Five skills a first-time manager should learn right away

Leading people is confusing. Here are some tips that can help.
Leading people is confusing. Here are some tips that can help.
Image: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
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Managing people is hard. Among other things, it typically involves filling out tedious amounts of paperwork and dealing with office politics on a whole other level. But it’s especially difficult for first-time managers, who don’t have the benefit of years of experience to help them navigate inflexible institutions or complicated work relationships.

For those people, mastering five crucial skills early on can help.

1. How to run a meeting

Meetings are an unavoidable aspect of the modern workplace, particularly so for executives, who by some estimates spend nearly 23 hours a week in meetings. According to one survey, 11 million meetings are held every day in the US alone. And about a third of those are unproductive, reportedly costing companies $37 billion a year.

So, as a manager, respect your team’s time and your own time, and don’t fall into the trap of organizing too many ineffective meetings. Here are some tricks that can help:

  • Make sure the meeting has a purpose. Before scheduling, first ask yourself the question, “If you stopped meeting, who besides you would care?”
  • Establish meeting rules and set an example by following them. Those can include sending a pre-meeting checklist or agenda ahead of time, assigning tasks to each participant to encourage a sense of shared ownership of the meeting, keeping time to prevent meetings from running over, and establishing device-free settings to prevent distractions.
  • Be intentional about when you set meetings. Don’t just pick whatever time fits into everyone’s schedule. According to author Daniel Pink, people’s internal clocks will determine how creative or productive they can be at a given time.
  • Be open to feedback about the meetings you set. There is a wild gap between workers’ and their managers’ perceptions of the usefulness of meetings. To avoid it, ask for regular feedback from your team about what is, or isn’t, working.

2. How to give feedback

If you hate giving feedback, you’re not alone. Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy, surveyed nearly 8,000 managers and found that 44% of them thought giving negative feedback was stressful and difficult.

Some rules of thumb that can help feedback go down more easily: Don’t wait more than 24 hours to bring up concerns with your employees; keep in mind that mid-mornings are usually the best time to give people tough feedback, and be aware of anything your employees might be going through in their personal lives that would make them less receptive than usual to criticism. No matter when you deliver the critique, though, it’s helpful to start the conversation by asking permission to proceed, i.e. “Is it ok if I give you some feedback on yesterday’s client meeting?”  It’s useful, too, to understand the common reactions of people who are receiving feedback so that you can identify when your words are resonating and when you’re not actually being heard.

As a first-time manager, it’s also important to remember that feedback doesn’t always have to be negative; and yet the Zenger/Folkman survey also found that nearly 40% of leaders never gave their employees positive reinforcement. Leaders’ willingness to do this, in turn, had an effect on whether their employees perceived them to be effective and honest communicators. So, remember to praise your employees for a job well done and do it in constructive, specific, and clear ways that can guide employees on the right path.

3. How to foster a positive team culture

As a manager, you are your employee’s first, and main, representative of the organization they work for. That’s why fostering a positive team culture is so important.

You can do this by communicating as clearly and as openly as possible; by making sure your employees are recognized for their hard work; giving your team clear performance guidelines and keeping them interested in their work; sharing your knowledge and the company’s knowledge with your employees; serving as a mentor or teacher and creating the structures that allow your employees to support each other.

4. How to recruit people

Qualified candidates are in hot demand in today’s job market. That’s why it’s more important than ever that managers know not just how to attract the right candidates, but how to sell the job to the person they want. According to Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half, that starts with writing a great job description: “In addition to outlining required skills, job descriptions also should provide a glimpse into your company’s culture, its mission and purpose, and the role itself.”

Whether you’ll be crafting job descriptions as a first-time manager probably depends on the size of your company. But presuming you’ll be interacting eventually with candidates for openings on your team, you’ll no doubt be called upon at some point to help with the pitch. Some of McDonald’s other tips for dealing with job candidates include:

  • Be upfront about who the job reports to, so candidates can do their due diligence. As McDonald writes, “They’re looking for signs of a great leader, as well as red flags that indicate their new manager may be difficult to work for.”
  • Be transparent about the salary range: Don’t waste candidates’ time.
  • Give a sense of the company/team culture.
  • Show how that particular job might fit into a larger career path within the company.
  • Be clear about the hiring timeline so as not to keep candidates waiting.

5. How to manage your time

Managers typically begin their days with a mile-long to-do list that only grows as the day goes on. The key to getting through that list and making the most out of your day lies in being purposeful about how to manage your time.

The first step is to organize your tasks in order of importance so you can prioritize. To help, try this 2×2 matrix named after US president Dwight Eisenhower that classifies your tasks on scales of importance and urgency. Doing this will hopefully help you avoid “urgency bias,” the impulse to spend time on tasks that seem urgent but are truthfully not very important (or, even worse, are neither urgent nor important) when in fact your time would be better spent on crucial, longer-term tasks.

You might also consider blocking out time for what’s known as “deep work,” or long, distraction-free periods of work aimed at maximizing the intensity with which you take on the task.

Finally, focus on yourself. As Khe Hy writes in Quartz at Work, “There’s a new time management tool in town: it’s your energy. And unlike time, which is finite, energy can be replenished. Yet most productivity advice centers around extracting efficiency instead of replenishing this resource.” In other words, you are your own best efficiency hack. To get the most out of you, be sure you keep your productivity steered in the right direction, and check out our guides on how to structure your day better, how to manage your email, how to read more effectively, and how to quit procrastinating.