Work Smarter//

Managers Share the Lessons They Learned When They First Began to Manage a Team

Setting clear boundaries and expectations is no easy task, but the sooner you do it, the more successful you will be.

oatawa / Shutterstock
oatawa / Shutterstock

First-time managers often find themselves in a challenging predicament: Suddenly, they’re no longer only being judged for their own work, but also for their team’s successes and failures. What’s more, most first-time people managers are typically thrust into these positions without any training in important managerial skills like delivering feedback to a direct report, maintaining an inspiring work environment, or getting comfortable delegating. 

We asked members of the Thrive community to share their biggest challenges as first-time managers, and what they learned from their experiences. They’ve come a long way from when they first started out, and their advice will help you make progress in your own leadership role. 

Kick your tendency to micromanage to the curb

“Learning about people was my greatest challenge as a first-time manager. I became a micromanager. No one gave me formal training on how to manage. What I didn’t know, I had to observe and learn through trial and — mostly — error. I wish I’d been given a coach and leadership training.”

—Caroline Stokes, author, Vancouver, B.C., Canada

Have one-on-one feedback meetings

“The biggest challenge I faced as a first-time manager was learning to maintain professional friendships with my team members while gaining their respect to ultimately manage the needs of the business. I made the brave decision to set up one-on-one conversations with each team member to discuss the business’ expectations, but also get feedback on their expectations of me as their new leader. The feedback was eye-opening and motivating. We were able to build a bridge that thrust us into a new level of productivity.”

—Joyel Crawford, leadership consultant, Westmont, NJ

Don’t do your team members’ work for them 

“I had to recognize that I was the leader. One evening, I was in the office late. My boss’s boss saw me and asked why was still there. I told him that one of my team members wanted to start her vacation early, so I volunteered to finish her work for her. I waited for him to compliment me on my hard work, but instead, he looked at me and shook his head. Eventually, I realized why he was not impressed by my behavior. I was supposed to lead my team, give direction, and remove obstacles — not do my team members’ work for them.”

—Margaret Meloni, author, Long Beach, CA

Prepare for the worst case scenario 

“On day one of my new manager position, my manager informed me that I needed to terminate a member of the team for performance reasons. My manager told me what to say, though I was completely unprepared for the wrath that ensued. The employee I terminated screamed at me, called me every name in the book, and threatened me. I wish I had been equipped with techniques to diffuse the heated situation. Now, over 20 years later, I coach managers who are going into this kind of situation on what to say, what legal areas to cover, and other important parts of messaging. Most importantly, I coach them on how to handle the response they may get, whether it’s rage, crying, or apathy. I want to ensure that no manager, from a first-timer to a seasoned executive, feels as lost as I did.” 

—Cindy J., executive search and human resources consultant, Boston, MA

Focus on the behavior, not the person 

“I found it difficult to address the problematic behavior of an employee. I was not comfortable with having those kinds of conversations, but knew I needed to learn because those problematic behaviors were hurting other employees, too. A wise mentor helped me find the right approach: Focus on the behavior, not the person. That has made all the difference for me.”   

—Holly Morris, registered nurse, Gainesville, FL

Set clear expectations when managing friends 

“My first management experience was leading a team I had been part of for several years, so many of those team members had become my very close friends. Managing friends comes with unique challenges. I learned that having open and honest conversations with my team while setting professional boundaries early was necessary, and allowed for years of success.”

—Carrie McEachran, Executive Director, Sarnia, ON, Canada

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