8 tips for first-time managers
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8 tips for first-time managers

Freshly promoted professionals must master new skills and attributes to succeed in a leadership role.

By Jackie Fitzgerald, ACMA, CGMA

As businesses grow, leaders face the challenge of identifying and developing a new generation of managers, providing plenty of opportunity for eager finance talent to take their next step on the career ladder.

Although they may have already demonstrated their technical competencies as accountants, taking on responsibility for a team throws up new challenges and requires a different set of skills.

Here are a few ways first-time managers can make the transition comfortably and successfully.

Acknowledge that you may often feel daunted. Perhaps the biggest issue facing those tasked with managing a team for the first time is that they don't feel ready. You've worked hard to get to a managerial position, but when you are handed this responsibility, it can be overwhelming. You suddenly become aware of all of the things you didn't know about your new role and may feel very challenged when you're not sure of the "right" way to behave. So be kind to yourself and recognise that most, if not all, new managers feel overwhelmed to begin with.

Clarify what is required of you and act accordingly. It can be difficult to adapt to a new role and its responsibilities, especially if the expectations and remit are unclear. Talk to your own manager to clarify what is required of you. For instance, if you've been promoted from within the organisation, ask how much of your old job you are expected to let go of and think about which member(s) of the team can perform those tasks more effectively now. Can aspects of your old job become a learning and development opportunity for others?

The appointment of a new manager can also be an opportunity to alter a department's focus. Talk to all of the stakeholders to gain an understanding of how they see your role. Team members often have very strong opinions on how their team should be led and what the department should be doing. When you step into a leadership role, you have an opportunity to use and develop those great ideas, so why not harness them? It can only make you more effective as a leader.

Learn how to delegate effectively. An inability or unwillingness to delegate is among the most common problems for all managers, not just first-timers. It is also the source of a huge amount of stress, no matter how experienced the leader or manager may be.

The main problem is that we just don't know how to do it. We may also fall into the trap of thinking that it's quicker and easier to do it ourselves. However, learning to delegate well ultimately saves time and prevents problems, so:

  • Don't confuse delegation with abdication. When you abdicate responsibility for something, you dump it on somebody's desk and expect them to get on with it. When you delegate, others may carry out the task, but you remain responsible for its success (or lack thereof).
  • Be clear about what you want. Specify the deadline and what the piece of work is for — the context and audience, the purpose it serves, and how it should be presented.
  • The manager's role is to support their reports in doing the best job possible, and part of that is to make sure they have, or can access, all the resources they need to complete the task.
  • Check in on progress from time to time. Ask open questions such as, "How's that report going?" These will prompt fuller answers than "Is that report on track?" When a team member shows enthusiasm for the task or project and asks you questions, that's a good sign that you can trust them to meet the deadline. Conversely, if you have to drag information out of them, that could be a strong sign that either they don't understand the task, they don't see the point of it, or they just don't know what to do.

Develop your own style. Think about the people you have enjoyed working for, or whose management styles you have thrived under. Draw on those insights to inform your own style. The goal is not simply to emulate those people; it's important to be yourself. You don't have the same personality or set of experiences as anyone else, and trying to copy them will come across as false and inauthentic.

Try to tailor your communication style to the needs or personalities of individuals on your team. Paying attention to how individuals behave should give you some clues as to how you should communicate with them. For example, if a member of your team values accuracy and precision, your conversation with them should focus on accuracy, facts, and details as much as possible. However, the same approach wouldn't work as well with someone who prefers engaging with people and is more interested in the big picture. In this case, talk in more general terms and focus on how people might be affected by the work.

The situation you are in also influences the communication style. In a crisis, there probably isn't time to pursue a collaborative, consensus-seeking approach. Somebody has to make a decision, direct the team, and be authoritative in issuing instructions and making sure things are done. However, in an everyday situation where there is more time to think and discuss the team's problems, a more consensus-based approach works well. If you go for the consensus approach, make sure everybody is properly consulted.

Learn how to handle difficult conversations ... New managers will have to raise issues with staff in conversations which both parties find less than comfortable. It is important to keep emotion out of the discussion and to focus on the issue that needs to be addressed rather than the person.

Try this simple framework for the conversation: Begin with a fact which encapsulates the issue, set out the impact of that issue, and invite the other person to work with you to find ways of overcoming it.

For example:

When you come in late every day (fact), I feel quite let down and am left wondering if the team will be short-handed today (statement about the impact of their action). Next time, please make sure that you're here on time (specifies what needs to change). What can I do to help you get into work on time every day? (opens a discussion about potential solutions)

... But don't overlook the positive ones. Research has shown that giving positive feedback is important, too. It shows your team that you have noticed the good things they do, not just the mistakes they make, and that really motivates people.

If paying compliments doesn't come naturally to you or makes you feel awkward, use the framework outlined earlier to help:

When the board approved the business case you prepared (fact), I felt very proud that you had done such a good job and pleased that their key questions had been covered in the paper you wrote (statement about the impact of their action). I particularly liked the way you evaluated the various options and their impact (emphasises the factor you were most pleased with). Which aspect were you most pleased with? (opens a discussion about what went well and how to do even better next time)

However you choose to give positive feedback, keep it simple but specific and, above all else, honest and authentic.

Take stock of your relationship with former peers. Another common challenge for new managers is recalibrating relationships with former peers, particularly when a promotion changes your status from being close friends to being manager and employee.

My own first experience of managing a team got off to a rocky start. I had been promoted to manage six colleagues, many of whom had become friends, and I was in competition for the management position with another team member who had more experience, meaning that the atmosphere was less than harmonious from the start.

In the team's eyes, I had to earn the right to be the boss. In this kind of situation, you have to demonstrate that you are capable and worthy of respect and that you will look after the team. But I needed their help and support as I grew into the role. Together we needed to work out a whole different set of behaviours and ways of thinking about each other.

Managers also have to be consistent in how they approach each person on the team. Spending social time after work with some members of the team and not others can lead to perceptions of favouritism and create resentment, even if those drinks or lunches are simply a continuation of what you did prior to the promotion.

Remember that your management journey is a work in progress. Just as we trained to be accountants, just as we made sure that our portfolio of experience and our technical knowledge was in place, we need to adopt the same approach to our journey as managers.

Don't be afraid to ask for training on management skills if you feel you need it. However, be prepared to source your own training. (A recent report from the Chartered Management Institute indicated that 71% of newly promoted managers receive either inadequate training or no training at all.) Read management books and journals. Ask for advice from more experienced managers, who are a great source of wisdom and support. Talk to them about what they did, and what they think you can do, to become a better manager.

Your own manager will have a sense of how you are getting on, and back channels will give them informal information on how you are coping, so again, don't be afraid to talk to them. HR managers are also experienced in helping people make these transitions from one role to another, and, as they will also be able to see how the team is doing holistically, they should be able to offer guidance and support.

Jackie Fitzgerald ( jackie@alchemybusinesscoaching.biz) is a UK-based coach who specialises in helping professionals fulfil their potential.