“I wish I knew that before!”
Be honest. Have you ever thought that after learning a lesson the hard way? Or had a moment of clarity that made your job more manageable?
If you’re anything like me, the answer would be All…The…Time.
And having transitioned from individual contributor to manager at the beginning of the year, this has been a constant theme for me. Being a people manager involves a very different skill set than what it takes to thrive as an individual contributor. So those first few months were especially filled with learning moments.
So I want to share with you, current or soon-to-be-current first-time manager, four things I wish I had known when I first transitioned.
I learned each of these lessons the hard way, helping me grow as a leader. Let’s get into them so you might avoid my mistakes.
Picture this: you’ve just been promoted. You’re finally starting your new role as a first-time people manager. You’ve earned this. You worked hard, acted strategically in your role, made the right connections, and practiced self-CSM skills. You were at the top of your game as a CSM, and now you’re ready to be an incredible people manager.
You start your first week, and then suddenly: you encounter a challenge you’ve never run into before. You realize that you don’t know what to do. As an individual contributor, you rarely encountered situations where you didn't have all the answers and next steps.
So you panic. You begin to wonder why leadership trusted you to be a manager in the first place. Impostor syndrome starts to set in, and you begin to doubt yourself.
I experienced this exact cycle early in my transition from IC to manager. This is a familiar feeling that people go through. When you go from being an expert at what you do to a totally new role, it can be a shock to experience that learning curve again.
But here’s the catch. It’s OK not to know everything. In fact, nobody expects you to. Your team doesn’t expect you to know everything, your boss doesn’t expect you to know everything, and your peers don’t expect you to know everything. Only YOU wish that.
Instead…own when you don’t know something and commit to a growth mindset, instead of shrinking from what you don’t know in fear or insecurity, lean in and embrace learning in your new role.
Early in my time as people manager, a team member shared with me a challenge they were facing. They had a particular customer who needed a strategic approach to accomplish their goals.
I remember the moment vividly. This was it. This was my moment to shine. I had the PERFECT advice that they needed.
I patiently smiled and nodded while they finished talking, and then without missing a beat, I laid out all the advice I had to offer. I shared all my accumulated wisdom on how they should approach their situation.
I was so proud of myself because I thought I nailed that interaction. But it turns out the advice I gave wasn’t what my direct report needed at that moment. I was so eager to share my advice I didn’t dig into what was really happening. Because I didn't take their entire situation into account, my answer was inadequate. Despite this person’s request for guidance, I failed to address their underlying issue.
You see, your team doesn’t need a walking advice dispenser. They require a coach.
A coach doesn’t come in with all the answers. It is a coach's role to walk alongside others and ask questions to help them grow as they realize what they already know. Coaches develop confidence in others to help them become more self-sufficient.
Giving advice can provide instant gratification, but coaching takes time. Fight the urge to just give advice and develop a true coaching mindset.
I was fortunate in many ways. The previous team manager was a great leader who was well liked by everyone. As a result, she helped foster a strong culture within the team and encouraged thriving. This made it easier to take over the leadership of the team.
But it also made me put pressure on myself. How could I measure up to her leadership? I did the only thing that felt logical: I tried to copy what she did.
I took on her habits, I tried to continue her rhythms, and I tried to do the same things she did with the team. Through that process, I learned an important lesson:
I was terrible at being her. However, I could probably be a pretty good "me."
When you are stepping into the shoes of a great leader, it’s tempting to try and copy them. And in some ways, this is good. We should emulate and learn lessons from successful people who have gone before us.
But we can fall into the trap of copying someone else when we don't allow ourselves the time and space to develop our own voice as a leader. And because we’re not them, we usually fail at that.
Rather than mimic someone else’s voice and leadership style, lean into what makes you “you.” Embrace your unique voice, and foster the strengths that you bring to the table. Trust yourself to make decisions and create your own rituals with your teams.
Stop trying to be someone else. Because there’s only one of you.
As an individual contributor, your success was determined by you and the actions you took. You set goals, created strategic plans, led customers to achieve their desired outcomes, hit your KPIs, and were rewarded. In many ways, your success starts and ends with you.
But things are different as a manager. If you approach success with an individualist mindset, you won’t be the leader your team needs. Regardless of your specific KPIs as a manager, your team’s success is the ultimate indicator of your success.
You won’t be thinking of your role just as what you can accomplish, but how your team achieves their goals. You’ll be looking at how the whole team is growing and thriving.
This requires a change of mindset to one of serving others. It can also be scary when you’re used to feeling more in control of your own success. But it’s also the exact reason to pursue management.
Enjoy the journey
These are just a few lessons I’ve learned in my first year as a manager. Hopefully, you can embrace some of these attitudes before learning the hard way.
But even if you do, becoming a first-time manager is the start of a journey. In a lot of ways, the journey IS the point. You won’t “arrive” at being a perfect manager. And by the time you do feel like you’ve mastered your role as a manager, you’ll be ready for the next challenge.
So don’t rush your journey. Enjoy it, embrace the learning, and lean into the mistakes. Your team will thank you for it.
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