Congratulations on your "promotion"! You're now a manager!

This is often how career progression works for us - we were a high performing individual contributor, and we suddenly find ourselves promoted to management. Our pathways are often not deliberate, and often not planned. So many people report feeling lost, uncertain, unsure of what to do.

Of course, nobody aspires to be a bad manager. So many people coming into management don't know what 'good' looks like though. I certainly found my way into management accidentally like this, and I struggled for years as a 'bad manager', resisting it because I didn't understand it.

There are some great books out there, some superb leaders in the space, and some amazing resources to help us actively learn. We still often find workplaces putting people into management roles by throwing them into the deep end, the learning starting on day one when the pressure is on and the job is real.

I've mentioned this before in a number of posts on this blog, but becoming a manager IS NOT a promotion. You are stepping into a completely different role, where some of your previous experience as an individual contributor certainly still counts, but where you are going to primarily rely upon a totally different, perhaps not yet learned skill set.

Companies often solve this by creating dual track pathways - individual contributor can go through the typical engineer, senior, lead, principal etc. but a separate pathway for engineering management. What they don't appear to though is solve for the scenarios where someone wants to explore management as an option - the 'try before you buy'.

What if it starting out as a manager could be different? What would better look like?

I was faced with a situation recently where one of my team had been expressing an interest in management as a potential pathway. They had all of the usual questions someone has who entertains management:

  • What IS management?
  • What does good management look like? How do I know if I'm bad?
  • What skills do I need to have to be a good manager?
  • How do I deal with {complex situation that managers face regularly}?
  • And more besides...

What I wanted to do was provide two things:

  • An opportunity to practice - we can read all the books in the world on management. But no book allows us to experience what being a manager really is like. By the time you're a manager, it's too late to change your mind. Normally though, doing the job is too late to really change your mind.
  • Safety / Risk Reduction - we are dealing with our most valuable assets, our people. Supporting them effectively generates better outcomes for the business, and creates better environments for our teams. I wanted to try to mitigate the risk in the situation of 'new manager, things falling through the gaps'.

What does it look like in practice?

I worked with a few members of my team to try to create a framework where experimentation with management could happen, and we looked to mitigate the inherent risk of just throwing a manager in at the deep end on day one.

I created a 'Try before you buy' model of management.

Organisationally, nothing changed - the person was still an individual contributor, and nothing changed from an HR/Admin perspective. But I put in place a few other things:

  • Get team buy in - I asked two members of my team to be part of the experiment and report directly into the new line manager. They would have 1:1s with them, present problems/challenges to them etc.
  • Time-box it - we set the programme up to run for a full quarter, whereby, reporting lines and support changed to the new manager (you may feel you need more, but measure regularly).
  • Do not give known problems - I'm very lucky in that I have a high performing team, so any of them could have taken part in this experiment. If you are thinking about doing this yourself, don't pass known staffing issues to the new manager, be it performance, attitude, or anything else. They'll have plenty of time during their career to explore these with you, so try to maximise the guard rails by only having volunteers who are generally performing. Nobody is perfect, so over the period of a quarter, there will definitely be opportunities for them to deal with complex human situations that arise during management.
  • Coaching and Mentoring - this should be in place anyway with your team as a manager, but we focussed some specific time during 1:1s to talk about the challenges being faced as a 'new manager' and coached through scenarios that were challenging.
  • Creating space to learn - there is a LOT to take in as a new manager, so trying to make sure workloads are as flexible as possible during onboarding as a manager is crucial. There is so much to learn, and space to do so is key.
  • Observe and fill the gaps - I still held weekly 1:1s with the people who were now reporting to the new manager, but the conversations focussed on any opportunities for feedback to the new manager, and ensuring that there were no gaps in the support for those staff taking part in the experiment.

Measurement and Insight

I also wanted to make sure we maximised the insight around 'what is management' and I found there weren't any tools out there to really support me in that discussion, so as per my blog post on the subject, I built a tool - brilliant managers. The aim here was to have a meaningful conversation about all of the skills and attributes that make for 'good management', and for us to share our views on each of them to help target learning opportunities. You'll see from the other blog post, and the website more of the intent around this.

Outcomes - did the experiment work?

It feels appropriate to share the feedback from the person going through the experiment first:

I absolutely loved the approach of trying management before committing to it - and I may have never made the leap from individual contributor to management otherwise.

What made a huge difference was to know that this was a time-boxed experiment that was to last just one quarter. We made it clear that I would then revert to being an individual contributor, they would revert to being managed by their previous manager and I wouldn’t become their manager by default even if I expressed interest to continue down the management path.

This removed all the awkwardness associated with managing people who used to be your peers - and it made the whole process fun. We could focus on experimenting, learning and giving each other candid feedback knowing that this would come to an end. It also completely removed the fear of failing my direct reports by not being a good enough manager - I was instead able to focus on learning how to get better knowing that my directs were still being supported by their “real” manager.

For my own reflection, I think we both learned a lot during the process. Personally, it certainly helped me hone my coaching skills - it is so easy to lean on a mentoring mindset and attempt to solve a problem, though it's mostly best if you can help someone work through the problem and explore solutions themselves, and get to better outcomes.

For the new manager, we created a safe space - some weeks, management was something they most certainly didn't want to be doing as a career, and some they loved it. We made it safe to talk about all of that.

At the end of the quarter, we arrived at a point where all parties (those being managed in the experiment, and the new manager) agreed that it had been a success, and the new manager expressed a desire to formalise that pathway into management. We had an opportunity within the team to accommodate this immediately, so we transitioned them straight into that role. They picked up new direct reports, not those during the experiment, and they continue to grow, learn, and adapt to the complexities of a new career path.

This feels like an approach I'd now use with any employee interested in the management track going forward. It maximises safety and feedback, adds a framework of support around those early days of management, and formalises a little more so that we can help those people grow and turn up for work to be 'good managers', rather than the bad managers so many of us spent our early careers being.

What next?

The tool I put together to start the conversation, really did help in the conversation, and as I highlight on the launch blog post for that, it makes me even more determined to hone and complete that tool.

I'll continue to try to evolve the human model that goes alongside this. There is a balance between challenging with support and throwing someone into the deep end of the pool and hoping they'll swim. Maximising the model around support, but with direct challenge so that those new managers learn, will be an area I look to improve too.

I'd love to hear from others about what works for you and your organisation. Please reach out if you're experimenting with this, or if you are looking at brilliant managers and want to leverage it within your organisation. I'm trying to improve the effectiveness of it, and make it applicable to all.