taking a hit for the team (i.e., reporting bad news up the chain).

I have been on teams where I get very little feedback, and the only time I get feedback is when I do something wrong. While getting a bonus is nice, many times all I need is a word of gratitude for doing a job well (if I deserve it). It's amazing how far that can go. Saying "thanks" costs nothing but can go so far. I'm not saying to do it when it's undeserved, but don't forget to do it when it is owed.

I never thought about having a manager or team lead be the bearer of bad news, even if it was an employee who made the mistake. But that's a really good point. I've done that for people on my teams before because if I was the team lead, then it WAS my problem. When I've had managers go to bat for me like that, they earn my loyalty and trust.

I agree with the comments others have said that not only new managers could benefit from this article.

Thanks for sharing.

Colette said...

Steve B -- good idea :-)

Bronson -- thanks for your comments. Yes, loyalty and trust are so easy to lose.

Kenneth H. Lee said...

Great piece. Something that all managers new and not so new and employees should keep in mind.

Far too many managers in my experience expect or demand respect, loyalty and trust right of the bat. These are not commanded or demanded, but earned. Once earned, the manager must work maintain it. It is difficult work to earn the respect, loyalty and trust of your employees, but it is very easy to lose it in the blink of an eye.

The few managers I had respect, trust and loyalty for tended to be those who were either professional hires or became IBMers as part of an acquisition or outsource contract.

They talked the talk and walked the walk. They would roll up their sleeves and roll in the muck with their employees. They had no problems with an employee saying no to something as long as it was supported by a valid argument.

The horrible managers I've had would give us the "do as I say" line.... or "it is a condition of employment".. what I call the Genghis Khan style of management. Management by threat and intimidation. They tended to be career IBMers or have been in management so long that they lost sight of what it is like to be an employee.

They don't want to hear the word no, only the word "Yes", since "Yes" is just one more letter than "No".

Some managers treat their employees as machine parts. When one "wears out" you just replace it.

Like Bronson, I've been in departments where there was minimal communication and the only feedback given was always negative even if it was minor.

99.99% positive ratings on a project, 0.01% negative ratings on a project. Spend 100% of the time on a minuscule problem as if the project had been a complete failure and not acknowledge that it was a success.. Snatching failure out of the jaws of victory.

Always expecting nothing less than perfection.

Not a way to encourage your employees to perform their best or to engender trust, loyalty, or respect.

Colette said...

Kenneth, as always, another great comment! I'm not sure I've seen the same good managers come in from outside the company as you have, but I suspect their management style has a lot to do with where they came from and the company policies and training programs.

Liz Fichera said...

This is something that bosses should carry around on a card, or something. A gentle reminder.

Charlene said...

Good article!

All of that is good advice and I wish I'd had it the first time I had reports.

You cannot expect your employees to like you, though it will happen, what you work for is that they respect you.

Colette said...

Liz and Charlene, I am glad this resonates!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like Don Drapper, seasons 1&2, before he fired Sal.

Colette said...

Ha! Funny! Yes, The "Mad Men" sure didn't follow this advice!