Wisdom//

15 Essential Tips For First-Time Managers (Or Any Managers, Really)

The Thrive Global community learned these lessons the hard way when they first became people-managers. Read on so you don’t repeat their mistakes.

MirageC/Getty Images
MirageC/Getty Images

Becoming a manager of people for the first time can be stressful. You go from shining on your own merits to being responsible for others’ successes and failures as well. It’s your job to give feedback and maintain an inspiring work environment for your team, all while dealing with different personalities, agendas and opinions. And of course, you must master the art of delegating, something that may not come naturally for everyone.

Most of the time, people are thrust into a management role with no training, and important management lessons are often hard-won. We asked the Thrive Global contributor community for the most memorable anecdotes from their first management roles — what mistakes did they make, and what lessons did they learn from them that they wish they’d known then? Whether you’re a new manager, a seasoned one, or a manager-to-be, this sage advice can make a big difference in your work life.

Think of feedback as a form of respect

“One of the most pivotal pieces of advice I learned as a new leader was to look at feedback as the most respectful thing you can do for your team. I changed my perspective from being nervous, uncomfortable and avoiding tough conversations to thinking of it as an opportunity for honesty, being respectful of my team and ultimately, the most beneficial conversation I could have with them. I approached that feedback with the intention of helping them, showing that I had their best interest in mind so they could trust my intentions and be authentic. Then, above all else, I did what I said I would do every time, and admitted my mistakes when I didn’t deliver what I had committed to.”

—Jennifer Henderson, entrepreneur, people leader, founder, Fort Collins, CO

Do the dirty work alongside your team

“My very first people-manager role was as a shift supervisor at Starbucks. I learned two extremely important things very quickly:

1. If you are willing to do the gross, dirty, smelly work with your team, they'll be more willing to do it with you. You can say something like, ‘Here, I'll help you with the floors/dishes/fridge cleaning.’

2. If you commiserate with them, hear them out, and don't scoff at their frustrations, they're more likely to do the work. You can say something like, ‘I totally agree, this task sucks, but we still have to get it done, so let's get it done super fast, together.’”

—Briana Huether, writer and photographer, Alberta, Canada

Take a step back and learn from your reports

“My first managerial role involved a team of 12 in a part of the company I knew nothing about. The team members were all 20 or 30 years older than I was, and all had years of experience in their role. My management was straight from the MBA handbook: all numbers and results. It was a disaster. Productivity dipped, results worsened and job satisfaction plummeted. After a brutal Christmas review, I finally did what I should have done in the first place. I stepped back and listened to what each person had to teach me about their area and learned from their experience. It was the best lesson I could have learned about active listening and managing by walking around.”

—Nicole Duncan, small business consultant, London, UK

Show some vulnerability

“In my first people-manager role, I learned that showing vulnerability is demonstrating strength. I saw that confidence was a skill that was rewarded in business — and there are good reasons for that — but it shouldn't come at the expense of vulnerability. When I experimented with sharing my weaknesses and vulnerabilities with my team, it was freeing. It also brought our team closer together than ever before: we shared, we trusted, we engaged, and we were a better (and more human) team.”

—Justin Angsuwat, VP of People, San Francisco, CA

Pay attention to your intuition

“As a first-time pharmacy manager, firing another pharmacist was very difficult and traumatic for me. When things were not working out, I thought I was the problem. I had doubted whether I was not being clear enough with my instructions, whether my demeanor was appropriate, or whether I had built a trusting and professional relationship with the individual. But the real problem was that I ignored my intuition. I knew — and felt — that she wasn’t the right fit from the beginning. But we were so desperate to hire a pharmacist we offered her the job even when I had doubts. I have learned that we can receive all the training we need to prepare us as a people-manager but we should never ever ignore our own intuition. It can often can guide us to the best thing to do when managing others.”

—Cynthia Leung, pharmacist, Kingston, ON

Use humor to refocus

“I had a colleague many decades ago who loved to humorously refocus the team after a difficult business situation happened. After everyone had their expected emotional stress reactions, he’d lean back in his chair, look around the room, and then authoritatively declare, ‘Well, anybody can work under ideal conditions.’ Somehow, it was always a great and effective reminder to us all!”

—James T. Meadows, corporate learning and development, Kansas City, MO

Create a sense of shared purpose and pride

“In February of 2001, recession was in the wind, and the 10-person team I just inherited was going to shrink to three or four people at best. I needed to acknowledge the reality of the team’s situation, but also needed to keep their heads in the game because the final push for a major project was right in front of us. I gathered them together and advised first that they all update their resumes, as if to say, ‘we all know what’s coming.’ But I also said that, in the next four months, we had a chance to roll out one of the most significant changes to the way people work in the division, so let’s kill this and leave on top of our game. The project was a huge success, and I learned that shared purpose and pride can be the strongest motivator to bind a group of individuals into a high performing team.”

—Matthew Wells, corporate IT training, Brooklyn, NY

Empower others to discover answers for themselves

“As a new leader, I wasn’t prepared to achieve results through other people, and even less ready to motivate and inspire. Here are some lessons I learned:

1. Your job is to coach. Empower others to discover answers for themselves, rather than telling them what to do, or worse, doing the job for them.

2. Learn your team’s individual work styles, motivations and adapt. It’s not one-size-fits-all.

3. Show vulnerability. Develop a practice of giving regular, authentic feedback. Start by asking for it.

Leading people is an awesome responsibility. It takes practice and courage. Commit to the learning process!“

—Anne Jacoby, leader, VP of learning, development and culture, Los Angeles, CA

Delegate with intention

“I had the good fortune of working for some amazing female managers who were well trained at Fortune 500 companies. They taught me a lot about supervising others. Probably the most simple ‘hack’ I learned was a delegation technique I still use to this day. It may sound trite, but making a list of all the tasks that need to be completed is a great way to start the delegation process and helps you understand exactly how you and your team will divide and conquer assignments. It also is a good way of taking inventory of the more challenging items so you can give team members different opportunities to help them grow and meet their annual performance goals. Who needs to work on their analytical skills? Who needs to manage outside vendors? Who needs to work on being more detail-oriented? In my experience, my staff always appreciated that I was mindful of providing a range of different tasks and learning opportunities.”

—Jennifer Z., marketing, New York, NY

Take your team’s advice to heart

“A few months after being promoted to supervisor of our department, I had to make my first hire. I had a really great interview with the candidate, but when my team interviewed her, they came back with some negative feedback. I was really attached to the candidate, so I hired her anyway. The woman turned out to be a total nightmare. After creating lots of drama on the team, she left within less than a year. My team was absolutely right about her. From then on, I was very cautious about hiring decisions and I always made sure everyone on the team was in agreement before making an offer.”

—Rebecca Kolinski, freelance writer/editor, Westlake, OH

Know that ambition takes different forms

“I cut my teeth in retail customer service while fresh from higher education and retail management training, so I arrived ready to 'shake the system up' and 'get rid of the dead wood!' Two years later, I was on the top performing department, and promoted to open a new store in London. But the most valuable things I learned during those two years had come from the ground up, from the people I had managed along the way. I learned that the value of people may not be apparent from their job title, or the amount of hours they were contracted for, their age, or their striving for promotion. I found out that people may not want to progress — they may simply want to be excellent at their preferred role. Also, they may not want to work overtime, but the time they devoted to the store was invaluable. The depth of knowledge and commitment I got from people who I may have thought of as unambitious really taught me to assess people on what they did, rather than always praise those who were keen and cutthroat.”

—Melanie Yates, creative agency office manager, Brighton, UK

Be as authentic as you can

“I first started managing people as an undergraduate student, teaching fellow undergrads. I was young and somewhat unassertive, so it took effort to gain the attention and respect of my peer students, many of whom were older than me. Here’s what I did: I went into the classroom and stood on the desk to deliver my first few lectures, explaining that I was most likely younger and more inexperienced than everyone in the room, but that I had something to give them and asked for the opportunity to share that knowledge. I must have been 19 or 20 when I taught those classes. The students came to respect my work and humorous delivery as part of my authenticity. I used my vulnerability to my advantage, which made a safe space for the ‘V-Word’ to become part of the creative educational process. Decades later, I’m still using this technique of raw authenticity, quirkiness, humor, and unconditional regard for others as my guideposts. Leaning in to what makes us uncomfortable with honesty shows others how human we are. Leading by positive example unites and strengthens teams. Let yourself be seen and watch the magic unfold. It’s contagious.”

—Lisa Cypers Kamen, optimal lifestyle management consultant, Los Angeles, CA

Ask plenty of open-ended questions

“In my first people-manager role, I wish I had spent more time asking open-ended questions instead of directing. One of a leader’s most important responsibilities is to help others grow, and through my experience as both a manager and an HR professional, I’ve learned that an effective way to achieve this goal is by asking empowering, open-ended questions. I've found that this type of approach expedites learning for both the leader and the team, and also creates a more collaborative work environment.

—Stacey La Torre, advisor, principal HR consultant, San Francisco, CA

If you’re an experienced manager, mentor new ones at your company

“When I first became a manager, I was thrown into the position with no training whatsoever. This resulted in a lot of unnecessary frustration. I was an inexperienced manager and the people I was managing were unhappy. Though challenging, this experience taught me so much. It’s important to spend time developing the people you want to manage your team. Be willing to invest your time, resources or money in management training and provide guidance as they grow into the position. I’ve found that stair-stepping people into a management position allows for a smooth transition and happier employees.”

—Heather Adams, owner, Franklin, TN

Don’t be afraid to have tough conversations

“I learned that one of the big differences between being a leader and a manager is having difficult conversations. My new team consisted of a purchasing supervisor, a senior buyer and two other buyers. I had individual introductory meetings with them, but was very surprised a few weeks into my position when the senior buyer made a major mistake on a large order on a time-sensitive element of a new product we were trying to launch. When I asked him about it and as we were reviewing the steps, it became clear that he didn’t really know what he was doing. He acknowledged that he really didn’t have experience in the field and had previously worked with one of our executives and had needed a job. This was a little tidbit that everyone knew but me, and it explained a lot about the team’s dynamics. After speaking with HR and my boss, I went back to the employee. I firmly told him that although he was not qualified for the position, he could stay but would have to earn the job and the respect of his team members. However, I expected him to perform the job and together we would embark on an intense training plan. I explained what my part would be and that I wanted him to succeed and would help, but the majority of the actual work would fall to him. I recruited the quality manager and operations manager to assist. Although he was initially angry and embarrassed, he agreed and we created a plan. He was diligent for months and did eventually move on. I was shocked later to hear him tell the story at a conference we both attended — he spoke about how much I had helped him. Fast forward 20 years, we’ve remained friends. He messaged me on LinkedIn last month, writing, ‘thanks for believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself.’”

—Teresa Collins, purchasing manager, Clearwater, FL

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