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New to management? Start with accessibility and ability to listen

First-timers often fail because they’re in at the deep end without key people skills

“It’s worth remembering that a gap between your experience and what’s now expected of you is normal. Very few of those promoted to any new position are 100 per cent role-fit.” File photograph: Getty Images

Getting on the first rung of the management ladder might seem like a dream come true. But the transition from being a follower to becoming a leader can be a steep and sometimes painful learning curve. Deficiencies in people skills, in particular, are a major reason why first-time mangers crash and burn.

The operational side of a new job can be picked up as you go along. It’s worth remembering that a gap between your experience and what’s now expected of you is normal. Very few of those promoted to any new position are 100 per cent role-fit.

But while the prospect of joining the management team and having an input into the decision-making process may seem very enticing, it is far more likely that a great deal of your time will be spent managing people - not plotting world domination in the boardroom.

‘Good individual contributors’

“Most individuals are promoted to line management because they are good individual contributors, so the emphasis is often on harder or technical skills. What gets much less attention are the softer skills that are central to managing people,” says David Collings, professor of human resource management at DCU and visiting Fulbright scholar at Cornell University’s Industrial & Labour Relations School.

“Most employees’ experience of working for an organisation is significantly influenced, if not defined, by their experience of their line manager. I don’t believe organisations give this enough thought in selecting and developing individuals for line manager roles.”

Having a vision for the business and where your contribution fits is important, but you won’t get to make it if you don’t build your competence in the basic skills required to manage your team effectively. The list starts with accessibility and the ability to listen.

Being open to alternate points of view and a willingness to accept feedback are also important, as are self-restraint to avoid micromanaging and a willingness to praise and acknowledge people’s efforts.

“Transitioning into a management role involves a significant reshaping of one’s job,” says Collings. “As an individual contributor, your singular focus is on the tasks you’re working on. As a manager, you suddenly become responsible for a range of additional responsibilities, such as planning and assigning work and trying to motivate, coach and manage the performance of others.”

Tread carefully

The best advice for new managers is to tread carefully, especially in the early days. You might be all fired up about your new role, but your team may not share your enthusiasm, especially if your predecessor behaved like Basil Fawlty or cocky and self-delusional David Brent from The Office.

Work is a huge part of people’s lives. For some, it’s what defines them and the reason they get up in the mornings. For others, it’s the thing they hate most in life.

Either way, work is personal - and your team will be heavily emotionally invested in it for better or for worse. As such, how you treat and talk to them is vitally important, as is getting to know what makes individual members of your team tick.

Engagement is good for morale and productivity, so it’s worth taking the time to get a grip on what motivates your people (or doesn’t), and to avoid pressing their buttons unnecessarily.

“The challenge for many new line managers is having the difficult conversations that come with underperformance,” Collings says. “Indeed, many new or inexperienced managers shy away from these discussions and leave these issues unchecked. This is a major risk and can lead to the reinforcement of poor behaviours or acceptance of lower standards.

Communication and coaching

“Key skills for new line managers are around communication and coaching. Ensuring that managers have the confidence and the tool kit to have difficult conversations but also to recognise achievement and positive behaviours is very important.”

Don’t be afraid to set regular time aside to give your team your undivided attention. During these sessions, let them air whatever is on their mind - right down to the lousy coffee. Knowing there is a forum where issues arising will be discussed stops small problems from escalating and provides an informal space where new ideas can emerge.

You’re not going to solve everything in one session, and don’t try. Deal with the simple things and agree another time to talk about the more serious matters.

Being the best manager possible

- Take time to listen.

- Keep asking questions. This ensures you know what’s going on and also encourages people to share ideas and insights.

- Support your team and defend them if required.

- Be up front and respectful. This builds trust.

- Kick habits sure to annoy people such as checking your messages or taking calls while they’re talking to you.

- Avoid blame. If something goes wrong, focus on the why - not the who.

- Be clear about your goals/targets and people’s individual roles in achieving them.

- Praise your team. It builds engagement and self-confidence.