Help! I’ve just been made a manager

Your boss calls you into her office.

“Congratulations - I’m promoting you to team lead!”

Your mouth goes dry.

“You’ve been doing such great job on the last few projects, the leadership team thought you could help other people in your team perform just as good as you.”

Your stomach turns to stone.

“Your new role starts now. We’ll see how it works out, and come back in a few weeks to review.”

This experience may feel too familiar – and perhaps painful – to you. You get thrown into the deep end with a life jacket/anchor labeled “team lead”/”supervisor”/”acting manager”.

As we’ve read before, moving into a management position is not a promotion, it’s a career change. But fate (or your boss) may not agree.

How do you survive your first few weeks in your management role?

Get a job description

Getting a job description written down helps clarify your boss’s expectations about what functions your role is meant to perform, and what is expected of you. They’re ground rules that help you understand the parameters of your work.

Make sure you have a conversation with your boss about each part of the job description, to clarify your boss’s interpretation. Note down anything that was different or required clarification, then send a updated version to your boss, for both your records.

If you can’t get a job description, write your own.

You’re probably thinking right now “Oh no, it’s a trap!” or “Isn’t this what my boss should be doing?”, and you’re right, it is your boss’s responsibility. There’s a very real chance your boss doesn’t have time - that’s part of the reason why you’re getting your “promotion”. That’s not a justification, it’s just a fact. Your boss may not have been in this position before either, and is just making it up as they go along. A lot of companies don’t have good processes for how this sort of role change is meant to work, and thus don’t have any pre-canned job descriptions they can hand to new managers. Don’t even ask about training.

Writing your own job description is fantastic opportunity to define what exactly you’re going to be doing, in your own words, while demonstrating your communication and goal setting abilities.

Get 1-2 peers to review what you’ve written, and consider getting your new team to review the job description. This can help build rapport with them, and getting their buy in to what the new team is going to look like. But beware: if you’ve been given this new role over someone else that now reports to you, there may be tension – modify your technique to your audience.

Once the job description is written, send it to your boss with a “I know you’re busy, so if you don’t see any problems with it, no need to reply”.

Managing your workload

“I’m already overloaded” you’re thinking, “How am I supposed to look after all these people while doing my existing work?” – this is the biggest fear, and biggest challenge, when moving into a management role.

You have three options:

  • Keep trying to do your own work while managing others. This almost certainly will end in you doing a mediocre job of both. You’ll spend 30% of your time on engineering, 10% on people management, and the remaining 50% on context switching and self loathing.
  • Aggressively cut the scope of your personal technical workload, and manage the stakeholder expectations for those cuts. This frees you up to spend some of your time on people work.
  • Make your old engineering workload your team’s workload. Still cut the scope of the work, and manage your stakeholder expectations. Help the team become better at doing some of the work you were doing previously. Don’t forget to manage the stakeholder relationships for their work too.

Remember why this role change is happening: as a leader, you provide more value to the team as a multiplier than as an individual contributor. If you free up each person in your team to focus more clearly on their work, and complete that work more efficiently – that’s greater than any engineering contribution you can make as an individual.

The performance of the team will drop when the team is in this transition phase. The team is reconfiguring itself, working out what’s important, what’s not, how work gets done, who has what responsibilities.

If you can successfully manage the transition, the team will be more productive than it is as a collection of individual contributors. That is your goal.

Create feedback loops

Part of being a good at people work is creating strong feedback loops from the people in the team to you. Have a reliable, predictable avenue for them to report problems and suggest changes, then act on their information, building trust.

Organise regular one-on-ones with your team. Once a week, half an hour, away from the office if you can.

Be honest and upfront with them that you’re new to this, and are trying to work it out.

Be vulnerable about your limits and abilities. Ask them to raise problems with how you’re managing them immediately, and show you’re listening to them by acting on their feedback promptly. Build trust by listening and changing behaviour.

Find out their biggest fears and anxieties about the new work situation. Ask simply:

“Is there anything I can do to help make things better?”

Create a feedback loop from team to the rest of the organisation by publicly praising good work from individuals. Raise the profile of their work to the broader audience in your org by publicly calling out good work or congratulating them on the successful delivery of features, projects, or quick bug fixes.

Make sure you pass all the credit down to the team.

Hard truths

In my first year as a manager I spent most of the time trying to make sense of the new context I found myself operating in. Expectations were re-calibrated (sometimes brutally), people were disappointed (some even left), deadlines were missed (occasionally by wide margins).

These were realisations I came to that helped me cope in my first year:

  • Demand will always exceed capacity. Doesn’t matter how good you are at managing workload – team or personal – there will always be more to do. There will always be someone disappointed you’re not doing the exact work they want, when they want it. Fuck the haters.
  • Competence is rewarded with more work. If your boss or your boss’s boss sees you doing a good job, they will want to see how much further you can go. Put more cynically: no good deed goes unpunished.
  • There will always be a tension between doing technical work and doing people work. When you’re not in a pure-management role (i.e. team lead, supervisor) you still have engineering work to do, and finding the balance will be messy – especially as you’re new to this whole people management thing. You think you’ve got a handle on it, and something will knock you for six. Keep going, reflect, try out different things, and you’ll get there.
  • Technical output is no longer the sole measurement of your job success. Your own technical output is a false measurement for your responsibilities to the team. You will always be disappointed if you measure your current self against your past self, that past self that only had technical delivery responsibilities. Your disappointment will lead you to prioritising technical work over people work, consequentially screwing over the people who are looking to you for help and guidance. Prioritise people work.

Finally: everyone else is just making it up. Nobody comes into a management role with all the answers. The leaders you look up to have made heaps of mistakes that shaped their leadership and management style.

Get to it.