By Emma Mulholland
Watching some of the most inspirational business leaders in action, it’s easy to forget that even they had to start somewhere. When they were younger, beginning their first-ever management role, they felt the same mixture of trepidation and excitement that every fledgling manager feels on their first day.
So how can first-time managers make their mark? And what can young people do to compensate for their lack of experience? Start as you mean to go on and be upfront, suggests Sydney-based executive coach Stacey Ashley FIML, who helps top-tier managers hone their leadership skills.
“It starts with having really clear conversations,” says Ashley. “You want the people who report to you to know what your expectations are – and you need to know what they expect of you.”
Ashley is the author of The New Leader: From Team Member to People Leader – a Practical Guide. “When I was writing the book, I asked a number of leaders a similar question: knowing what you know now, what is the one thing you’d tell your younger self on becoming a leader? They said things like ‘Trust yourself more’ and ‘You don’t have to be like the person who was in the role before you.’”
Leadership Matters asked Ashley to share her five tips for young people who want to nail their first management role.
1. GET YOUR BOSS ON SIDE
The first week is going to be all about the sit-down: you need to get to know your new manager and every person on your team (remember: it’s all about being upfront). “If you don’t enrol your boss in your processes, you’re not necessarily going to get the level of support you need,” says Ashley. “Equally, if you don’t understand what their agenda is, you’re not going to be able to deliver against it.”
Ashley recalls a job early in her career when she spent hours compiling detailed weekly reports for her new manager, only to discover – six months later – that he didn’t even read them. “He just wanted a few traffic lights, half a page,” she says. “The problem is, I’d assumed I knew what he wanted and he’d assumed I’d be upset if he told me it wasn’t right. What a complete waste of time for both of us!”
Avoid this by asking your new boss what they need from you in the role. And before the meeting winds up, be sure to arrange a follow-up one-to-three months down the track to review how things are going.
2. RALLY THE TEAM
In the first five days, you also need to let your staff know what you expect from them over the next few months. This is especially important if you’re managing changes in working relationships (say you’ve gone from being a member of the team to leading it). “It gives your colleagues the opportunity to ask questions, to understand what it means for them and how you’re going to work with each other,” says Ashley.
And while it may not happen in the first week, it’s important to get to know the people who work for you. This advice came up again and again when Ashley quizzed business leaders for her book. “It makes it a lot easier to understand the decisions your staff make and how to get the best out of them,” she says.
New manager Duncan Toole MIML spent a year learning the ropes on the warehouse floor at Pirtek Fluid Systems, a company that repairs hydraulic hoses for heavy machinery, before being promoted to supervisor last September. Though Toole, 25, was well versed in the company’s day-to-day operations, taking on 22 staff members – almost all of them decades older than him – was no small feat.
To help him make the transition, he signed up to the IML ANZ’s Intentional Leadership Foundations program, joining 10 professionals from a range of industries in the same phase of their career. Toole says that one of the most valuable skills he picked up was learning to apply the DiSC model, a behaviour-assessment tool that’s used to identify a person’s motivators and stressors.
“It’s helped me understand what drives my workers, which is especially important in a culturally diverse workplace,” he says. “With the DiSC model, I can put everyone into categories and know how to speak to them. Some people ask questions because they want to have input and they like to find the easiest – most efficient – way to do things. Others just want to know how to fix it; they don’t want to beat around the bush.”
3. NAIL THE DRESS CODE
For Toole, one of the most challenging aspects of the new role was going from being ‘one of the guys’ to being the guy that tells everyone what to do. Switching hi-vis for office attire helps him make the distinction and stay on task. “It just shows that I am actually the boss who needs to do in-house work to improve processes and things like that,” he says.
And yet, by afternoon he’s often back in the hi-vis, helping out on the warehouse floor. “That’s probably one of my biggest problems,” he says. “Sometimes people call in sick and there’s no other way to get the work done. But it’s also because I know how I want a job done so when I see something that needs doing, I think, ‘Oh, I’ll just do it.’”
It’s a trap new leaders often fall into, says Ashley. “While it’s always tempting to muck in and help out, your role is to provide direction, which means enabling others to grow and perform. You need to take a step back and think strategically. Ask yourself: ‘What do I have to deliver?’ ‘What am I here to do?’ ‘And how can I have the greatest impact?’ Focus on the things that make a difference and schedule them into your day.”
4. GIVE YOURSELF A HEAD START
Of course, this also includes long-term planning. Ashley recommends blocking out time on your calendar each week – be it an hour, or half a day – to plan for the future. Sure, it may feel indulgent when there are immediate tasks to get on top of, but adopting a managerial timeframe means thinking beyond the day-to-day.
“We’ve all got the same amount of time, don’t we?” says Ashley. “Making decisions about how you invest yourself across all those different demands is one of the most critical skills a new leader needs to develop.”
For Toole and his boss, the best approach is an informal catch-up over coffee at 7 am before the warehouse staff arrive. They talk about the day ahead, but they also mull over less immediate concerns, like boosting morale and designing a new staff incentive scheme.
You might think that you have quite enough on your plate but there’s also long-term career planning to consider. You’ve worked hard to land this position, don’t let it be your last. Are you attending conferences, networking events, training days and checking in with your mentor?
As Ashley warns, you could wind up being so effective in your new role that the company will want to leave you there – forever. Plus, says Ashley, “You’ve got to have something to other: as a leader, you have a responsibility to always bring something new to the company”.
5. FORGET ANNUAL PERFORMANCE REVIEWS
Okay, so you can’t do away with performance reviews altogether. But as a new leader, you have a chance to rethink that once-a-year formal sit-down that everyone (including the boss!) dreads. Annual reviews are scary – and often useless. Instead, Ashley recommends you coach your staff every single day.
“We need to get much more comfortable with talking about performance,” she says. “It’s not about having a conversation once a quarter or once a year; you should be having it all day, every day. Because if I’m in your team and you don’t tell me that there’s something you’re not happy with, I can’t do anything about it.” Of course, the same goes for praise – if someone’s performing well, don’t wait 12 months to tell them.
And what if you’re tasked with performance management for the first time? Ashley says that a successful outcome – and a happy team player – depends on many things, including your attitude. “It’s not about having a big vent because it will make you feel better,” says Ashley. “You need to go into those conversations with the intention of getting a really great outcome. You want something good for that person.”
Ask yourself: ‘What is it that I want for them?’ The answer, suggests Ashley, might be that you want them to step up and be able to really perform in their role. “Now have a conversation that helps them do that. If they say, ‘Look, I don’t understand how to do the task’, then there’s something you can do to help them.” As always, it’s about being upfront.
Learn the foundations of leadership
IML ANZ’s Intentional Leadership Foundations program is designed to help ‘accidental managers’ become intentional leaders – helping them transition from individual contribution to succeeding through their team. The 12-week program blends facilitated learning with online study, leadership coaching, one-on-one mentoring, diagnostic tools and workplace-based projects. Participants will gain key learnings on how to manage themselves, communicate effectively, manage teams and individuals, and how to lead with the bigger picture in mind.
For more information, go to managersandleaders.com.au/foundations-intentional-leadership.
This article originally appeared in the September 2019 edition of Leadership Matters, IML ANZ’s quarterly magazine. For editorial suggestions and enquiries, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.