6 things I learned as a first time manager

When I first started out in my career, I always looked for the next step. Management was an inevitable goal and I told myself I wanted to be a manager by the time I was 30 (side note: speak your goals people, they have a habit of coming true!). A week before I turned 30, I got my first management role as a Media and Campaigns manager – I would be looking after a small team. I was nervous, proud, excited, all the things you would expect when you are stepping up a level.

That first year was incredibly challenging and I learned a heck of a lot along the way. Here are 6 lessons I learned in my first year as a manager:

1. Remember the type of manager you don’t want to be. I had this person (and their qualities) drummed in my head as a visual picture of traits not to show, ie ‘do not publically shame someone in front of their colleagues, do it privately.’ If I was annoyed, I would take a walk then come back and have a chat (after my emotions were in check). At home when dealing with an issue I can be confrontational, short and emotional (I know my husband’s a lucky guy) but at work I knew those traits would alienate those around me and undermine any professionalism I displayed. People crave consistency, so I worked hard to maintain it.

2. Get used to not just focusing on ‘your’ work – Pre-management days, I used to come in, do my job and found it very easy to zone out on what else was going on around me. As a manager, it’s important to gauge the environment of the office and your team. Are people happy? Getting along? Is someone stressed? Frankly there were times when I just wanted to come in and ‘get my work done’ but as a manager, you are there for your team. The question I would always ask my team members was ‘How can I make your life easier?’. You’d be surprised at their responses. One person wanted to do an early shift on a particular day so she could make a gym class (easy), another one wanted training and someone else wanted more regular catch-ups. Everyone has different requirements – and it’s your job to find that out and where possible, accommodate. If I needed to get work done without interruptions, I would book this time in my calendar so people would know to leave me alone.

3. Be prepared to do the grunt work - When you first step into leadership, it’s likely your first management role will be balancing some of the daily work and the management stuff – some days I could be sending out tweets, answering the phone and writing employee appraisals. I found this balance particularly difficult at first – but I wanted to demonstrate that as a manager I was willing and able to do everything I was asking them to do before I started delegating. I’m not sure if I gained more respect but it certainly gave me more confidence in managing my team.

4. You can be friendly but not really friends – I always tried to be as friendly as possible with my team – from the general pleasantries to bringing in chocolate when people are having crappy days to going out for work socials. No matter how great you are as a manager, there is a line – and this line is very important. Because there will be days when you are going to have uncomfortable conversations with your team, whether that be requesting them to take on more work or to challenge them on certain behaviors, these awkward conversations are a part of management life. If you are having lunch together every day or sending gossipy texts to each other it will be difficult to put on your ‘management hat’ when required. Also make the regular one-on-one catch-ups a priority and try and make them outside the office – you’ll learn a lot about an employee just by getting them out of a meeting room (it’s amazing how much people are willing to share when you buy them a coffee).

5. Opinions should be welcomed but the decision is yours – I have worked in enough teams to know that indecision is the enemy of progress. It’s easy to critcise other decisions when you aren’t in the chair but it feels very different (and lonely at times) to be the sole decision maker. I had feedback once from a team member that said I should trust my instincts more. I had a habit of making most decisions a democratic process when I wasn’t exactly sure what to do. This I learned – it’s rare to be 100% in any decision, you just have to go off the facts at the time (and listen to your gut). Get some opinions sure, but make a decision and be accountable for it (that’s what you get paid for).

6. Mistakes, failures, apologies – get comfortable with these words and don’t beat yourself up about them. There are many things I learned in my first 12 months as a manager – from over sharing with my team, to taking on too much workload, or just making the wrong decision about a media interview. Mistakes happen, you are human. Failure is normal, that’s how you figure out what works. Apologies, you don’t see a lot of now a days but trust me – if you can display humility in the form of ‘I know I made a mistake’ it gives your team the freedom to also admit their own mistakes and instead of trying to cover up (and potentially make things worse) to come clean and quickly work at making things right (which is usually an easy fix).

As John Rohn put so eloquently “The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not a bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly”.

As with every role, every day you learn something new in management – it’s an ongoing education and not just a title on your door.

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Rachel DeGiorgio is a blogger and communications manager for the National Health Service (NHS). She currently lives in London with her Australian husband. Follow her on twitter @rachdegiorgio.

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