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.

7 tips for my younger self

I was talking last week to someone about the advice that I wished I’d had as a younger professional, the things that I’ve learnt over the years that if I’d had a mentor or advisor would have been really helpful counsel. Would I have acted on it? Who knows, I would probably have been too head strong to listen. I guess when you look back with hindsight and experience, things seem so much simpler than they feel in the moment.

Should they prove any use to anyone else, here’s the advice I would have given myself:

  1. Confidence isn’t competence – You’ll come across people in the workplace who have (or display) a confidence that can be overwhelming. They tend to rise faster, but not necessarily further. Confident delivery will only get you so far, don’t confuse it with competence. Don’t be put off by those around you that shimmer with this veneer.
  2. Curiosity is king – Be inquisitive, seek to learn, ask questions and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. You’ll be surprised at how many meetings I sit in where people (including myself) nod and opine without really understanding the detail. Don’t be afraid to ask as you learn, you’ll be amazed how much people will share.
  3. Always have a plan – No matter how long you’re in a job or role, you always need to have a plan. What do you want to get out of the role? How long are you staying for? What is the next step and when are you going to take it? Nobody else will be managing your career, so make sure you are all over it every day.
  4. Learn to suck it up –  As you progress your career, you’ll encounter situations and people who make you want to scream. Learning how to navigate these situations and managing these people will serve you well. See it as a challenge, see it as a project, whatever it takes to make sure you learn and will never repeat.
  5. Just say yes – Everyone is busy, everyone is up to the eyes. But saying yes to opportunity might just give you the inside track to something more exciting. Every bone in your body will want you to lower your head and avoid eye contact, but the reality is that as you move up, you need to stand out.
  6. Don’t steal the limelight – Similar to the confident ones, you’ll meet people who are brilliantly adept at being at the right place at the right time to claim success – often yours. Don’t be tempted to follow their example, they’ll get caught out soon enough. Delivery is key, so focus on making sure you’re doing the hard yards.
  7. Have fun – As well as this being your career, this is also your life. And you won’t get these years back. So make sure you’re enjoying yourself, having fun and sweating the right stuff. For most of us, nobody dies if we get things wrong. So taking life with a pinch of salt and learning to enjoy the ride is key.


7 steps to interview success

I shudder to think of the amount of time I’ve spent interviewing over the last twenty years, every role from the C suite, through Managing Director and profit centre heads to technical specialisms and seasonal workers. Every interview is different, but there are some things I universally see in good interview candidates. Here’s what they do:

1 ) Answer the question you’re asked – I want to start with this, because whilst I know it sounds a little obvious, you’d be surprised how many people fail to do so and talk about something completely different. Most recruiters won’t be fooled and we will be wondering whether you didn’t understand or couldn’t answer. If you’re not sure what to say then…..

2) Don’t be afraid to pause – Some of the most impressive interviewees I’ve seen are willing to take their time. They have the confidence to hold the room for a moment whilst they think of a good answer. I don’t have any problem with people using a couple of stock phrases to buy time, “that’s an interesting question” or “there are a couple of ways I could answer that”, but a pause is always better than a babble – every single time.

3) Seek to understand – If you don’t understand what is being asked for, say so. If a question could be interpreted in a couple of different ways, ask for clarity. You’re probably only going to have one shot at a specific interview (although I have asked people to go away and come back again in the past when I’ve felt they’ve been unprepared) so don’t be afraid to make sure you have the very best chance of succeeding. Good employees ask for clarity and clarification, so why shouldn’t candidates too?

4) Think through scenarios in advance – In most interviews you’ll be asked a variant of the, “can you give me an example of….” or “tell me about a time when…”. In advance of any interview think through a few scenarios that could represent one or two different things – leadership, persuasion, decision making, influence etc. By thinking it through in advance you can make sure you’ve got a variety of different options on using them and you don’t use your most obvious one first up and then keep on referring back to it.

5) Be positive with your language  – People want to work with people who are positive – its as simple as that. That doesn’t mean you need to bounce around the room and high five the recruiters, but choose your language carefully. Think about examples that show you acting in a positive light and especially think about this if you’re asked about scenarios where you’ve faced difficult situations or people. Don’t get dragged back in to the emotion of the moment, but rise above it and prevail!

6) Remember who you are – If you’re not right for a job, you don’t want it. We have all had moments when we’ve had to take on work that we didn’t want for financial or personal reasons. But in general the rule of thumb should always be that that interview is two ways. So don’t be afraid to be yourself, express yourself and avoid trying to be the person you think the company wants to recruit. Not only will you probably get it wrong, you’ll only be happy if you’re right and it isn’t who you really are.

7) Ace the beginning and end – Whether people like it or not we all have biases. Many of these you can’t do anything about, that’s down to the recruiter. But you can impact the primary and recency bias. Everyone will tell you to get to an interview on time and compose yourself, but this is really important – make sure you have a couple of lines planned for when you’re introduced. And similarly, close the interview well, thank people for their time, wish them a good day, whatever. It isn’t really the content that matters, just the impression. Don’t, as I once did, stand up and fall straight over – you’ll literally be taking a dive….