Ten mistakes new managers make

cbyProject Management, Startups

There are a few things anyone with project management and consulting experience know. We know we’re the hired guns. We know we’re there to provide a solution, and ride off into the sunset. We know that regardless of our environment, we are there to deliver. If we make friends, awesome. If not, we keep our eye on the exit date. 
We’ve also been new managers once. And while it’s easy to learn processes and applications, people are a different kettle of fish. Here are my personal do’s and dont’s  based on what I’ve experienced, or mistakes I’ve made myself.

  1. There’s a difference between managing and leading.
    Managing is all about deliverables. Leadership is about inspiration and direction. And to be a good (project) manager, you need to do both. It takes a little practice before it becomes second nature but wear the manager hat when you need to talk deliverables, coordinated efforts, and control over the deliverables. Wear the leader hat when brainstorming, creating and running the team. Encourage and enable people to give their best deliveries via honest discourse, even if you do not agree with them. Ironically, it’s through this type of discourse you learn to be right.

  2. As a manager, it’s never about you.
    One of my personal credos is behaviour is truth. When you manage people, this goes a hundredfold. Your aunt may have died. Your pet got run over. You get the idea Painful as this is, you need to leave this outside the workplace door. Not because they are personal issues, but because they affect your mood. And you cannot manage by mood. Leading while uncommunicative, withdrawn, or short, is about your convenience. And despite being new at this, that’s not what you are there for. Your job is to work with your team and keep them motivated to deliver. If you’re not sure what they need from you, ask. People rarely mind being asked.

  3. Be positive and be present
    Even if your project is in dire straits, or you hate some of the people you work with, make sure to be positive. I am not talking about lying or hiding the truth. If your project is in trouble, you may have helped get it there. This makes you even more dependent on your team, So praise effort, presence, and initiative. Ask questions, offer solutions, and give honest and critical feedback where needed. If you suffer impostor syndrome, ignore it, I assume you earned your stripes. People need their efforts to be “seen”, regardless of whether your feedback is good or bad. Indifference hurts the people on your team and their motivation. Being positive may not be your personal style, but again, it’s not about you as a person, it’s about you as a manager and leader. So buck up and learn.

  4. Watch your mouth
    It doesn’t matter if you are in a group with other managers, peers, or especially underlings in your workplace. You do not talk negatively about subordinates. This is not the same as having a spat with a peer or discussing concerns with HR or your own manager. You outrank your subordinates, giving an unlevel playing field. Talking behind their back to people who may potentially put them in their team is not cool. I worked on a team once where the owner of a startup, and new to everything, had no issues throwing the one guy who kept the office performing under the bus. He did this to impress some of the venture capitalists in the room. I lost all respect for him, I am sure some of the others did too. Just don’t do this. It’s an easy mistake to make, but try not to – it just makes you look bad.

  5. Respect is earned, not given via rank
    A lot of people still think respect comes with their position. Nope. It’s earned. Some of the more bizarre episodes I have had in my working life have been about respect. A few years ago, I was trying to explain 3D stuff to someone of equal rank but from a different department. After I asked if we were even speaking about the same thing in a multi-recipient mail, he sent me a personal email. He demanded I defer to him in public and discuss with him in private, as he felt I was being disrespectful when asking questions. I meant no disrespect, I was looking for clarification. But if your ego is so frail you can’t handle discourse with one of the bazillions of super-knowledgeable and intelligent developers or other staff, respect is the last thing you’ll get. And even if you are new to management, there is no shame in asking stupid (clarifying) questions. It’s better to be the nitwit who asks a lot of questions as you go, than being the idiot who doesn’t want to embarrass themselves by asking or responding because of their ego. The latter being a surefire way to delivery issues.

  6. Reward success. Repeatedly
    If an employee repeatedly exceeds expectations on a deliverable, reward that with something else than raising the bar even higher, or reminding them of last year’s bonus Again – People need to be “seen”, and people need to know they are valued. It really is that simple.

  7. Get to know your team. Getting to know your team is a trite line you see in many management how-to books. But it’s there for a reason. If you know your team, you can spot when something is bothering them into under-performing, you can spot conflicts and issues easier, as well as just making the workplace more pleasant for all if you are a cohesive unit.
    My personal preference for team building, which I stole from Escenic‘s Torstein Krause Johansen back in the Opera days, is to either borrow the cantine at work or go to a cooking class together. Taking the team into a different activity and creating something pleasant, like a meal together is often much more fun than rafting or scaling a wall. Of course, if you don’t have a kitchen available, try setting aside time for team-gaming, seeing a movie or other, everyday stuff, even if it’s just an after-work beer. It’s this small, easy, doable, every day stuff that counts, rather than the big to-dos full of slogans and empty words.

  8. Don’t let conflict fester
    I worked in a place many years ago, where the elected staff ombudsman punched a fellow developer. Regardless of the consequences it had for him, it doesn’t need saying they had a history which had festered and came to a head. I have seen this time and again in places I have worked: Conflicts which aren’t resolved, uncomfortable as it is to resolve them, tend to explode at some point. And before that, everyone is uncomfortable. Don’t let it come to that. People do not have to like each other, but they do have to function together. Not solving this, is again, about convenience, so grab the bull by the horns: Help them collaborate with a minimum of friction. No one performs 100% in the vacuum conflicts create. An excellent place to start is to find out how much they need to interact and what they need from each other to do their job. Then take it from there.

  9. Listen to learn. Rinse. Repeat
    One thing I started doing a few months into my first project manager gig, was to change my way of asking questions and listening. I am a chatterbox, so it was hard not to interrupt, but I learned. In addition, when asking questions – yes, even the stupid ones – after, i.e. the developers were done responding, and rolling their eyes at me, I repeated what I had learned from them to make sure I understood. I still do this, and I also do this in client or other meetings. I have also honed my language over the years. So to avoid any conflict, or any type of “but you said” misunderstandings, I usually respond back with a”here is what I think you explained” or “here is what I perceived you said”. It is a non-threatening way of verifying you got it right – or wrong – and keeps the communication door comfortably open because people know you will check you got it right.

  10. Trust the juniors
    This is hard to do, especially when you are new to management yourself. However, a little faith goes a long way. Your juniors are probably the most eager participants in your team. Use that enthusiasm, and give them tasks to help them grow their skills and mental tools. Show them trust until they prove otherwise. Get them guidance, get them mentoring and give them work a little outside their comfort zone, and help them grow their skills, rather than keeping them in the junior grind-creche. It’s not just about them, it’s also about building yourself a network of people who’d work with you in a heartbeat because you made that effort for them. 

I‘ve tried to focus on things you don’t read in typical management blogs or sites. I think they tend to focus on the safe, semi-tangibles like “learn your craft, and build your network, keep learning” and all that. So for better or worse, these are things that worked for me.
One of the hardest things for me to learn, has been to show trust, because I was so afraid of failure, I tended to micromanage. But with experience came confidence, and with confidence came ease, which made it easier to let go of the micromanagement tendencies. 
I am always interested in other people’s views, so drop me a line if you have a tip you’d like to share, or talk about!