Lessons I’ve Learned as a First-Time Manager

September 30, 2022 | New Workplace Leadership | 10 min read

For most of my career, I was an individual contributor, and extremely content in this role. I had the freedom to focus exclusively on building my marketing skillset and growing my experience within the tech industry, and that seemed like enough for me.

However, my perspective completely changed when I was asked to build out the intern program at my previous company. I always knew I loved working with people, but I didn’t realize just how much I enjoyed building these interpersonal relationships until I started to manage the interns. I felt proud that I was able to build a program that taught the interns how to navigate the professional world, while giving them the experience they needed to grow.

This is what led me to aspire to be a manager. I wanted to be that support system for those that were just getting started in their careers. I wanted to help them understand the way in which the corporate world works. And I also started to reflect on the great managers that I had, who had been that support system for me. It was time for me to take the next step in my career and start to build the skills that I was missing; leadership power skills.

So, here I am now, a first-time manager at Skillsoft, with much more formal training than I previously had, but still learning as I’m going. And I’m putting these skills to practice in my remote role, which is even more of a challenge. I constantly find myself wondering: How am I supposed to build relationships with my team? What are the skills I need to develop to be successful? How will my day-to-day change? Well, I’m happy to say that I’ve learned a lot along the way, through the help of my manager, Caitlin Leddy, my past managers, and through courses on Skillsoft’s First Time Manager Aspire Journey. Here are some of the key pieces of advice I have for those becoming managers within a distributed workforce:

Listen first, then strategize

Oftentimes, new managers feel pressure to step into their new jobs with ideas and opinions right out of the gate. I quickly learned that their strategy should be the complete opposite. It’s so important to listen whole-heartedly to your team, to understand their daily challenges and to see what changes need to be made. You may come in with your own assumptions, but always try and see the situation from the perspective of your team before you dive in with your opinion.

This may take a little extra time and research within a distributed workforce, as you are not constantly intertwined in the team dynamics. Therefore, ask questions constantly. Ask your team why they handle situations the way they do, what their priorities are, what their blockers are, and about their ultimate career goals. From there, use the feedback that you hear from your team to help inform your strategy.

I learned this lesson quickly from one of my managers. He was never the loudest in the room (nor am I), but I learned that that was okay, because that’s how we learned, processed, and made decisions. This is also the way that he led; constantly asking questions to understand what we needed, before providing a solution. All his direct reports appreciated it because we felt heard and understood, and that’s how I aim to manage.

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Build trusted relationships with your team through good communication

You will learn early on that you will always be in constant communication with your team as a manager. As someone who manages reports earlier in their career, I am always talking to my reports, whether it’s to discuss next steps, provide feedback on their work, or just to check in. Oftentimes, my reports are new to the field, and are looking for guidance on how to navigate their career path, so we are often discussing what their next move should be. We spend so much time together that at the end of the day, I want my team to enjoy their work, and feel comfortable with me and their working environment.

Developing these types of relationships can often be overlooked within a distributed workforce, because how can you accomplish this if not in the same location? The idea of hybrid equity has made its way across different news outlets- it’s the idea that all your employees, no matter where they are based, are given the same opportunities to succeed. It may be easy to check in more frequently with those that you can see every day, but that doesn’t mean that your team members in different locations should be overlooked. These are some of the steps I take to build trusted relationships,

  • Put in the time- Show your team that you are there for them by setting up frequent 1:1s, participating in their meetings, and getting to know your employees as individuals.
  • Celebrate the team’s success- Build a positive and rewarding culture by making note of your team’s success.
  • Be approachable and honest- Ensure your team knows that they can speak freely with you about any challenges they may be experiencing and provide them with the same honesty in return.

At the end of the day, we are all people first, and without strong working relationships, it becomes difficult to create a fun culture that people want to work in every day.

Face conflict head-on: Identify problems early and own your decisions

No matter how great your team is, there are always going to be issues that arise. I learned that lesson quickly. My reports always excelled in the tasks that they were given, but I could sense when something was off, whether it be collaboration with other teams or the work they were being asked to do.

Do not ignore these issues or look to fix them in the short term. Always dig to understand the root of the problem, because these blockers will continue to build, and will eventually hinder the work and attitude of your employees. In a remote environment, these challenges can be harder to identify, so be sure to ask the right questions to understand exactly what is going on and how you can help.

As Scott Cromar stated in From Technie to Boss: Transitioning to Leadership, “Strong leaders can’t wait until they have all the pieces to make a decision. When you do make a decision, own it. A major responsibility of being a manager is accepting the consequences of the choices you make for the team.” Personally, this has been one the most difficult skills I’ve had to learn as a manager. I suffer from imposter syndrome and therefore often lack the confidence it takes to make decisions and stand by them. The problem is, now the decisions I make not only affect me, but my team. This is a skill that I constantly work to refine with my manager. She has given me the confidence and voice to step up and make decisions for the team. Although it often feels uncomfortable, the more I practice this skill, the more it feels like a natural part of my responsibilities.

Lead by example: Set expectations and live up to them

Managing your team’s priorities, expectations and goals is one of the biggest responsibilities of becoming a manager. But maybe even bigger than that is living by the standards you hold your team to. As a first-time manager, you are one setting the tone of the team, but you are also still part of the team. And if you don’t hold yourself accountable for your work and your actions, then why would your team think they need to follow your rules?

If the expectation you set with your team is that employees do not check-in at work during their vacation, don’t send emails or messages while you are out of office. If you ask your team to be present during meetings, don’t multi-task during the meetings that they host. The best way to set expectations and ground them in your team culture is by living them yourself.

I had one manager who set a very clear expectation that we should not be opening our computers when we were on PTO. He told us that vacations were necessary and assured us that the team would be able to cover for us, no matter what came up. He was able to exemplify that behavior himself by taking a ten-day vacation without his computer. When he returned from his trip, I told him that one of my projects had completely fallen apart, but the team has figured it out. His response was “What type of manager would I be if I didn’t trust you to solve those types of problems on your own?” And he was right. Through his example, we learned that the priority would always be our mental health, and that he trusted us to lead projects and come up with our own solutions.

Once you set the vision for your team, get out of their way

Your team will be far more engaged and content in their roles if they are given the freedom to make their own decisions, solve their own challenges, and manage their own projects. It’s often difficult for new managers to take a step back from day-to-day tasks, but that’s the only way to allow your employees to develop their skillsets. Cromar also states, “As the leader of a team, your focus is to understand the moving parts on a larger scale.” The manager must think bigger than simply how to get the work done. It’s now about managing on a higher level and developing talent across your team.

When we can’t always see what everyone’s doing on a day-to-day in a distributed work environment, it’s sometimes hard to immediately trust and to not overstep. You may be nervous because you can’t physically see what your team is doing and feel that you need to constantly check in and do the work for them. However, once you start to delegate and let your team run with their own projects, you will quickly see their strengths, and where they may need your guidance. Take a step back so you can evaluate what your team can do on their own and help build their skillset from there.

Make time for formal learning

It can be easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day responsibilities of being a manager and forget to take a step back and do the work to educate ourselves. We can easily get lost in the tactical work and lose sight of the power skills we need to build to drive change.

But, with the right training, mentors, coaches, resources, and hands-on experience, you can develop the key competencies that will allow you to be successful, particularly as the workplace landscape continues to evolve.

I’ve been able to build these leadership skills through many different resources, including Skillsoft’s First Time Manager Aspire Journey as well as Skillsoft’s First Time Manager Career Journey. However, if you need to learn how you can get started, be sure to check out A Guide for Coaching First Time Managers and Skillsoft’s Leadership & Business Portfolio for some excellent tips.

At the end of the day, leadership is a competency, not just a role. It’s a skillset that drives true behavioral change, and therefore is impossible to become a leader overnight. Building these managerial skills requires a mix of both formal knowledge and practical application to put you on the right track. And with the right balance of formal and hands-on experiences, you’ll be able to drive business value through the application of leadership competencies.