Advice for First Time ManagersFeatured

The day you become an engineering manager is really exciting. New title, higher salary, new job responsibilities, what's not to love? Pretty quickly, the realities of the job sink in. Most people are used to excelling in their role as an individual contributor (and that's likely why they got promoted in the first place). Management is a whole new beast, though. The skills that make someone a great engineer and those that make someone a great engineering manager are starkly different. For first time managers, there's a gap between current capabilities and the requirements of the new position. TL;DR your job is no longer about you and your achievements. Your job is to make sure your team is successful.So, how do you achieve this?Empower the TeamListen: You're now kind of a part-time therapist. Employees want to feel heard and you need to make time to actively listen to them. This will give you insights into how they're doing, how your team is doing, and ultimately, how your company is doing. Make sure that your employees have a voice and that they feel comfortable using it. If you have a shy employee, ask more questions.Provide a Path: Second to having a voice, people want a career path. A path provides them with long term goals and hope for the future. It's what gets people up every morning and keeps them excited about their work. You (hopefully) hired smart and competent people. If that's the case, give them a path and coach them as they work towards their goals.Back up your team: Their success is the team's success but their failures are your failures. You don't have to take my word for it. "First rule of leadership: everything is your fault." - Hopper, A Bug's Life. If you have an underperforming employee, it's up to you to figure out why they are underperforming and then coach them. If you have a toxic work culture, it's your number one priority to fix it. If a launch failed, you didn't give your team the tools or knowledge to succeed. On the flip side, if they're crushing it, you need to back them up and help them get a promotion or raise or whatever the next step is. If you don't, they'll likely take those successes and use them to find another job elsewhere.Clear expectations: Your team isn't going to read your mind. Set expectations, get buy-in on goals, and then follow up to see how people are tracking towards those goals. Without expectations, it's hard to set goals or coach people. Your team should always know what the top priority is and why.1:1s are your most underrated toolTo start, it's important to understand the goals of 1:1s. Let's first set those straight:1. Strengthening your relationship with your direct report2. Career development for the direct report3. And, all the other things that don't really fit anywhere elseStart by setting up a regular, weekly 1:1 time with each of your direct reports and be consistent. Most, if not all managers I've worked with know they are supposed to have recurring 1:1s. What I don't see across the board is an understanding of just how important being consistent with them is. Moving them around every once in a while is one thing, but often I hear how managers will regularly cancel 1:1s, be 10-15 minutes late, or worse do them only a couple of times a month. If you can't be relied upon to go to a 30-minute meeting for your direct report, how are they going to be able to rely on you for what's important? Also, two weeks plus is a long time for people to sit and stew on issues bothering them.Further, it's not just meeting them consistently, it's about following through on requests. If you don't follow through and you can't help them fix their problems in a timely manner, they're going to stop telling you about them. It's a lot harder to mitigate and solve issues when you don't know what's going on. Being consistent in solving their issues, or at the very least explaining why you couldn't solve their issue, shows that they can go to you for anything. As a leader, this is definitely something you want.So, you set up a time and are going consistently. Now what?1:1s are not for you. This means, for one, talking less. You should never talk the majority of the time unless you're specifically asked (ie: if they ask you to explain some topic). Even then, I would strongly recommend trying to find a separate time just to explain that concept.You should also prepare some topics to spur discussion points ahead of time. For example, "What's some way we could optimize our process?" or "How do you feel the team is doing with these tight deadlines?" Again, it's not for you, but it spurs conversation to help them. How can we optimize a broken process if we don't know it's broken? In a 1:1, they could bring up workflows that cause frustrations that you can alleviate (goal #3).It might sound cliche, but ask them where they see themselves in 5 years, or even what goals they have for themselves this quarter. Once you understand their goals, you can help open up doors for them so they're able to achieve said goals. If you asked most managers what the number 1 perk their employees want they probably will guess incorrectly. The top perk is training and development. Even more than healthcare and cash bonuses.The crazy part about this is that career development and training help the company too. While a cash bonus and healthcare make employees happy, it doesn't have much of an ROI outside of retention. However, having your engineer who's interested in copywriting take some copywriting courses would have an impact on your bottom line because maybe you don't need a copywriter anymore or the copy review cycles go much faster as the engineer can get it started.Finally, a 1:1 is NOT a time for status updates. You likely have stand-ups, planning sessions, retros, and more for status updates. If your direct report starts giving you a status update during the meeting, that's ok. Use it as an opportunity to build your relationship (goal #1 above). You can let them know what they did well on with the project or congratulate them on some success. Or, if it didn't go well, provide advice and mentorship (goal #2). In either case, you shouldn't be asking or digging for a status update.Explain "the why"If you're a true leader, your employees will work hard for you, the company, and most importantly, themselves, because they're inspired and motivated to do so. Mastering leadership is multi-factored, but one thing that'll give you a huge leg up with your team is explaining "the why". People need to know why they're doing their job. Your team will work harder, catch problems faster, and will be more creative when they know why they're working on something and what the intended outcome is. If needed, reiterate "the why" every day. There's no such thing as overcommunication here. Inspire and motivate your team with "why" and soon enough you'll be leading an engaged autonomous team.Your first management job is going to be hard. It's a complete shift from what you were doing before. It's no longer about being an incredible individual contributor. It's now about setting your team up for success and coaching them through it. You'll make a lot of mistakes, but it's ok. Learn from them and do better next time, ask your team for feedback, and keep showing up. People will remember how you made them feel. If you're genuinely invested in your team's success and your individual team members' success, you're on the right path.
This is awesome! Great advice. I'm starting a podcast for first time people managers this year, may I have you as a guest?
That's awesome, congrats! Please post on Elpha when you launch, would love to listen!
Thanks so much! Sure, I’d love to be a guest! I used to have a weekly newsletter for first time managers but we just pivoted to turn it into an e book. I’d love to pick your brain as we write the e book!
cool! I will DM you
Thanks for this article, perfect timing - I just onboarded 6 volunteers and a bit worried about how to do it right. Now I know what to focus on and how to do 1:1s
I'm so glad this was helpful! Good luck with your new team members!
This is awesome advice, thank you Anna! The point around 121s NOT being for status updates really resonated with me - as it's something our management currently insists on doing, and is my least favourite part!
I feel you! It's something I used to do when I was really new to management. After I stopped doing it, and started focusing on career development, my 1:1s with my team members were a lot more beneficial
This is exactly what I needed to read before going into the first day as a role as a manager. Thank yoU!