Five things I wish I’d known as a first line manager

I remember very clearly getting my first “proper” manager role and the excitement and trepidation that came with it. It doesn’t really matter how many courses you go on, I don’t think anything ever prepares you for the realities of managing teams – the good, the bad and the indifferent. And no matter how many good and bad managers you’ve had yourself, a bit like parenting you only understand the full expectations when you’re finally in the seat. I was talking to a group of wannabe first line managers a couple of weeks ago and it made me reflect on the things I wish I’d known then.

  1. You’re a manager, not a leader. The first thing to say is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, being an amazing manager is something incredible to aim for. For some reason over the last few decades we’ve decided that everyone needs to be a “leader” and frankly most organisations only need a small handful of these, it is an entirely different thing. Your team will thank you more for your one to one focus and coaching more than they will another stupid mission statement or departmental strap line.
  2. Processes are a guide, not a law. Yes I know, before you say it, HR functions are probably THE WORST department for this. Processes and policies are there to help you, but nothing is going to handle the situation better than a person that knows their team, knows what they want, how they are and what is going on in their lives. Spend more time learning about that and less time following processes without context and understanding of application. Would you rather listen to a story told with knowledge and understanding, or one read from a script?
  3. Recruitment is as much about your existing teams as it is the new hire. As a rule, I generally hate recruitment but I do like shaping teams. And I’ve learnt that the two things are inextricably linked. Bringing someone new into your team should be additive in every way, not just the skills and the experience they bring but the perspective they have, the way they think about the world and how they interact. If you get it right, a new hire should increase the performance of other people in the team.
  4. Being liked and being respected are different. First line managers tend to lean in one of two directions, over steering towards formality or trying to be everyone’s friend. Neither path is the route to happiness or a good night’s sleep, the reality is a bit more nuanced. The best managers that I’ve seen don’t mind being unpopular in the short term in order to gain respect in the longer term, they don’t hide behind the rulebook or worse, “HR have said…”. They own messages that are tough and gain respect that way.
  5. No-one gets it right all the time. In most areas of life when we want to improve we rehearse, we practice, we assess our past performance and we learn. Management is absolutely no different. Bad meeting? That’s something you can learn from. Horrendous conversation? What was the point that it started to go wrong. You won’t get everything right, every day and nobody does. That’s ok, what really matters is that you take the time to reflect, to learn and to build on your past experience for the future. That’s how we all grow.