Becoming a people manager is a unique transition in your career. It’s not (just) a promotion. It’s a shift in responsibility which comes with pressures, challenges, and opportunities which you may not have experienced before.
We want you to feel prepared when those new challenges come along. This article will help you get your bearings as a manager, understand your role, and flag some of the pressures you’ll experience before they begin.
We’re going to cover:
That title may seem over the top, depending on the bosses you’ve had up to this point.
Everyone’s first experience of management is being managed. If you’ve had bad ones, or even just average ones, it can be hard to know just how much positive impact they can have.
Being a ‘Manager’ also has a bad rep. It’s not associated with dynamic, interesting, important work. But it should be.
Because being a manager is an opportunity and a privilege. From a company perspective, having a team will enable you to achieve things that you never could on your own. Individually, you will have incredible influence on your team members, both on their future careers and their daily working lives.
Joanna Miller, Lead of Organizational Effectiveness & Coaching at Asana, has an elegant, simple way of capturing this impact:
‘If you’re a people manager, your team’s friends and family have likely heard about you.’
It’s worth figuring out how to get really good at it.
Getting to the heart of this is crucial for understanding your role.
It’s easy to point to individual things a manager does - organizing meetings, setting goals, doing performance reviews - but what do they actually do? What’s their real purpose?
You’ll see some common patterns in the definitions from some of the best thinkers on this:
‘Your job, as a manager, is to get better outcomes from a group of people working together’ Julie Zhuo, The Making of a Manager
‘Bosses guide a team to achieve results’ Kim Scott, Radical Candor
‘The job of a manager is to bring out the best in people.’ Molly Graham
There’s a focus on:
At its core, this is what you’ll be doing.
In many organisations, one of the hardest things about becoming a manager is that you’re left to ‘figure it out’.
This is an irrational and stupid idea.
In the name of ‘figuring it out’, many managers are left to make costly mistakes, not to mention suffering hours of stress about whether they’re doing the right thing.
This course will help you avoid these mistakes and equip you with the knowledge to navigate your first months as a manager with confidence.
A key part of that is flagging scenarios to you before they happen so you can be better prepared. Before we get into specific skills, we want to go through a few things which will be helpful as you think about approaching the role.
Most people get promoted into management for being good at something else.
Someone also thinks you’d be a good manager too, but to be up for consideration, you probably excelled at a different role which you’d been doing previously (whether software development, sales, research, customer service etc).
This is often a very good thing. Team members like to learn from those who are an authority on their area. But it can put first-time managers in unfamiliar territory.
Because in your recent career, when confronted with challenges at work in your area of expertise, you probably knew most of the answers. That’s about to change. People are gloriously and frustratingly unpredictable. Which means as people managers we will never have all the answers to all of their needs (at least not in the moment).
This can feel unsatisfying and frustrating at first. You’ll feel inadequate at your job. But the truth is, the range of challenges you’ll face mean you can never know all the answers.
The best people managers spend a lot of their time listening, acknowledging, and promising to find out more rather than solving all the problems themselves on the spot.
You’ll need to get comfortable not having all the answers, but still finding ways to help your team progress.
Because you excelled at your previous role, not only may it have been a while since you didn’t know the answer to something, but it also may have been a while since you asked for help.
And if it’s been a while, asking for help doesn’t feel great.
It can feel like an admission of failure. Of inadequacy. (Particularly if you’re at a company where managers apparently ‘figure it out’).
Ask. For. Help.
First-time managers’ most serious mistakes happen when they allow damaging situations to fester because they don’t feel comfortable getting a second opinion. By the time the situation becomes unignorable, and they have to get help, it’s become much more serious.
So embrace what you can learn from others. Accept that you’re about to face a bunch of situations that will challenge you in different ways. And if you feel like you need some help or advice, ask for it.
This playbook is designed to get you talking to a range of different people who could provide it, from your boss, to mentors, and your peer managers.
Every person on your team is different. They’ll have different personalities, experiences, aspirations, and lives.
A large part of being a people manager is understanding all these dynamics so you can work out how to get the best out of your team and help each individual develop.
Taking the same approach to each person won’t work. For example, some will want more guidance from you, others for you to be more hands-off. Some will be more open with you in 1:1s, others may take more time because of their lived experience in the workplace.
You’ll need to appreciate the differences in your people and adapt your style.
Managers will often get promoted with no significant reduction in their existing responsibilities.
They’ll be expected to continue making sales targets/shipping code/producing analysis whilst also managing a team.
If this has happened to you, your boss is doing some wishful thinking.
Management is time-consuming. You’ll have new 1:1 meetings, project coordination, additional communication to read, just to name a few new items on your agenda.
To give a rough estimate, Kim Scott estimates that it would take 10 hrs a week to run a team how she would want. Even if you have a much lighter-touch approach, or a small team, you’re probably looking at 4-5 hrs a week - half a day’s work.
Do you have half a day free in your week?
We’ll talk more about Time Management in Managing Yourself but the main takeaway at this stage is that it’s ok to feel overwhelmed if you haven’t yet re-organized your routine for your new responsibilities.
Don’t worry that you’re failing at the role because you’re trying to fit half a day’s work into your life where there currently isn’t any space.
Think about how you can talk to your boss about the tasks on your plate so you can make that space.
The other reason time will fly is that your work never really ends.
If your job is to guide your team to achieve great results for your company and help them work at their best, there’s always more you can do.
Being a manager is often compared to the circus act where you need to keep an ever-increasing number of plates spinning without letting any of them drop.
There’s some truth in this, but it’s a bit more nuanced than that.
You will feel like you’ve got 20 plates spinning at once, but given the scope of your role, at some point, you’re going to drop some. The key is that the ones you let drop don’t smash when they land.
They’re the rubber plates. Sure, they might drop, but when they do, they bounce, and not much damage is done.
As you start spinning all your plates, you’ll need to prioritize and work out which are the ones you can never afford to drop, and which will bounce.
Again, if you’re a high-achiever who’s used to having all the answers and doing everything right, this will feel uncomfortable.
But ruthlessly prioritizing and making sure you’re focussed on the work that has maximum impact is a sign of a good manager.
Even though you’re doing all this work, you may initially find it unsatisfying.
In your previous role, you probably succeeded as an individual. You shipped new features, completed projects, made sales, wrote articles, or solved problems. It feels good to finish tasks, and it’s even better when you receive the credit.
In contrast, you never ‘complete’ people management, and you succeed when your team succeeds, not as an individual. Depending on the nature of your work, it can be hard to measure the value you’ve added by coordinating and leading your team, even if you know it’s there.
In Managing Yourself, we’ll look at some ways you can get signals on the impact you’re having. But for now, just know that if you’re struggling to see whether you’re doing a good job, that’s perfectly normal.
The fact you’re worrying about it, and care about it, is a great sign you’ll be a good manager.
People management feels great when you can align the aspirations and interests of your team with the needs of your company. Your team will be motivated, happy, and delivering the value to your company, which will support growth, promotions, and further success.
This will not always be the case.
Your primary role as a manager is to achieve results for your company, and sometimes that will clash with the interests of individual team members. For example, asking individuals to work on important projects which they find less tedious, or making a decision to hire externally because you don’t feel any of your team are ready to be promoted to certain responsibilities.
Not only will this happen, but it won’t feel good. You’ll feel torn between your loyalty to your team and your understanding of what’s best for your company. You’ll look for solutions which work for all parties but sometimes it will just involve saying ‘no’, and disappointing colleagues (perhaps friends), in the pursuit of team and company success.
As you become a more experienced manager, you’ll learn how to navigate situations like this. As you get started, you’ll spend some time asking for help with them.
Great managers succeed because of the trusted relationships they have built in their organizations.
Their team members trust that they have their best interests at heart and will support them in their aspirations.
Their boss trusts them to do great work and deliver results for the company.
You’ll spend lots of your time thinking about how you can earn that trust.
When things feel like they’re going wrong, or not getting done, it will often be because you lost some of it along the way.
‘Very few people focus first on the central difficulty of management…establishing a trusting relationship with each person who reports directly to you.’ Kim Scott
If you’re a new manager who’s been promoted from within an existing team above your former peers, it can be tempting to believe that nothing’s really changed.
Times were good. You still want to be able to hang out in the same way, have the same working patterns, talk about the same stuff.
Except things really have changed. And if you don’t acknowledge it, you’ll be letting your old peers down.
When you become a manager, you are given additional responsibilities and power to help your team succeed collectively and individually.
You’ll have additional influence to coordinate projects, gather information, spread information, guide careers, advocate for promotions, and give public credit, to name but a few.
People will also treat you differently. Whether you like it or not, they’ll pay greater attention to what you do and what you say, because they know that those actions and those words now carry greater weight.
Rather than kidding yourself that nothing’s changed, go the other way. Think carefully about all the ways in which your position in your organisation has changed and how you can use that to best help your team achieve success.
If you’re aware of your power, and you care about your team, you’ll feel the additional emotional weight of being a manager.
You have an amazing opportunity to improve people’s careers and lives, but with that will come worry that you’re not doing it as well as you could be, particularly if times are tough at your company.
You’ll also feel like you can never have a bad day. That you’re the one people will be looking to for stability, even in the tough times.
There’s no easy way around this. We raise it so it doesn’t take you by surprise when you feel it, and to help you recognise that it’s a sign of being a good manager.
But recognising it and working through it are two different things. We’ll talk more in Managing Yourself about how you can handle it.
There’s plenty of damaging stereotypes of what makes a good manager, largely driven by examples of those who have ‘succeeded’ in the workplace over the past several decades - often prominent, ‘charismatic’, well-connected, white men.
A surefire way to unhappiness in the role is trying to model your approach on some ideal of the perfect manager. It’s unlikely to play to your strengths and will come across to your team as inauthentic.
Your job is to work together with your team to achieve results and help them develop in their roles and careers. How you do that is up to you. As you progress as a manager, you’ll find approaches which play to your strengths and enable you to lead your team at your best, not someone else’s idea of it.
Be inspired by the examples of others but don’t try and fit yourself to them.
You may have heard it said that some people are just ‘naturally’ good managers.
This is a myth.
Some people may be better suited to the role because of an existing set of skills and behaviours, but becoming a great manager takes dedication, thought, and work. If you’re finding it tough, it’s not because you’re one of the ones who ‘doesn’t get it’, it’s because it’s a challenging role.
Often those who seem to find it simple, are the ones with blindspots that they really should be working on.
Although there’s no such thing as a model manager, there is one thing that all great managers have in common - they want to do it.
Being a successful manager involves a new set of working practices, habits, and behaviours. You’ll only be motivated to make those changes if you want to be good at the job and see it as a core part of your professional identity.
In many companies, some people make the step to being a people manager without really embracing the role. They still attach their professional identity to their previous job. They still see themselves as a Salesperson first rather than a Sales Manager, an Engineer over an Engineering Manager, a Researcher over a Research Manager.
To become a great manager, you’ll need to make it a core part of your work.
‘“When I ask you, ‘What do you love doing?’ a great answer is ‘I love investing in people and I love making them better, into the best versions of themselves.’ If that really brings you joy, great — being a manager is one of the most powerful and high-leverage jobs inside of organizations. But if the answer is no, then I’d strongly encourage you to not be a manager.” Molly Graham