The Best Advice I Got When I Became a Manager

Woman in a blue check flannel holds a white tablet.

Management is a big responsibility, and it’s not as intuitive as people assume it to be. The soft skills required to run a team — or to manage a single intern — can take time to learn. Here’s some of the best simple management advice I heard when I became a manager for the first time:

What is the job?

Managers are part therapist, part coach, part strategist and part teacher. Management involves a lot of emotional labor, and it can be draining, especially if you have other responsibilities besides people-managing. It’s important to be aware of your energy limits to avoid burnout, and to prevent that strain from impacting your relationships at work.

Not everyone enjoys or wants to be a manager. Unfortunately for folks who don’t have the management bone, it’s often a requirement of seniority at companies. If you’re someone who finds management challenging and uncomfortable, that sucks! But don’t take that out on your subordinates. Rely on your own manager or other resources at the company to find the support you need. 

As a manager, you are in a position of power over other people’s lives. Your choices and behavior impact their financial wellbeing, their health, their career development and their job satisfaction. No, you’re not their parent. But don’t be cavalier about the way you directly impact their lives — and their ability to pay rent. 

You will mess up. Managers are people too, and management is a real skill that takes practice and training. It isn’t intuitive, and it takes a lot of self-discipline, boundary-setting and empathy. When you make a mistake, take responsibility and apologize. Then don’t do it again. Holding yourself accountable does not undermine your authority with your direct reports. It actually builds trust and creates an environment where people feel comfortable owning failure as opposed to hiding it.

It’s normal for inexperienced managers to try to show off how much they know in order to build credibility in the eyes of their team. This can actually do the opposite and make you look arrogant or incompetent. You’ll get further by asking your team the right questions and highlighting their expertise and ideas. 

There will be days when your subordinates don’t like you. Unfortunately, that’s just part of being a manager. Your job is not to be liked; it’s to be trusted and respected.

How do I mentor my reports?

As a manager, your job isn’t just to track the work and success of your reports. You’re also responsible for helping them reach their professional goals. They will have other jobs after they work for you, and helping them prepare for the career they want isn’t a threat to you! Active mentorship helps direct reports understand how their work connects to their goals.

Everyone you manage will have different work styles, communication styles, feedback styles, environmental preferences, and attitudes toward the role that work plays in their lives. Not every person you manage will need the same type of management. It’s normal to have very different manager-employee relationships with each person who reports to you.

It’s important to create opportunities for your direct reports to have your full attention. Set up a recurring 1:1 meeting with your direct reports dedicated to their needs and projects. This will allow them to ask you questions and creates a space to talk through their professional development. If you’re not sure what your report needs in terms of your time, start with a 30 minute meeting once a week. You can change its duration and frequency based on need. 

Whatever you do, do not cancel that 1:1 meeting. Your direct report can cancel if they need the time back or don’t have any agenda items, but if the manager cancels it, it signals disrespect. Your time is valuable, but so is your relationship with your employees. If you absolutely must cancel, reschedule it promptly.

You can solve a lot of problems by asking your direct reports a few simple questions:

  • “What’s on your plate at the moment?”
  • “What challenges have you run into that I can help you with?”
  • “How do you feel about your workload?”
  • “What’s one thing stressing you out right now, and one thing you’re enjoying working on?”

In the event that your direct report has a question that you don’t know the answer to, don’t bluff or make something up. Calmly say, “I don’t know, but I’ll look into that and get back to you!” And then go look into that thing.

How should I give feedback?

When your direct report comes to you with a problem, actively listen. Don’t rush to solve the problem for them—pay attention to what they’re telling you, repeat it back to them as you understand it to make sure you’re not jumping to conclusions, and then help them solve it on their own.

It’s tempting to rush to solve a challenge for your reports. But part of being a manager is helping your team develop their skills, and you want to help them become confident and independent enough to overcome those hurdles on their own. Ask them questions to help them arrive at the solution on their own, with your guidance.

If your report didn’t complete a task you asked them to do, calmly ask them why. Don’t rush to accuse or launch into a personal attack. It’s possible you didn’t actually ask them to do it in the first place, you didn’t communicate how to prioritize the task, or they ran into a stumbling block beyond their control. It’s also possible that what you asked them to do was silly.

There is literally never a good reason to raise your voice. Shouting, sarcasm and personal criticism are never constructive. If your report messed up, gently highlight the mistake and why it matters, and then ask how you can help them avoid it in the future. Maybe they were rushing and the solution is having a longer runway on a deadline, or sharing some of their workload with a colleague. Never assume the worst.

Do not ever give challenging feedback in front of an audience. Do not ever reprimand an employee in front of an audience. These are humiliating and controlling tactics, not ways to help a direct report build a skill and avoid making the same mistake again.

How do I lead?

Managers are leaders, and your behavior is magnified tenfold. Managers set the tone for their reports and for their teams. That means they don’t get to make insensitive jokes, or date coworkers, or talk smack. Managers create the workplace culture around them, even if they’re middle-managers who assume they aren’t all that powerful. Your direct reports will look to you for how they should behave. If you’re always five minutes late to meetings, why should they arrive on time?

Work/life balance is not a fuzzy mantra. It’s a concrete set of rules and boundaries. Building a healthy culture starts with you as the boss. Are you sending them emails at 4am? Are you working late at the office and making your team feel guilty for leaving at 6pm? Are you assigning huge projects at 4pm that are due at 11am the next day? You’re not setting healthy boundaries for yourself or your team. 

Do not make your problems the problems of your direct reports. As a manager, you should never over-confide in your employees. You are there to provide a safe, productive and respectful environment for them. That means creating and modeling strong boundaries, and not stressing them out over issues that they can’t control. A good manager shields their team from stressful situations that are above their pay grade. 

Don’t gossip with your direct reports, especially about your own team. While gossip is a human way to bond quickly with strangers, there’s a power imbalance between a manager and their subordinates. If you gossip with your employees, what’s to stop them from thinking you’ll gossip about them too?

If you think that your team as a “gossip problem,” you’ve probably created an environment where they don’t feel comfortable coming to you directly with their issues. 

Finally, an obvious one: do not date your direct reports. Just don’t. 

Where can I learn more?

Ask A Manager

Raw Signal Group

Carla Harris on sponsorship versus mentorship

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

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