Becoming the Boss

An Edge for You's Annette Reissfelder looks at the first 100 days in charge -- the time when you can finally make all the difference

The first assignment to manage others is special. It's a bit like a transformation ritual. In a way, it takes you from being self-dependent to realizing how inter-dependent you really are. A surprising concept if you expected that now you -- the boss -- would be the one in charge... The boss is both a leader and a hostage, except that a first-line and first-time manager is not a leader of much -- nor is he expected to be (least of all by his former colleagues!). While part of the game is definitely about managing one's expectations -- and moving on when they prove to be unrealistic or simply wrong -- there are treasures to be discovered by those who keep trying and learning!

Those who have held the manager reins for a while may remember their first management efforts with some nostalgia -- lots of time may have passed since, and lots of changes in perspective have occurred. But at every new level many will notice that the same issues present themselves (albeit they mean something new): self-management -- role clarity -- personal strategy -- identity... you name it. I would like to inspire you here to share your insights with those who might need it. This spring look for signs of "lost in transition" and help your people realize they are not alone. Show a little tolerance for their questions and even for their mistakes, as they are coming to grips with the positives and the negatives of their new position! They need to “be” the role, not just “act” it. And ultimately, once they feel they are in the right place, they can be as effective and creative as you need them to be. A classical win-win! I wish you an enjoyable and inspiring read, and look forward to hearing about your experiences!

The Lessons New Managers Have to Get FIRST – and How to Use Your Four Big Changes to the Fullest

Those famous 100 days... A period we are granted to make sense of our new environment. Undoubtedly: these days are filled with surprises, pleasant and unpleasant, that need your ability to think on your feet. Why?

• Because it will never be so easy again for you to set the course;

• And because you will notice aspects of your job that you weren’t really prepared for

If you think these are your specific issues, chances are you feel a little relieved already after reading this. Others have been there -- and got over it. So can you. Most of us have lived through this -- and this is exactly why many bosses are more willing to share their insights on how they got out of this space if you tap their brains!

1) Just take a different perspective – and everything changes!

Try to look at your new position from a positive angle: Things look shockingly different from a different perspective: remember the "walking 40 days in their shoes" metaphor? A bird's eye perspective helps you get -- and focus on -- the big picture. It also helps to realize that some problems look a lot less dramatic from up there, which may be why your boss never tackled them. So much for the positives. On the other hand, you will be quick to notice that you have overestimated your influence and impact in your new position. You know because you found out the hard way -- by treading on someone's toes, and especially, by being kicked from below... An unpleasant experience!

So, with the big picture come sometimes surprising stakeholder priorities, of which your old boss has successfully screened off: This gratitude of course doesn't help you change your fundamental problem: You have no idea how to meet all these wildly different demands. On top, some of them go directly against the best interests of you and your team... What stays the same is that you have to meet the expectations of others. What's new is that, from now on, you also have expectations from BELOW to meet... This is what management literature refers to as the "sandwich position." Which brings us to the next point. But before we go there, I would like to draw your attention to a CHANCE that is hidden amidst all this turmoil.

Your Chance: You still have the fresh perspective, and the energy to change things for the better. Don't rush! Develop your ideas while managing your expectations. And then relax. Nobody expects you to implement all of them at once! (And if they do, make helping them manage their expectations your first priority!)

Practical Tip: Excitement and enthusiasm can be contagious -- but you won't catch everybody. Make sure you understand that you have to win over your team in order to succeed with your new ideas. Therefore, don't get out there before you have mastered the first communication ... think in their priorities, while also making them see -- and respond to -- yours. Your priorities now include making sure your team performance is good -- and team performance is not the sum of individual performances in your team. The sooner you learn this art, the better you will perform... and the quicker you will benefit from these teachings -- not just with your own team. (See Tip 3)

2) New Obligations – and Old Dues

All of a sudden, you are busy with stuff you hadn't even expected to deal with. The sheer amount of it is discouraging. And on top of that, you are now responsible for the work of your colleagues. And you wanted to do so much -- and improve so much -- for you and for them in these first months. But there is never any time. When, at the end of a long day, you are through with those things that urgently required your attention, you feel more like going to sleep than starting to think creatively... Plus there is no one at the office anymore to discuss things with -- or to delegate to... No matter how you dice it there seems to be precious little time for what you do best -- or want most. Your quality time is eaten up not just by routine work, but by problems small and large, things entirely outside your control. So, in order to at least know what is happening, you get far too deeply involved. Doesn't really seem to be an alternative. Time to focus? That's a laugh! Strategic people management? Where, when -- and how?!

Most new managers are shocked at the sheer amount of new duties they seem to have all of a sudden. This frustration is probably only topped by their disappointment with their team. I will address this issue in the next tip.

Ironically, the better managed your company, the better HR processes in place, the more intense this pressure will be right from the beginning! Don't try to avoid it -- it is your friend, a friend that helps you understand that you can't just keep on going like before, just with a few more responsibilities! Face it -- you have a COMPLETELY NEW JOB! Your success criteria have changed dramatically -- so have the expectations of your bosses.

Your Chance: Make sure you understand exactly how and where expectations in you have shifted. How will your boss know you are doing an excellent job, as opposed to just a "regular" one? Patiently find out what they are looking for. This helps you say goodbye to your old job, and helps you also tap their perspective and... Let go. Don't get nostalgic during work hours. This won't serve anyone, least of all you!

Practical Tip: Give your colleagues a chance to do your old job differently -- but well -- instead of imitating your way. This can't work anyway -- only you could do things the way you did, because this was what made most sense to you. Not other people. We are all different and have to find our own ways of doing things. The earlier you let this age-old word of wisdom rule your behaviour, the better...

3) In an Emergency, There's Just One Person You Can Count On – Yourself...

As a new manager, you will probably learn fairly soon that when direct subordinates are told to do something, they don't necessarily respond in the way you expected. In fact, the more talented the subordinate, the less likely s/he is to simply follow orders. When feeling they are having almost zero effect on what their team does, many first-time managers start micromanaging and planning tasks for their direct subordinates in meticulous detail. This is a sure road to hell -- not only are you guaranteed to lose what little respect your colleagues already have for your competence, but they are almost set to prove that you are wrong... Even though you know every detail of that job. And despite the fact that you used to get along quite well. They are not just jealous that you got the promotion and they didn't. They expect you to earn their respect and trust first -- your track record does NOT speak for itself. The solution is you -- focus on the right things. As Stephen Covey says: the main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing...

Of course a few ex-colleagues also flirted with the idea of getting that job... But more important for your present misunderstandings and mishaps is that you still have to develop a management style that works in your team. Managing others is quite unlike managing yourself -- because you KNOW what works for you, but it will take you quite some time before you know what works for all those others. How your colleagues do their job is their business. Making sure they know what you expect of them is yours. No one in your team thinks like you anyway, which makes it so frustrating for everyone concerned to treat them like trivial machines... You need your people to think, not to execute tasks precisely as told. Failing to respect that will get you a team that behaves like a bunch of school kids. Before they start leaving of course. (A variation on this theme is: you have two or three trusted veterans in the team, and start relying only on them. Although very short-sighted, this is often a natural result of stress. But it obviously means that everyone else will start feeling increasingly alienated with what is going on in the "team" -- and suspect that these trusted individuals are influencing more than their fair share of your decisions!

So if you catch yourself oscillating between manager-as-friend and manager-as-disciplinarian, you know what awaits you! One of the most unpleasant side effects of micro-managing a potentially competent team is that you start doing everything that has some importance (meaning everything) yourself. And it won't be long before you start wondering how long you can hold out like that. Feedback from friends and family tends to be crystal clear here: They want to see you relaxed and listening, not just tired and mentally absent. Take this seriously -- it's not just about the others, but about how you feel. And you will radiate how you feel -- especially to your team...

Your Chance: Don't paralyze yourself with self-reproach, just learn to manage! Managing is largely a craft, at least at the level we are discussing. Understand that managing "your team" means managing the individuals on your team. And -- above all -- it means managing the norms and values of your lot. I don't mean glossy corporate brochure stuff, but providing real orientation in their everyday doings. No more, no less. This can seem quite a handful. Another way of looking at it: clarity is always a shortcut!

Practical Tip: Get advice from your boss and/or trusted peers who can serve as role models for you here. If you are in a real stretch situation and have no time for trial-and-error, consider getting a coach: You design your success strategy, learn from reflection and constantly revise the track according to the results in practice. By always focusing on your goals, you can rely on the combined experience of you and your coach! It is just a matter of months before you are on top of your team -- rather than feeling hostage to them. And not just you, but your team also benefits from that! A truism, one should think. But not quite -- many companies' practices still mainly rely on knowledge-based training instead of offering individual support. (For more on this topic, see my 2006 newsletters.)

BTW: Your company may be more willing to pick up the bill than you think -- after all, they just decided to promote you! In a way, it all really depends on if your performance makes a big enough difference to your boss. Which takes us to the next point...

4) Your 'Main Problem' Hasn't Shifted/Changed Much...

Time and again I hear managers say that their teams, clients, market developments, changing legal requirements, etc. present many challenges, but that they have learnt to cope with them. Their real problem is often the boss -- or the boss's boss. Them up there: top management, the supervisory boards, or the biggest investor...

Your Chance: Learn NOW how to manage your boss's expectations. This special relationship can make or break you, and cost you a lot of energy.

Practical Tip: Since you have just experienced for yourself what a difference a simple perspective shift made in your life, try imagining your boss's goal structure for a minute. What are his (legitimate!) top priorities? What keeps him/her/them awake at night? What are the most difficult relationships they have to manage? Where -- and how -- can you take pressure off them so that you get some attention for those issues you need to raise? A most useful side effect of this exercise is that you immediately realize where you probably don't have much of a chance to raise their interest -- and can modify your expectations accordingly.

Relationship management is neither about ingratiating yourself, nor acting like a yes man. Instead, it is about creating a long-term relationship, ideally based on win-win. Like every true partnership it requires two mature partners -- bring your part to the table, that's all you can do! Especially in climates where the politics are strong...

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