"Don't Isolate Yourself" and Other Advice For First-Time Managers

"Don't Isolate Yourself" and Other Advice For First-Time Managers

This article first appeared on hbr.org/ascend

When you’ve spent the majority of your career as an individual contributor, leading a team for the first time can be a real challenge. You may feel a range of emotions — insecurity, excitement, eagerness, anxiety — particularly if your new role also includes managing sideways or up.

In my first management role, I made a lot of mistakes. I assumed my relationships with my teammates would reflect the dynamic we had when we were peers. I kept my office door closed at all times in an attempt to be productive. I avoided difficult conversations, hoping issues would resolve themselves of their own volition.

I also learned a lot from every mishap, and eventually grew to enjoy leading and helping others to develop their own management skills.

Today I run a consulting and training company focused on developing the next generation of leaders. I also host a podcast on which seasoned managers share lessons about their biggest successes and failures to help those who are less experienced build confidence. Some of their advice has a common thread. No one can dispute the value of building trust, demonstrating empathy, and active listening. But sometimes their guidance is less popular, yet practical, wisdom that many may find valuable.

Below are five insights I’ve gathered for first-time managers entering the new world of work.

Don’t isolate yourself.

It’s far too easy to become consumed by your work when you’re first leading a team. Here’s what usually happens: All eyes are on you, so you react by diving headfirst into the role. You spend time getting to know your team and their needs, as well as your manager and their expectations. You focus on proving that you’re cut out for the job by setting goals and developing a plan to reach them. You minimize all distractions to get this work done. Time moves quickly, and before you know it, you’ve completely forgotten about building a network that will help propel your career forward.

That’s exactly what I did in my first management role. While there are times when heads down work is required (at the office and remotely), it should not be your baseline. Ryan Hawk, the host of The Learning Leader Podcast, says that you need to start developing a personal board of advisors. This is a group of three to five people who can act as a sounding board, listen objectively, and provide you with unbiased advice when you need it most.

Where do you find these people? Ryan described it this way: “Think about the few people who you can go to and say, ‘Here is my problem and here’s how I’m dealing with it. How would you handle this?’” This can be a mentor, coach, senior colleague, or a trusted friend or family member, so long as they have the experience and knowledge necessary to guide you.

Approach them with a simple ask to gauge their interest. Either email or in-person is fine. For example, you might say, “Hillary, I’m starting my first management position next week. Since it’s new to me, I would love your input on how to navigate this role and learn from your experience. I’d be grateful if you could spare some time. Would you be open to this? And no pressure if you’re too busy right now.”

Be a student of your craft.

Your technical expertise as an individual contributor may have gotten you promoted, but now that you’re in a management role, you need to master the art of leadership.

Leadership is not a trait you’re born with — it’s something you can hone.

Your role as a manager is to enable performance through others, and this requires you to build your own playbook, continually adjust your approach, and stay open to learning. But most importantly, you need to first have a clear understanding of your business.

Mike Abbott, VP of labor relations at Air Canada, told me, “If you want to be a successful manager, especially when you are new to an industry, you really need to take time to learn the inputs and outputs that run your business. Determine the factors that drive profitability, customer satisfaction, and what helps you retain employees and keep them motivated. You can’t do that unless you know how your business works.”

To start, build strong relationships with and learn from other business leaders in your company. As a former learning and development director in the pharmaceutical sector, I found that fostering these kinds of relationships helped me understand the ins and outs of other departments and how they ultimately connected to my own — perspectives I would have never gotten had I stayed within my own vertical.

For example, I used to meet with our VP of finance over coffee to learn about his fiscal world and pick up new information that helped better inform my decision making. Initially, I did not always have a clear understanding of what he was saying. But I asked for clarity (as should you) and was better able to understand the company’s forecasting process. This helped build my confidence when answering questions from my own team about why certain decisions were being made. It also helped build a stronger relationship with that VP, increasing my access to them when I needed timely information.

Be skillfully candid.

New managers need to strike the right balance between candor and care, especially during difficult conversations — which you will likely be having more of. Common pitfalls include coming on too strong (and making a mess of things) or trying to please everyone (and avoiding conflict). Both examples are ineffective and ultimately create extra work and stress for everyone involved.

“A better way to position yourself is to speak candidly, in a measured and skillful way,” HBR contributor and TEDx speaker Liz Kislik told me. For example, when facing a difficult conversation, state your intention up front. (“My intention is to highlight the impact that your behavior is having on the team, so that we can find a new path forward that works in favor of everyone.”) If your intent is positive, the receiver is more likely to be open to hearing a hard truth.

On the other hand, coming on too strong at the outset may set the wrong tone. (“You’ve messed things up again. We need to talk immediately.”) And distancing yourself from the matter in order to avoid conflict is just as damaging. If issues never surface, the tension and dysfunction they cause will continue to build.

In the end, you as a leader are always responsible for your team, project, or department. The expanse of your responsibility will depend on your responsibilities and rank. This means you have a duty to the people who are following you to be candid and clear at all times. It’s part of your job now. Ambiguity helps no one.

As Liz suggested, “It’s on you to make sure that they (team members) actually understand what you’re expecting from them and how you evaluate them. Because it’s unfair to hold them responsible for not meeting your expectations if your expectations haven’t been explicit and concrete.”

Having trained many new managers in my career, this skill remains an initial challenge for many. While a new leader’s heart may be in the right place by not wanting to hurt or offend anyone, this line of thinking can sabotage the exact team performance and dynamics you are trying to foster.

Be skeptical about advice.

When I asked Michael Bungay Stanier, author of The Coaching Habit, to give one piece of advice to new leaders, he replied: “Be skeptical about advice from a colleague, boss, or friend, because often, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re projecting all sorts of things. It’s the same for feedback. Feedback often tells you more about the person giving you the feedback than it does about yourself and what will actually be useful for you at that moment.”

It still remains one of the most salient points I’ve heard on the podcast. New managers should be mindful of the guidance they seek or receive, asking themselves critical questions to separate the good from the bad. Does the person have a track record of successfully leading others? Do they know what they are talking about, or do they just like listening to themselves speak? What is the motivation for the advice? All opinions are not equal, so it pays to be discerning about the source.

Neil Pasricha, author of The Happiness Equation, shared a more extreme outlook. His response to the same question was, “Don’t take advice. Often when we’re looking for advice, we’re really looking for an alibi. We’re looking for something we already have inside ourselves. That’s why some advice resonates, and some does not. If you look at the most common pieces of advice of all time, they contradict each other: Is it ‘The early bird gets the worm?’ or is it ‘Good things come to those who wait?’”

That interview was more than two years ago, and it still sticks with me.

Take it easy on yourself.

No one expects you to know everything from the get-go. So don’t beat yourself up over it. We all learn, adjust, and move ahead at our own pace. Your first role leading others will be a rollercoaster, a wild and exciting ride to be grateful for.

Just remember what the late Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen once said, “Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team.”

I, too, remember that feeling of overwhelm when I first started managing others. And yet, I also knew deep down that I would figure it out. We all do, and you will, too.