How to be a good first-time manager

First published in the New Zealand Herald

Rising up through the ranks to management is always a great accomplishment — and though this is often achieved by hopping from one firm to another, some people find themselves managing their former colleagues.

Unlike establishing yourself as a manager at a new firm, being the boss of your workmates can present a unique set of challenges for some. Saying “no” to colleagues or pulling them up on something can make for awkward conversations.

Career counsellor Lila Pulsford is a member of the Career Development Association of New Zealand and has an MA in career development. She says managing former colleagues can be advantageous; mainly because you might already know many of the people reporting to you and what makes them tick.

“You can focus on the advantage and insight you have as someone who has risen from the ranks within the company, instead of someone who’s completely new to the organisation,” she says.

“Because you know the people that you’ve been working with, hopefully, you’ve developed a sense of trust and rapport with them. You’ll know the issues and what people moan and gripe about. So therefore, you’ll be able to be a supportive manager, because you understand the issues from a range of perspectives, not just the managerial perspective. Hopefully, that will give you some insight into making changes were possible.”

Despite being able to hit the ground running as an established member of staff Pulsford recommends first-time managers be provided with training.

“If you are new to a leadership position, you’ve got to get some professional development training around that to help you engage in difficult conversations, because it might end up that you have to discipline former workmates,” she says.

“You may, at some point, need to talk to them about their contribution or their attitude, or how they might help alleviate a problem. You really can’t go into that without having practice and having some training around that first.

“So often, people are put into a position of being a manager, and they haven’t really thought very much about the type of manager or leader they want to be. Taking a step back and doing research on leadership can pay off.”

A good manager, says Pulsford, would start the job with a vision or manifesto so they become the kind of leader they want to have.

She says most people like to know that their manager is on their side. And they want to know that their work is meaningful.

“However, countering disgruntled and cantankerous members of staff can provide challenges even for seasoned managers If you suspect your colleagues might make it difficult for you, consider getting support from your own manager.

“Because obviously, if they’ve been in that position for a longer amount of time, they will have handled similar situations.

“Definitely keep your manager in the loop.

“But also consider having a frank conversation with your colleagues about how everyone feels about this new situation — you as manager — to clear the air.”

Pulsford says this might be important if other people in that group also applied for the role in which you were successful. “Just give them a chance to say how they’re feeling,” she says. “This is a way of acknowledging what has happened.”

Pulsford also suggests new managers take their time before making any decisions, forming assumptions or making critical changes.

“I certainly wouldn’t make any sort of hasty decisions to begin with,” she says. “There’s always something to learn in a new position. So I do think it’s valuable to wait for a bit — just give yourself some time to observe — there’s power in that.”

Sometimes managers are put in place just to make difficult changes; and it’s as well that is known going in.

“It can be awkward,” says Pulsford. “Your most important relationship is with your direct line manager. So if that is what your direct line manager is telling you to do then obviously, don’t follow it blindly. Hopefully, they want some critical thought from you.

“It all comes down to your own values, and hopefully you’ve considered beforehand about whether or not a leadership or management role is right for you. That’s why you get paid more money, because it’s about making difficult, awkward, decisions, and having those difficult conversations.”

Pulsford says being a manager comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. “It does diminish your ability to form friendships with colleagues. And so hopefully, as an individual concerned with your own career development, you’ve already had a thought about whether or not taking on a management role is aligned with your core values.

“It is good to experiment with your career and the bottom line is that with this role, whatever challenges it brings you, you’re going to be learning a lot. And that’s always a positive for career development.”