Seven Lessons for New Leaders
In today’s tech world, many start-up and early stage companies are being led by a management team often comprised of first time “people managers”.
Twenty-five years ago, when I became a manager at IBM, I was required to take a series of management courses that covered topics including managing performance, motivating employees, HR policy and employment law, dealing with conflict, team building, leadership skills and more. While these types of programs are available, very few early stage companies can commit to the time and expense of training their managers before throwing them “into the deep end of pool” to sink or swim. As a result, I am often asked to advise these new leaders on “people issues”.
If you are new to management, here is Pete Smith’s 7-lesson common sense survival guide for a new manager, compiled over the past 38 years as an employee, manager, executive and now business advisor.
1. Be Human
For some reason, many managers fall into a trap of leaving their humanity behind when they become a manager. While there is a need for a manager to have separation from their employees and not be “one of the gang”, some people behave differently which manifests as aloofness, remoteness or distance. As a leader and manager, I came to learn the value of being human and showing vulnerability. Employees don’t expect their manager to be perfect, but they do expect them to be honest and empathetic. Occasionally, employees will be faced with a personal crisis. It may be a personal or family illness, a death in the family, or other unexpected life situations. In these situations, all employees want to know that their boss will have their back.
When I was running a large professional service division, an employee whom I had never met, lost his wife in a car accident and left him with a one-year old baby to care for. His job as a consultant was to travel to work onsite at clients’ offices, often far away from his home. He was a remote employee and the nearest PeopleSoft office was hundreds of miles away. Both his and his wife’s families lived in the same area. Obviously, he could no longer do this job of leaving each week to work at client sites but at the same time, there was no local office to transfer him to and the possibility of relocation was not viable. Fortunately, his skills set was software development. Unfortunately, PeopleSoft’s policy was all software developers must work in a PeopleSoft development office, not remotely. Humanitarian instincts took over. His manager advocated for him. I took it to my boss and proposed that we ask our head of Product & Technology to make an exception to that rule. My boss took up the employee’s cause and the exception was approved. While this may seem simple, in a large organization, these cases are too often overlooked.
It was only after all of this had transpired that I started to get feedback from other employees about our actions. Although we treated the situation as a private employee matter, word leaked out and spread. At social or casual events, other employees started to tell me that they told their spouses about what happened. Their spouses had replied to them that they are never allowed to quit PeopleSoft because what if that situation had happened to them. In their eyes, our actions represented the type of company where they wanted to work
2. Ask what someone wants and listen.
New managers often ask how to balance deploying their staff to do the work that needs to get done to meet their targets while keeping employees engaged and happy doing the fun, interesting work that employees prefer. My advice has always been to engage with employees to understand:
- what they want to get out of their current job…
- what new resume skills do they want to build…
- what new challenges do they want to undertake…
- what exposure do they want (for example, they may want to have a chance to work closely with an executive on a project because they want to gain exposure to how an executive thinks) …
Once you have had this conversation, find opportunities to assign them to tasks that match. This doesn’t mean that their life is a bed of roses, or that they are always doing the things they want to do. Rather, find a balance of challenges that are important for the employee to undertake and mix them with the crappier, more mundane stuff that needs to be done. Also, don’t forget that an assignment which is mundane and unrewarding to one employee can be exciting, new and challenging for someone else.
3. Set aside time to mentor
This is a direct quote from my mentor Howard Gwin, “Leaders only have one job – leading. They own everything and nothing. Hands on is ok – hands all over is not. We hire, train, skills transfer, motivate, represent – not do”
This is often the hardest thing for a new manager to get their head around. Often, the reason that they got promoted was that they were the best at doing. The temptation to push an employee aside and take over is difficult to resist because you know you can do it faster and better, but this will never scale.
My advice is “get lazy”. Stop doing stuff. Start finding ways to off-load work, starting with the stuff you find most mundane. As I said above, just because it is mundane for you (who has done it a thousand times), doesn’t mean that it isn’t challenging and exciting for one of your employees. Doing this will free up time to mentor, coach, advise and transfer skills. Don’t take away “to-do’s” from meetings. Assign them to your team, unless they are a “to-do” that only you as their manager can get done.
4. Manage like you want to be managed
Simply put, I am paraphrasing “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. This golden rule is a great test of how you are behaving towards an employee.
- Are you giving them the guidance that you would want if you were them?
- Are you giving them the career opportunities that you would want if you were them?
- Are you as accessible as a manager as you would want from your manager?
5. Find opportunities to delegate, even if it is risky
In early 2003, I was leading a 175 person consulting business in a quarterly driven, public company, when my head of business development approached me. He aspired to be a CEO one day, but admitted that his financial acumen and experience managing a P&L were weak. As a career sales person, he was focused on revenue generation, not around managing a bottom line. By this point in my career, I had been managing this consulting division’s P&L for three years. My excitement for doing another monthly forecast call and P&L report ranked right up there with getting a root canal without an anesthetic. So, I handed responsibility for P&L forecasting and reporting over to him. To ensure he would be successful, I had a strong finance controller to support him. As a safety net. I attended every forecast call (but intentionally stayed in the background). I also positioned the assignment with my boss as a “development opportunity” so if my head of Business Development stubbed his toe, he would be cut some slack.
As a side note, today, this former employee is the president of a very large enterprise software company.
6. Roll up your sleeves
As much as I have said be lazy, delegate work, own everything and nothing, there still comes a time when you need to roll up your sleeves and lead by doing. No task should be beneath you. Dave Duffield, founder of PeopleSoft and Workday was known to be found cleaning a sink in the bathroom if he walked in and found it messy.
Employees want to know that their bosses walk the talk. They will rally around someone who rolls up their sleeves and pitches in. There is a fine line between leading by example and not allowing yourself to get sucked into the quagmire of decreasing the burden on your team by adding one more set of hands to spreads the workload.
Leading is a full-time job but in every full-time job, there needs to also be a time when you are available to pitch in to get it done.
7. Prepare to be vulnerable, even if it is uncomfortable.
The Center for Creative Leadership and the Niagara Institute offer a program called Leadership Development Program (LDP). It is a week-long program that emotionally and psychologically takes you apart and puts you back together. It is pricey, so before committing to the investment for my team, I attended on my own. All my employees knew I was doing this and were curious about what I learned.
After the course, I crafted a three-page email to all my 175 employees disclosing the good, the bad and the ugly of working for Pete Smith. It is very unlikely that I told them anything that they didn’t already know, but now it was out in the open and we could talk about it, even joke about it.
I am a pretty passionate competitor. I have been described as “fired up” (generally a good thing because lots of good stuff is getting done) and “on fire” (generally a time that you don’t want to be around me because I am pissed). I also can be running a thousand miles an hour. Unfortunately, I may be running straight towards a cliff, but if you are not forceful in telling me, I won’t necessarily hear you.
As a result, I recognized that I needed to give my employees permission to metaphorically get out in front of me, hit me over the head with a 2×4 to stun me and slow me down enough to listen. In other words, I gave them permission to challenge me without fear of repercussion.
After Oracle’s acquisition of PeopleSoft, my leadership team gave me a gold painted 2×4 that they had each signed as a memento of our time together. Twelve years later it is still one of my most valued possessions hanging on the wall of my office.
Being in management roles and being allowed to be a leader has been the most rewarding aspect of my career. I remember that scariness of being a first-time manager and hope some of my learnings help you on your journey.