The one big mistake all first-time Managers make And how to prevent it.

The excitement and elation of being promoted to manage a team can wear off quickly and very soon sour into broken friendships, poor team dynamics, a failed star-employee, or even worse, create a bad manager for life.

Most first-time managers start off as star performers, usually in individual contributor roles, who end up getting promoted as a reward for their good performance. They are usually that one person who went the extra mile, who helped the team, had the brightest ideas, consistently performed well, hit their targets… So how does this situation devolve into such a raging dumpster fire?

The one big mistake that most first-time managers make is to fall into the trap of “being friends” with the team. Or, they go in the exact opposite direction and alienate themselves from the team since they are now the “manager”. Interestingly, both these behaviors are two sides of the same coin.

To be or not to be… Friends

In an attempt to not be the kind of manager that they laughed about over lunch or at the water-cooler; or cried about over a comforting coffee; the new manager tries to maintain the same patterns of friendship with the team. Shenanigans and parties; holidays with your bestie at work; and even a few barbs about the Board or Management all seem to be par for the course to maintain the friendly dynamic and not be perceived as having abandoned the crew and become a corporate sell-out.

Close relationships and friendships at work help the team be open, discuss and overcome issues. The bond of the team can be powerful in helping overcome obstacles and push performance to greater heights. The emotional intimacy helps the manager hit the right keys to motivate and push to greater heights.

The pitfalls begin when there is a delicate issue to be addressed – typically related to dipping performances or worse, if it has to do souring dynamics in the team. This is a tough situation for both manager and team. The basic premise which helps to resolve such issues is the perception of fairness as a starting point; and at a more hidden level, the belief that the manager has a good solution.

Now we begin treading thin ice since this is the same set of people who have heard you bad-mouth corporate policies, and now you need to convince them about the merits of the very same policies. They watched you unravel and rant through your last break-up, unable to keep yourself together and now need to trust that you can find a solution to the crisis with a client.  They need to now believe that you will forget that upcoming weekend getaway with your BFF at work and address his performance issue that is making the team fall behind on its deliverables. This is where it all unravels. The road parts – one leads to the makings of a great leader, the other well-traversed path leads to the notorious land of horrible bosses.

Let the moral compass point due North

So how does one navigate through this unchartered territory?

  • Address the elephant in the room – Lets admit it. Relationships have changed. You have a responsibility to the organization and the team. Happy-hours and holidays with your work-BFF can mean that you lose the trust of your top performer. Address the shift with your friend.
  • Stay rooted – Keep your ears to the ground and check-in to help with tasks. Just because you are boss, doesn’t mean that you have forgotten how to work an Excel sheet or create a deck. When the team needs you, show up. Remember no task is too small.
  • Get to know your team – So you already know everything about your team, right? After all, these are people you have spent so much time with. They are your buddies. Wrong. You need to now re-focus. Schedule one-on-ones. Gather feedback from peers, customers, other departments. Dig deep into performance, motivation, learning and development needs. If you need to lead them, you need to know them.
  • Kiss stardom goodbye – You were the star performer. Employee Number 1. The brightest bulb. Good. Now move over. It is now time for you to help your team become stars. Don’t try to out-shine them. Teach them every trick up your sleeve. Help them grow. Help them become the best, even better than you. Your job is to create a team of stars, not just be one.
  • Stay smart – Constantly upskill yourself. Every team looks to its manager for direction when the going gets tough. You need to have the answers on hand or at least need to be equipped to help them find the answers. Learn, read or get trained. Stay one step ahead.
  • Get help. Get a coach – Being a first-time manager can be extremely lonely. Most people shy away from asking for help as they feel that it could lead to questions on their ability to lead a team. If you have questions, you want to find a better way to do things, you need help in solving a problem – ask for help. Look for a mentor or seek professional development guidance. This shows your intent to get better and this is a hallmark of a great leader.

If you would like to explore mentoring and coaching programmes for first-time managers, click here.