Like the first day of caring for a small animal or human, being responsible for a team for the first time can be dreadfully exciting. That is, equally exciting and dreadful. You’re embarking on an adventure that everyone says is going to be amazing, yet you have no idea what the next week (or day) will bring. Until familiarity finds you, here are a few unexpected lessons I learned when I first took on a leadership role that I hope will help you grow into your new role as a manager.
Remember: we’re all still learning. You’ll be alright.
Surprise! It’s not all on you
My darkest days at work typically involve feeling overwhelmed. With the increased responsibility, it’s easy to obsess over the commitments that seem to fall solely to you. But don’t feel like you have to make every decision – that’s a mental trap many new managers walk into, and one I urge you to avoid.
Instead, develop strong communication within your team so you can make decisions together. For example, it’s important to ask your team what goals they would like to achieve for themselves, rather than handing down quarterly goals from on high. You’ll be surprised how much you can delegate or request help for, especially when the endeavor is your team’s idea in the first place. Remember that it’s not all on you and not every problem is yours to solve.
Spend time doing nothing, together
Sounds counterintuitive, I know. But I swear by this and my team does it very, very well. In my defense, I discovered this tactic by accident.
What started as a one-off game of baseball with my team has evolved into a ritual we enjoy whenever a new member joins our ranks. Because nothing says “Welcome!” like asking someone to step up to the plate so a near-complete stranger can hurl fastballs at them while more near-complete strangers cheer them on, right? If nothing else, it’s a great way to create some memories together. Similarly, a page called “Poetry Slam” exists on our wiki, commemorating a weekly ritual of good fun and bad poetry from a few years ago.
Remaining true to Atlassian’s “Play, as a team” value (that comma is intentional – see what a difference it makes?), we make sure the team spends time together on Friday afternoons delivering on “key objectives” – like who wrote the best line in telephone Pictionary or choosing the best photo from important life events.
Whatever you decide to do, share some time doing nothing each week. It’ll help create a sense of belonging on your team, which will help the team thrive under pressure. Strong teams are friends after all.
Common wisdom suggests that managers should be role models. But not all behaviors are worth modeling. Thankfully, my team understands this and, so far, hasn’t interpreted my habitual lateness as inspiration or permission to do the same.
So fine. Be a role model and set the tone for your team. More specifically, model vulnerability. Showing vulnerability helps build a stronger team. “If you’d like trust to develop in your office, group or team — and who wouldn’t? — the key is sharing your weaknesses”, says business writer Daniel Coyle. If you fess up to mistakes and own your shortcomings, it gives your team members permission to do the same. That way, when they find themselves overloaded, they’ll reach out for help instead of delivering work whose quality is sub-par because they pulled an all-nighter.
Be prepared to learn and change
Turns out, a study conducted by the Department of Psychology at Cornell University found that we “tend to hold overly favorable views of [our] abilities”. There were times I should have turned off my personal cruise control and dug into the details and nuances of a project. But I was unaware of the signals, being overconfident in my decisions.
Eventually, I learned that I need to keep learning. Now I ask for feedback from my team early and often. (Remember when I said your team will be there to help you? That goes for helping you develop your leadership skills, too.) Outside perspectives from trusted team members and stakeholders will reveal the opportunities for improvement you can’t see on our own.
All managers were new managers once
As you continue onwards you’ll pick up plenty of advice and insights along the way. A few favorites from my experience include:
- Open up your calendar so everyone can see not just when you’re booked, but what you’re doing (unless the appointment really truly needs to be kept confidential). The visibility makes it easier to untangle scheduling conflicts.
- When deciding whether to hire a candidate, if you’re not feeling “yes!”, then it’s a no. Turns out, “good enough” isn’t actually good enough.
- Help team members find a mentor they can reach out to for help. Ideally, someone outside the team so they can get that all-important fresh perspective.
We’re all still learning. One day, you may even find yourself writing about the lessons you learned as a first-time manager. Regardless of how you start your journey into leadership, know that management isn’t a one-way street should you decide the individual contributor path suits you better. You’re not committing to being a manager for the rest of your career. So relax and enjoy the ride for as long as it’s enjoyable.