How to land your first management role and develop the skills to succeed in it
Develop a particular set of skills
Landing your first management role is a huge career milestone. But it can also be quite stressful as you suddenly need to learn a bunch of new skills while also having to deliver results.
Whether you are trying to going from salesperson to sales manager or engineer to engineering manager, the strategies for finding your first management role and succeeding in it are universal.
Landing your first management role
The #1 reason people get rejected for a management position is a lack of management experience. Here’s how to overcome that:
1. Look for opportunities to lead
While leadership is not the same as management, it is a pre-requisite. After all, you won’t get far as a manager if people aren’t willing to follow you. Fortunately, leadership opportunities are usually quite easy to come by as companies always have more priorities than they have available resources. Volunteering to lead a project outside of your day-to-day role is a great way to build up your leadership skills and become more visible to execs.
2. Package your experience
As we’ve discussed several times on this blog, senior managers care more about business outcomes and less about the day-to-day activities of the team. To present yourself favorably, re-write your resume to focus on the business outcomes you have delivered as an individual contributor and leader. Then create a one-paragraph summary of it. It will show that you understand how managers are measured and that you are ready to be one.
3. Network with senior managers
Many first-time management roles are not posted publicly because of the effort required to get headcount approval, create a recruiting plan, interview candidates, make offers, create onboarding plans and bring a new person into the culture.
That doesn’t mean the need for managers is any less urgent, especially when a company is growing, as existing teams get too big for one person to manage and new teams get created when new business opportunities arise.
Meet with managers of growing teams, ask how they plan to staff the growth and offer to scope one of the new roles. It gives you a chance to write a job description that matches your experience and position yourself favorably to get it.
Succeeding in your first management role
Switching from individual contributor to management requires learning a particular set of new skills, of which the top 3 are Hiring, Delegating and Coaching.
Few things in your professional life as emotionally and financially draining as making a bad hire. It sucks your time, slows down your team and demotivates your high performers.
Many bad hires are a result of rushing to fill open headcount or not understanding what is required to perform the role. The solution here is to build a recruiting plan for each role that you need to hire.
A recruiting plan should include the following:
A candidate-centric job description. It forces you to define what the job entails, what success looks like and to prioritize the skills and experience you need.
A job level and corresponding salary range. Helps you be realistic about the skills and experience you can afford.
A list of interview stages, including who the interviewer is, the questions they will ask (avoids having multiple interviewers ask the same question) and the criteria for a bad, good and great answer to each question.
A must-have interview stage is the skills assessment, as it gives you a chance to see what a candidate’s deliverables look like and gives the candidate a taste of what the job would entail. I’ve consistently found it a great way to screen out candidates who aren’t serious and screen in candidates who are genuinely excited about the role.
The vast majority of first-time managers get promoted into their role on the back of being a high-performing individual contributor, someone who eagerly takes on and crushes the hardest projects or closes the biggest deals. Unfortunately, this is almost the opposite of what you need to be a high-performing manager.
Managers have to get really good at delegating. I’ve found the easiest way to explain delegation is with the following visual:
As a manager you want to spend as much of your time in the Important/Not Urgent box (so you can plan ahead) and to have your team spend as much of their time in the Important/Urgent box (so they work on the things that deliver outcomes).
However, many first-time managers get sucked into the Important/Urgent box because they can’t resist the urge do the work themselves. After all, it feels familiar whereas spending time thinking and analyzing feels like you aren’t doing real work.
The problem is this pushes their team into the Not Important/Urgent box, which is bad for the team because it inhibits their learning and is demotivating and on a more basic level is an inefficient use of company resources.
The best tactic to avoid the urge to do it yourself is to shift your mindset from creating to reviewing, or from doing to enabling. Ask your team to create a plan and give them feedback on it. While it will seldom be exactly what you would have done, it will help your team learn, they’ll feel more ownership over it and in some cases it will be better than what you would have done yourself.
(For a deeper dive on delegation and this framework, check out my post on how to prioritize your time)
One of the biggest challenges first-time managers run into is when their peers become their direct reports. It introduces an awkward dynamic and if left unchecked can cloud judgment on performance.
The best way to overcome this is to develop a coaching mindset where you focus more on helping your team be successful and worry less about taking care of your friends now that you’re the big boss.
A proven way to develop a coaching mindset is by implementing a coaching framework like REKS, which is:
Results—the measurable outcome of efforts. It should be a metric that ties back to a business outcome. For example deals closed, features launched etc.
Effort—the activities that lead to the required results. For example, meetings held, leads converted, tickets completed etc.
Knowledge—understanding the processes needed to do the job. For example, sales process, persona profiles, development process etc.
Skills—the core skills needed to execute on the knowledge. For example, handling objections, designing prototypes etc.
Create a rubric that defines what ok, good and great look like for each of Results, Effort, Knowledge and Skills and use it to identify where each member of your team currently stands.
Have a regular 1:1 with each member of your team to discuss performance and use the REKS framework to identify where their issues lie. For example, if the Results aren’t where they need to be but the Effort is, you know it’s a Knowledge or Skills issue and you can focus the discussion accordingly.
Above all, a framework like REKS enables you and your direct reports to be objective about what is going well, what needs to improve, and where to focus and helps you transition into being their manager.
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