I can remember how excited I was to get my first office as a new manager. At 21 years old, I didn’t even care that the office came with a drain in the floor, or that it was a converted first aid room nestled between the men’s and women’s restrooms.
I worked for a biotech manufacturing company, and I was given the supervisory position because my manager said that I was good with people—exactly in what way, I never knew. He assumed that because I was good at my previous research job, I should be good in a supervisory role.
My first assignment was to oversee a worker who was probably 30 years my senior, who had been doing this job for at least 15 years. I had no coaching, no mentoring, and no real leadership skills to offer him. The conversations I had with my manager focused only on the product we were making and the process needed to make it successfully.
Here are some of my mistakes and lessons learned as a new manager:
1. Caught in a power struggle
I can vividly remember standing in my manager’s office along with one of my direct reports. I was having some sort of conflict with this direct report that I felt needed my manager to sort out. I was shocked and hurt that my manager didn’t side with me on the issue. Later I realized why; I was wrong. However, at the time I was too insecure to see it. All that mattered was having my way in front of the employee— even if it was the wrong way.
One of the real tensions that new managers experience is being positioned between your direct reports and your manager. There is a very strong desire to choose a side. Who am I going to please: my manager or my direct reports? This leads to arbitrary decisions that are not in the best interest of your team. I eventually learned that the world won’t come to an end if I am wrong occasionally. In fact, when I am ready to admit it, my team’s respect for me usually grows.
2. Modeling the wrong behavior
It took me awhile to figure out that as a manager, everything I said and did was noticed and examined, for good or bad. If I joked around with one employee, but not another, people would wonder why. If I was in a bad mood on a certain day, it was assumed that this was related to something going on at work. If I said something disparaging about another colleague, this sanctioned similar behavior in the team. I eventually learned that my words and actions mattered, and I needed to be aware of their impact on the team.
3. Trying to be someone else
At first my only idea of how to be a manager was based on the limited number of managers I had experienced up to that point. Trying to mimic those people led to being inauthentic, which people could see through in a heartbeat. I naturally have somewhat of a laid-back personality, and for a while I attempted to show up as more authoritative. However, this was not me. What I did learn is to communicate what is important to me, what I am passionate about, so that my laid-back style was not misinterpreted as uncaring. It took time, but I realized people were more willing to overlook my authentic flaws than the false persona I had tried to create.
4. Failure to delegate
It can seem like a luxury to have people to hand work to. But there are a surprising number of managers who don’t do a good job of delegating. Early in my career I was working on developing a large training curriculum as the leader of a small team. I found myself taking on most of the tasks that were needed, leaving the rest of the team to do somewhat trivial tasks. Not surprisingly, the project ended up taking much longer than it should, and the team was left with no real sense of accomplishment. It took me a number of years to uncover my own resistance to delegating. When I really examined my motives, I realized that it was a mixture of not wanting to be seen as “bossy” and avoiding confrontation if the delegated task was not performed correctly (in my eyes).
Finding My Way Through Training
As time went on, I eventually had the opportunity to participate in formal leadership training programs and interact with other managers. These learning experiences were invaluable and immediately applicable to my day-to-day work. In my present role as a business owner and leadership coach, I enthusiastically supported the opportunity to create a program for new managers. As I look back now, I wish I had had this experience early on. It would have been good for me, my team, and the organization!
Making mistakes is inevitable as a new manager, but there is training and guidance available for new managers to build a foundational set of leadership skills. Gillespie Associates has reached out to the public to hear common mistakes as a first-time manager or from working with one. Stay tuned for My Mistakes as a New Manager: Part 2 next week.
Prepare yourself or your first-time managers by downloading our tip sheet, “Tips for Getting Started as a New Manager.” This tip sheet is brought to you by Gillespie Nimble’s New Manager Jump Series.