Whenever someone is promoted to a management position, their colleagues start thinking about their own career path and wondering if that should be their next move, too. I always encourage people to explore this interest in a thoughtful, intentional way. Managing teams can be a great career – but you have to walk down this path with eyes wide open.
In my time at Atlassian, four women and one man from my teams have gone on to experience their first management position. Recently, I’ve been reflecting on some of the things that have been important in my own career. I landed my first management job at 26, and there was so much I hadn’t even considered. In some cases, my instincts got me through just fine. In other cases… well, I just didn’t know what I didn’t know. (Y’know?)
1: Managing your career path is your responsibility
Your company leadership can help you, but they can’t do it for you. When it comes to management, take some time to think and decide if this is something you really want and not just a simplistic view of career growth.
Will you enjoy the operational focus, the coordination, the tradeoff management, and the investment in training your people? Or do you prefer the thrill of creative or project-based work that you drive directly, that you shape and create with your own hands? Do you understand the parts of management that aren’t visible?
2: Ask for what you want
Asking to be promoted to management doesn’t guarantee it’ll happen. The business, the person, and the opportunity all need to be ready. But asking is the critical first step.
I almost missed my first chance at leading a team because I assumed it was obvious that I was the right person to step up. I assumed it was obvious that I wanted that opportunity. I was waiting for the recognition of being asked. I thought that’s how it worked.
When I learned that my boss was close to hiring an outsider for the role, I asked why I wasn’t tapped. I had more product, market, and company experience than anyone from the outside. The only question mark I saw was whether I could manage a team of people 10-20 years my senior. The reason I wasn’t on the interview short-list according to my manager was, “I didn’t know you wanted to manage a team.” When I explained that I did, he said the job was mine.
He then took the opportunity to teach me a lesson about clarity of intention, communication, and the importance of being proactive about managing my own career.
3: Maximize your time as an individual contributor
Don’t rush into management. Use your time as an individual contributor as your training ground. This is your chance to build your functional skills, your technical skills, your brand, and your own ability to execute. It’s also the best time to learn different functions so you can apply that experience later as a leader.
Use this time to build a network of people who trust your skills, your decision making, and your work so that when the business has an opportunity for the next leader, everyone naturally looks to you.
4: Don’t wait for the title
If you are waiting for a management title before becoming a leader, management probably isn’t destined to be on your career path.
We all have opportunities every day to help the organization become better. Have you built an incredible launch plan template? Share it. Is someone complaining to you because they’re frustrated? Don’t nod your head and pile on; figure out if you can help them overcome it.
“Leadership is personal, not positional.” – every true leader who ever lived
If we all knew what we all know, we’d be pretty smart. Subtle contributions here and there – helping a teammate, improving a process, giving thoughtful feedback – add up to leadership capital.
5: There’s more than one way to build management skills
You don’t need to wait for a management role to open up. Start by leading projects. Start by training or mentoring a junior team member. Start by organizing a food drive in your office. Start by volunteering outside of work. All of these experiences will help you when the time comes to articulate why you have what it takes to lead a team.
For me, the epiphany came when I volunteered to lead a team of 60 lawyers spread across 14 countries in the development of a 250-page paper on international data protection and privacy, to be published by an international law think-tank. I was totally unqualified to author the paper, but managing the work was something I could do. By the end, I was the face of a massive project that delivered a fresh perspective on a difficult and complex issue. The experience was vital to forging my own career path.
6: Practice sniffing out strengths and weaknesses
Develop your ability to understand where people do their best work and where they don’t. A former colleague of mine named Neils used to do the most incredible, insightful peer reviews. Even though they were anonymous, everyone could recognize his and everyone wanted his feedback.
It’s easy to sugar-coat critical feedback or avoid difficult conversations in our day-to-day. It’s equally easy to forget to praise colleagues for great work. If you want to build your management skills, start honing your ability to have these conversations.
If they make you uncomfortable, recognize that. Work on it. Over time, people will start to respect your feedback. And, if you are really good at it, dozens of people will start asking you for feedback as they did Neils. At that point, you’ve arrived. People see you as a leader.
7: What got you here won’t get you there
If you become a manager, remember that your job just changed. Your priorities just changed. What the company needs from you just changed. This is often hard for a strong individual contributor to adjust to because what they were great at is no longer what is expected from them. Now you are in a new role, with new expectations, new peers, new challenges.
I’ve had managers teach me this in a few different ways. The day after I was promoted out of my role on the marketing team, my new manager overheard me on a call helping a sales team prep for a competitive deal. After the call, my manager told me that the best way to get demoted quickly was to keep doing my old job. “If people get upset at you for not doing your old job, send them to me. I’ll make sure they know where to go for support.”
This was really helpful, as it freed me to throw myself into my new management role, and it was abundantly clear that his expectations for me shifted.
8: Choose a growing company
Find an organization with good values and good products that is operating in a growing market. There is much more opportunity in companies that are growing than in those who are static or declining. Since I joined Atlassian, we’ve tripled in size, and that creates lots of opportunities for team members to consider whether they want to deepen their skills or branch out into a management role.
Managing your first team in a company that is dealing with layoffs or declining markets can be a valuable experience, but it doesn’t look as good on your resume as “driving double-digit growth.”
9: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
This is one of those things that nobody tells you in management training courses.
First, as a manager, you’re no longer the person writing the SQL queries, or building the graphics, or editing the HTML or developing the messaging. This can be scary because the field you excelled in continues to evolve without you, and eventually, you find you’re not great at that thing anymore. But it’s okay. That’s not your job now.
Also, a career in management entails having some touchy conversations. You’ll have to discuss budgets, compensation, promotions, non-promotions, performance issues, etc. These aren’t easy conversations. Get comfortable being uncomfortable and directly addressing hard topics in professional ways. It will serve you well in your personal life and all along your career path, whether you are a manager or not.
10: Release your inner control freak
“The bigger your title, the less direct your control.” – Carine Clark, former Symantec CMO
As a young marketer, I viewed Carine as the person with all the power in our enormous marketing organization. When something wasn’t right, I expected her to be able to do something about it – stat.
The reality, however, is quite different. No C-level executive makes a significant decision without getting buy-in from sales, finance, and the CEO. Not to mention getting buy-in from the front-line employees who will carry it out. In many ways, the front-line employees are the most empowered to be the change they seek.
For new managers, this can be terrifying. You want to make absolutely sure the right thing is done the right way. But you can take the edge off your discomfort with indirect control by hiring the right people, setting the right vision, establishing the right measures, and driving change through influence. Find solace in having the right people with the right critical thinking skills, and the right North Star to guide them.
Management isn’t the only way to grow your career
Don’t assume that becoming a manager is the only next step. Nearly every field out there is getting both broader and deeper. There are loads of opportunities to grow your career as a highly skilled (and often times, highly paid) specialist.
Work to develop an understanding of the management responsibilities that go beyond leading meetings, wrangling budgets, and making decisions. Take your time. Be intentional. And if you get that promotion only to discover it was the wrong path for you, you owe it to yourself to make a course correction. Because a career is a terrible thing to waste.
Now, quit slacking off and get back to work.
Looking for a way to practice your leadership skills right away? Help your team become even more effective by leading them through a Team Health Monitor workshop. Flip through the presentation below, then follow the green button for everything you need to get started: full instructions, downloadable materials, and a short intro video.