While there is much talk of becoming a leader and leadership development, the role that is often understated in a leadership career is that of becoming an effective manager.
If you’re a technical or functional specialist in your organisation and aspiring to take the next step, or the size of your team is growing, then you’ll want to understand what being an effective manager actually means. Many people can reel off stories of bad managers but miss the subtlety of what makes a good one.
If you work in an organisation that has four or more layers of hierarchy, then chances are there are many more managing rather than leading. So, if you’re stepping into a manager role, the first piece to understand is where you sit in the hierarchy. This means not still seeing yourself as one of the team and not looking to spend your time managing up. You’re looking for the “Goldilocks zone”, right in the middle as a bridge between your team and the management above you.
The manager as a bridge
A natural career progression from being a technical or relationship specialist is being promoted to managing a team. It’s also a necessary career step towards aspiring to a strategic leadership role, if that is your preference. Team management usually starts quite small, with just 1-2 people, then grows to teams of 5-8, 12-15, 30 +, and even hundreds, depending on the nature and size of the organisation. To give you a rough guide, the optimal / maximum number of direct reports is approximately 7. With less than seven direct reports, you may also have a delivery aspect to your role as well as people management.
With this common career path, technically skilled people step into manager positions having never managed others before. Without specific training and guidance, you can easily fall into some common traps.
While people with strong interpersonal skills may find the transition to a management role more smoothly than others, there are many skills to be learnt. Without development support, it’s common for inexperienced managers to default to the management behaviour that has been modelled to them in the past.
This means at one extreme the new manager can get too caught up in being the boss and setting rules and check points. At the other end, new managers can default to behaving as they always have – being part of the team – instead of recognising the uncomfortable decisions and social separation the role sometimes entails.
Feeling productive at work can sometimes be driven by the dopamine hit of getting stuff done, sharing important knowledge, and playing a significant part. Moving into a manager role makes this less measurable and immediate as you’re called on to guide, oversee and review and for the team to deliver instead. If there is uncertainty on what being an effective manager involves, new managers can slide back into thinking in terms of what they need to do, instead of listening to their team to understand what they need to work at their best.
Consequences of this include the manager focusing on delivering outcomes instead of empowering the team to deliver, and micromanaging. Failing to adjust to their new position and seeing themselves as still ‘one of the crew’ can also mean not modelling inclusive social behaviours, as well as struggling to make unpopular decisions when needed.
As a manager, your team’s engagement rests largely in your hands. Research from Gallup found that 70% of the variance in team engagement is determined solely by the manager – and it’s not hard to see why. As a result of ineffective management, team members can begin to feel frustrated and disempowered. Without their manager to act as a bridge, people start to work in isolation rather than collaborating effectively with the rest of the organisation. A culture of ‘us and them’ can build among the team, the manager and leadership. Without an effective manager acting as a bridge between senior leadership and the team, communication can start to break down.
In short, asking for and embracing the opportunity for development to support your transition to manager is a valuable investment. Skills to develop as manager are broad, so here are some the key ones.
Your role as manager relies on your ability to quickly build trusting relationships with all your team. A core part of any manager’s role is dealing with every aspect of your team’s professional development, and sometimes their personal lives, and how it affects their work. So, when moving into a manager role the first priority should be getting to know the team, their strengths, their concerns and what’s important to them. Without building open and trusting relationships the ability to deliver the results will be severely impacted. The key to getting to know your team is through truly listening, which brings us to communication.
As a bridge between parts of the organisation, a manager needs to appreciate people’s differences and adapt their communication accordingly. Managers are facilitators of information up, down and across the organisation, so this intermediary role needs an ability to communicate at all levels. This includes not only communicating effectively but listening too.
To genuinely listen requires you to understand why something has been said, not just what is said. Allowing you to ask the right questions so core issues don’t get missed.
Another important aspect of your role is being able to advocate up on behalf of your team members. To advocate effectively, you need to get to the crux of issues and align it to the organisation’s priorities.
How managers show up every day tells the team who they’re going to get that day. Acting with consistency and modelling emotional regulation and objectivity helps to build trust. If you have an off day, you want the team to think ‘that’s not like them, wonder what’s happened’ rather than, ‘they’re in a bad mood again, keep out of their way’.
Showing up consistently also means the ability to self-regulate and treat people equally with fairness. You may connect more with some team members or may have worked together previously, but as a manager, enabling equal access and influence for everyone is essential. If any team member perceives there is favouritism, or poor behaviour is ignored, tension and conflict can quickly develop.
Coaching vs directing
The fastest way to get information across is to ‘tell’. But to get team members to problem solve and take ownership of their work, you as the manager need to identify whether a team member needs teaching, guidance, encouragement or stretch. Without a coaching approach it can be easy to miss which approach different team members might benefit from most.
To consistently have a coaching mindset, you will need mental and emotional capacity. Self- awareness and regular check-in as to how you’re feeling, and recognise whether you’re operating on limited capacity, will help you show up consistently for your team.
When it comes to effectiveness in managing and empowering a team, managers have to be able to set expectations and hold others to account. In holding a team to account, you as the manager needs to ensure expectations are clear, confirm the team has the resources and skill capability to fulfil the role, and everyone has a clear understanding of their ownership for outcomes. Sometimes this might mean having difficult conversations – and receiving these difficult conversations in return. At times, your job might require you to carefully disrupt, address and prevent poor behaviour from team members which calls on your courage to speak, with the support of the organisation to take action.
While managers might not be directly responsible for strategy, your position requires you to keep an eye on the bigger organisational picture and understand the value of your team’s results. This necessitates understanding the commercial context in which the team operates and, at times, the limitations of what your team can deliver. Managers have to uphold ethical standards, discretion and integrity. You must be able to make decisions and learn to sit with any discomfort should those decisions prove to be unpopular.
Addressing the gaps
Often when people are promoted, they work really hard at proving they’ve already got what it takes and admitting to not knowing, fear it would make them less respected. The reality is effective managers are developed not born. At the beginning of your manager experience, being open to understanding where there may be skill gaps and looking for development opportunities will build a far more positive reputation.
Development may be structured learning around processes and frameworks, or interpersonal and specific approaches to communication. Seeking mentors that you respect can also help navigate situations as they come up. Because when it comes to managing people, while learning theory is helpful, the only way to truly learn is often through experience of people and situations.
Whether you’re just beginning your manager experience, or you’re team is growing, different approaches, processes and style may be needed. Understanding yourself and understanding others is a continuous learning process, the most effective managers are always curious to know more.