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Management Challenge: When you are the new manager

by Bruce TulganJanuary 2016

   You are the new leader. Congratulations! On day one, you have two critical missions:

            -Establish yourself as a strong highly-engaged leader.

            -Learn who’s who and what’s what

   Take note, you’ll have to pursue those two missions simultaneously, right out of the gate. Ready, set, go!

   Even in today’s fluid work environment, if you are my new manager, that has profound implications, at least for me, your new direct-report! If you are my new boss, all of a sudden, you are the person upon whom I will rely more than any other individual for meeting my basic needs and expectations at work. You will be my go-to person for dealing with just about any issue that arises at work. You will be my point of contact—but much more than that, on a daily basis, you will have a huge defining impact on my day to day work experience. If you are the boss, it is your responsibility to make sure everything goes well. Employees look to you first when they need something, when they want something, or when something is going wrong. If there’s a problem, you are the solution.

   If you are going to be my new manager, the first thing I want to know is: What kind of manager are you going to be?

   That’s one of the great things about being a manager who is committed to the fundamentals. How can anyone object to a manager who says, “I’m going to be strong and highly-engaged”? Would you rather your manager be “weak and hands-off?”

   One would think that it would be safe for a manager to say:

        “I’m your new manager and I consider that a sacred responsibility. I’m going to make sure that everything goes well around here. I’m going to help you get a bunch of work done very well, very fast, all day long. I’m going to set you up for success every step of the way. I’m going to spell out expectations for you and help you plan. I’m going to work with you to clarify goals, guidelines, and specifications. I’m going to help you break big deadlines into smaller time frames with concrete performance benchmarks. I’m going to go over standard operating procedures. I’m going to offer reminders. I’m going to provide checklists and other tools. I’m going to help you keep track of what you are doing and how you are doing it every step of the way. I’m going to help you monitor and measure and document your success every step of the way. I’m going to help you solve problems as soon as they occur, so they don’t fester and grow into bigger problems. I’m going to help you find the shortcuts, avoid the pitfalls, and follow the best practices. Count on me. When you need something, I’m going to help you find it. When you want something, I’m going to help you earn it.”

   That’s what I call the “Good news!” management speech. That’s a very good message to deliver in your inaugural team meeting.

   You would think that most people would take that as good news. .But remember many workplaces are still caught in the grip of the undermanagement epidemic. Be prepared. Ask yourself: Does the culture support strong management? Or is everybody else around here pretty hands-off? What will it mean for you, in the context of this corporate culture, to become a very strong highly engaged, transactional, coaching-style boss? Will you fit right in? Or will this make you something of a stand-out?

   The big challenge, as a brand new leader—-no matter how much experience you may bring to the table—- you are brand new to this particular role. You have a huge learning curve to climb: You need to learn your new job, which can mean relearning everything you already know from a whole new perspective. You need to learn a whole new cast of characters. You need to learn the job of every one of your new direct-reports. On top of all that, if you are new to the organization or the industry even, you have entire layers of extra learning on top of the job-specific and team-specific learning. That’s a lot of learning.

   I’ve seen so many new managers—- and plenty of experienced ones—- daunted by the learning curve in a new leadership role and thus hesitant to assume command decisively at the outset.

   Regardless of your particular on-boarding “schedule” as a new leader, you can be sure of this: On day one, the introduction, orientation, on-boarding, and up-to-speed learning around your new management relationships will start happening. The only question is this: Are you going to make sure you have a high-structure high-substance process from the start. or not? When the first days and weeks of your new management relationship are not well planned, coordinated, and carried out, new working relationships get off on a much weaker footing and sometimes they never recover. There is no opportunity to clearly establish the basic terms of the relationship: who’s who and what’s what, the ground rules, the broad performance standards, and the basic guidelines for how we are going to communicate on a regular basis. As a result, you get plenty of surprises and misunderstandings. It is nearly impossible to measure the cascading effects of such a weak start.

   Who can afford a weak start?

   The fact that your first mission is to learn doesn’t have to change that dynamic one bit. The best way to end your inaugural team meeting (where you deliver your “Good news!” management speech) is to schedule your first one-on-ones with every person on the team. Learning is your position of strength. From day one, stake it out and use it: The first order of business is you need to get introduced to everyone and everything. You need to get on-board and up-to-speed with everyone and everything by learning the nuts and bolts of their jobs from day one. You don’t learn first and take charge later.

   You take charge by learning:

   In every one-on-one conversation with every employee, ask pointed questions: “What do you do? How do you do it?” Then move on to discuss next steps. “What are you going to do next? How? How long is that going to take? Why?” Then follow up next time. “What did you do? How did you do it?”

   Watch employees work. You learn a lot from actually watching someone performing his tasks and responsibilities in action that you cannot learn any other way.

   Ask employees to help you keep track of their actions by using self-monitoring tools like project plans, checklists, and activity logs.

   Check your employees’ work carefully in process. If an employee is not responsible for producing a tangible end product, then watching that employee work is the same thing as reviewing work in progress. If she is responsible for an end product, spot-check it while she is working on it. You can’t actually keep track of everything every employee does, but you can check random samples on a regular basis.

   Gather intelligence. Ask customers, vendors, coworkers, and other managers about their interactions with specific employees. Always ask question about the employee’s work, never about the person. Don’t ask for evaluations, but ask for descriptions. Don’t ask for impressions, but ask for details. And don’t believe everything you hear.

   One person at a time, one day at a time, you will become the person who knows the most about who is doing what why where when and how, every step of the way. When do you finish learning, and start running the show? Never!. Managing is always one part learning and one part teaching. If you ever stop learning, you should not be running the show anymore.

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