How to be a First-time Manager

There's more to being in charge than extra cash and a new office. You are judged by your team's success - and you must keep the boss happy, says Andrew Saunders.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

At last! The promotion you've been working so hard for has finally come your way, the vital first step on to the management ladder, which, with hard work, the right attitude and maybe just a smidgeon of good luck, could one day take you all the way to the top. You were pretty sure you'd get it - as soon as your predecessor announced she was leaving, you had a quiet word with the boss, let him know you really wanted the job, the interviews went well, all that preparation really paid off. You've been trying not to seem cocky, but all the same it's a huge relief to know that your confidence wasn't misplaced.

And now you're in the driving seat, able for the first time to really take control and make things happen. The euphoria of the moment can be intoxicating. 'I remember coming in on the first day in my new job,' says Steve Read, recalling his promotion from researcher to UK media manager at directory publisher PiMS.

'I sat down at the boss's desk, booted up the boss's computer and thought: I'm in charge. It was a great feeling.'

There's nothing wrong, of course, with enjoying the fruits of your hard work, nor with spending a moment quietly savouring the fulfilment that comes from a personal goal achieved. But before you get too far into a megalomaniac fantasy that from now on work will consist of telling other people what to do in between thinking up new ways to spend the extra dosh that is coming your way, remember that with power comes responsibility.

Your old routine, with its simple, task-oriented recipe for success, is gone forever, replaced by a potentially more fulfilling but also more complex set of challenges. 'Being a manager has taught me the importance of always being seen to be scrupulously fair,' says Read, 'especially when some of the people you are dealing with are your friends. I've also learned to think things through, to be prepared for how people are likely to react before going ahead.'

Probably the biggest single change involved in moving into management is getting used to the fact that you are no longer judged on how well you do the job as an individual, but on how well your team performs. Says Steve Newhall, managing director for human resources consultancy DDI UK: 'Suddenly, you have to lead and motivate the people you've worked with for years and may still drink with down the pub. Your job now is to drive their performance to make sure they reach their targets.'

Motivating your team becomes a big priority when you're promoted, agrees Michelle Hanrahan, senior marketing manager in the tax department of professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. 'That means working with them to set their own personal objectives and helping them achieve them. But it also means setting deadlines to make sure things get done.'

And if things don't get done because someone isn't pulling their weight, from now on it's down to you to do something about it. 'It's not easy to tell a mate that they haven't delivered,' says Newhall, and although you should be as sensitive about it as you can, you have got to tell them. If you duck a tricky conversation today, it will come back to haunt you later - if only because your new team will think you are a soft touch. 'You mustn't be a walkover,' he stresses.

But you mustn't be a pig-headed bully either, so don't let the power go to your head - being promoted is not a reason to change your personality overnight. Gordon Ramsay may get great results by swearing on the telly like ... well, like a chef, but it's not a technique that works for everyone.

If you turn your office into the corporate equivalent of Hell's Kitchen, don't be surprised if your team can't stand the heat, or you, for much longer. A better approach is to spend time listening impartially to what your team members - and your boss - tell you before deciding on the way forward.

On the other hand, a few high-visibility alterations can drive home your new role, helping boost your credibility both with your team and the rest of the company. You've taken a step up, and whether you like it or not all eyes are on you. 'You have to make some symbolic changes when you get promoted,' says Hanrahan. 'I decided that I was going to sit at a different desk - I also went out and bought some new suits.'

If there's one area that causes more management headaches than any other, it's delegation. Never mind the newly promoted, the world of work is littered with time-served bosses who despite all their years in the saddle still have a problem letting go. The classic bad delegator is someone who, through being good at a specific technical task, gets promoted further and further away from it until they end up doing a job they aren't suited to.

So widespread is this phenomenon that it's even got a name - the Peter Principle, after Laurence J Peter's seminal 1970s book (as you will know if you've read it, it's actually a comic satire, so even its author must have been surprised by how seriously everyone took it).

But fiction or no, it still rings true in some organisations today. 'Promoting someone because they are good at a particular job, into a position where they aren't doing that job any more is a mistake companies make all the time,' says Newhall.

But if you're serious about staying in the career fast lane, you'll have to get to grips with delegation - failure to do so is a sure-fire route to a cul-de-sac marked 'middle management'.

At 28, Hanrahan, one of the youngest people at her level in PwC, admits that she found it a challenge to begin with. 'I did find it hard to delegate at first. I didn't have the confidence to deal directly with people and took a very softly, softly approach.' But within a couple of months, she realised that a more straightforward approach was the best bet.

'The pressures on my time were soon so great that I found the confidence to be more direct with my team,' she says. It can also be comforting, she says, to hang onto the bits of your old job that you enjoyed and were good at, but if you do, no-one else in the company will ever trust anyone but you to do them. Is that really what you want to happen?

Of course, although it's important for new managers to look down at what is going on in their departments, and out at what is going on around them in the wider organisation, an ambitious person always takes the time to have a good look upwards, too. 'Make sure you know how to send messages up the company structure. Always manage your boss, start on the first day and keep at it. Find out what they expect, and use the knowledge,' says Phil Hodgson, director of leadership at Ashridge.

Your experience of managing your boss - and of being managed by them - can also help you in your role as a manager. 'I have a good working relationship with my boss,' says Read. 'One of the keys to that was being honest with him from the start. It meant that he knew what I needed to get the job done, and that I had a very clear understanding of what I was expected to do in return.'

It also means you probably know more about being a manager - what works and what doesn't - than you realise. 'You learn by example, so you can use your own experience of being managed to help you manage others,' says Hanrahan. For instance, 'no-one likes to work on something that they aren't going to get the credit for'. Act as an ambassador for your department when you're in that big meeting, basking in the chairman's praise. Don't hog it - share the glory with those who deserve it and everyone will be happy.

In a new job, time is always in short supply - especially to those who are unused to dealing with a crowded work diary and lots of new responsibilities. This is the point at which you are most at risk from the 'It will be quicker to do it myself' syndrome. Don't succumb - in the long run it certainly isn't.

'It's very easy to say: I'll do that myself,' says Hanrahan, 'but you must avoid it and make the investment in time needed to help others to do it.' Not only are you developing your team, in the long term you are freeing up your own time, because if someone else knows how to do it, you don't have to.

Moving to a new company rather than taking a step up at your current employer brings its own set of pros and cons. On the upside, you don't have to worry about not being taken seriously by more senior people who still think you're at their beck and call; on the downside, you probably have a less intimate idea of what the job entails and what your predecessor did and didn't do. 'Check your in-tray for landmines in the first week of a new job,' advises Hodgson. 'Why did your predecessor leave, and what did they leave behind them that might go off in your face?'

Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, don't worry about not knowing all the answers. As far as your future career is concerned, it's probably better if you don't. Managing a team of people whose jobs you couldn't do as well as they do themselves may be nerve-wracking to start with, but it's great experience for the time when you are further up the ladder.

'Get used to managing without resort to your technical skills,' counsels Hodgson. 'Being the best accountant or the best engineer will only get you so far, because after your next promotion, or the one after that, you are going to have to manage other sorts of people.' And you wouldn't want your first taste of promotion to be your last, would you?


Be honest - don't be afraid to ask for advice, or to admit you don't know the answer. Never be afraid to employ people who are of a better calibre than you - that way you will create a whole that is much greater than the sum of the parts. My final piece of advice has served me well throughout my career - work hard. Hard work is the single most important ingredient in any successful career.


The most difficult thing to learn in management is to run an operation through other people rather than doing it yourself. You have to be able to step back and trust the people working for you. You can do this in a very structured way or on a more informal basis, but either way the responsibility is yours, so you must not be afraid to impose your view.


There are two essential facets to becoming a manager and leader - one of which I appreciated when I was starting out and one of which I didn't. First, you must be ready to take decisions when you can't be certain that you are right. Second, invest more time and effort than you really want to in getting to know your team - talk to them, and listen even when you know that what you are hearing is wrong. It took me 15 years to realise how important that is.


The key attributes of successful managers are focus, context and communication. You can learn them. The first 100 days are key: manage your team, listen to them and remember that to get 70% right, you have to get 30% wrong.


Never shy away from confronting difficult issues. Try to work out what you aren't good at - ask staff to tell you and don't ignore what they say. Spend at least an hour one-to-one with your boss and with each member of your team every week. Thank your team when they've earned it - give them the credit, don't take it for yourself.

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