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Three common mistakes most new managers make

Yishan Wong
By Yishan Wong

This question originally appeared on QuoraWhat are common mistakes that new or inexperienced managers make? Answer by Yishan Wong, a former director of engineering.

At least within the technical realm (i.e. engineering management), these are the three most common mistakes that I’ve observed new or inexperienced managers make:

1. Doing hands-on work themselves

This is possible if the team is very small (e.g. 4 people), but once the team gets larger, the manager should not be doing it.  The mistake in thinking is two-fold: (1) the new manager is more comfortable with their own hands-on role so when they are confronted with problems that can be solved by either doing the job themselves or delegating the job and teaching/encouraging/assigning someone else to do it, they choose to do it themselves and (2) the perception that their team will not respect them unless they “lead from the front” by doing things hands-on.

The first is a straightforward matter of learning a new job and giving up on older, more comfortable patterns.  The second involves realizing that the team already respects them for having been a technical expert (at least if the company’s promotion policies aren’t choosing to promote technically mediocre people) and while they may respect them for fighting in the trenches alongside them, they will eventually begin to lose respect for their new manager when the manager spends all of their time doing hands-on work while neglecting managerial duties that only they can do (e.g. maintaining and guiding outcome standards, disciplining poor performers, etc).  If there is enough managerial work to be done, the manager should be doing it, and not performing any hands-on work.  Short-term team productivity will be lower as other members learn to fill in for the technical role that the manager used to perform, but continuing to perform those functions personally is a mistake that will be detrimental to all but the smallest teams.

2. Not exerting control over outcomes or standards

Most new managers who are first promoted come from a team where they were first among respected peers, and will be unfamiliar with a role where they can and should be responsible for dictating the desired outcome of team activity (i.e. goal-setting and quality control).  They may think, “Who am I to tell everyone that their work is or isn’t good enough?”

The answer here is that the organization (again, assuming the organization’s promotion decisions were competent) has specifically recognized that manager’s prior technical contributions as being superior and their personal standard of quality to be one worthy of emulation and promulgation.  This means that the new manager should be and is explicitly responsible for setting the bar, communicating those expectations, and holding the members of their team to that level of quality, effectiveness, and/or efficiency.  The manager’s prior accomplishments have demonstrated that their level of performance is what is desired by the organization and it is possible to achieve, which is one of the reasons they were put into a supervisory position.

Notably, this is not an exhortation to micromanage the work on members of the team.  The manager need not dictate the details of exactly how their team should perform their jobs (except perhaps when training in an inexperienced new hire), but they should make it clear when and how team members are (or are not) measuring up against a properly high standard.

3. Attending all the meetings they are suddenly invited to

Once a manager is promoted into a position, they immediately become a symbol for their team to peer organizations and other teams, and the primary point of contact.  Especially in larger companies, this means that they will be invited to numerous meetings on any topic peripherally affecting their team’s domain for both large and trivial reasons.  New managers often make the mistake of allowing their calendar to fill up with these meeting requests and dutifully attend all of them.

In fact, their attendance is rarely necessary and this should be avoided.  A manager should engage in a goal-setting exercise to determine what the goals of their team are, and only attend meetings that directly contribute to achieving these goals.  While maintaining positive relationships with peer groups is “helpful” to the team, the best (true) way to develop positive relationships is to run a team that performs exceptionally well at achieving its goals within the larger corporate ecosystem, not going to meetings so that (often) other groups can merely cover their ass.

For further stuff on what new managers should focus on, see Yishan Wong’s answer to In a growing tech company, what are the most valuable things on which an engineering manager should spend time?.  The question originally posed focuses on engineering management, but my answer is oriented somewhat more generally.

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