Becoming an IT Manager: Year One

In the past year, I became a manager of a team whose priorities were changing rapidly. We needed to adjust our services to become more user-friendly while providing increased and more effective end-user support. We were also expanding our services to provide new areas of support.

I had a few things to learn, including management basics and mission realignment. We had five vacant positions to help us expand and deepen services, so I needed to focus on hiring effectively. Like many new IT managers, I had little knowledge of leading and managing a team, never mind building a team for high performance and excellence. In this post, I will walk through the tools that helped me get through the first year of management and provided the foundation for improving and expanding our services.

Learning Management Basics

Before coming into my role as manager, I attended trainings, read several books, and listened to podcasts. This provided me with some tools that had been proven effective. I just needed to put them in to practice. Nonetheless, I must say that this preparation still did not keep me from making mistakes along the way. In this role, I was managing former peers. In addition, I was taking in an additional team with whom I did not frequently work. We had been somewhat silo-ed in our previous operations. I was also fortunate in that I was inheriting a high-performing team.

One of the most helpful tools I used was the Manager Tools podcast.1 I had been listening to Mark and Mike for career advice for about a year at the time, and by listening to the podcasts, I was familiar with several managerial concepts. In addition, I read several books on management. Finally, I also attended the EDUCAUSE New IT Managers Program. I found this training especially helpful, as it not only touched on the basics but also included aspects specific to higher education, such as governance structure and budgeting in academia.

Building Trust to Improve Communication

Even though my team had been my colleagues for over two years, I still needed to build trust and show that I would serve as an effective manager. I wanted my team to share knowledge and communicate openly. Trust is essential to having an effective team, as it provides the ability to depend on others, raise concerns, and introduce innovative ideas in a safe environment. First, I made the mistake of changing too many things too quickly. Move slowly in the beginning and keep it simple. You need to build trust first, and you need to be able to keep up with your own changes. Once I took a step back, I knew that there were two things that were would be most effective to build trust.

First, I set up one-on-one weekly meetings for 30 minutes. Team members knew they would have 30 minutes to talk to me individually about whatever topics they chose. If we had time, I had a few things on my list or the opportunity to discuss career development. At first, it can a bit uncomfortable if this is new for either you or your staff. You may even experience a little resistance. If you push through and stick with it, you will be able to develop more open communication with your staff. I learned more about my staff, including what drives them, what they enjoy, what their concerns are, and where their roadblocks may be. In addition, it freed up time for both my staff and me, since there was dedicated time for us to talk weekly and random interruptions lessened on both sides.

Second, I set up a weekly staff meeting where staff could send agenda items ahead of time or could give a 1–2 minute update during the roundtable at the end of the meeting. No electronic devices were allowed.2 My goal was to have more effective meetings and increase the communication among the team. I had noticed in past meetings when people spoke, they spoke only to me as others were checking e-mail or working on their laptops. Since I often knew what they were working on, they left out context that could help team members understand the project. I wanted to bring transparency to the team around current efforts and improve our "big picture" view. The agenda kept us on topic and the lack of electronic devices kept us focused and attentive.

After a few months, communication improved among the team. Since more people were aware of each other's projects, we could offer to help or ask for help when needed. We also had the opportunity to share knowledge and suggest ideas to make improvements. In addition, concerns were raised when someone saw notable risks.

The improved communication helped bring our performance to a new level and increased our productivity. It also helped when discussing items that came from higher levels within the organization or across the university. Transparency about university goals, shifts, or expectations could be more openly discussed and, therefore, better understood.

Improving Performance through Feedback

In customer service, there is always room for improvement. I had learned how to give feedback from both Manager Tools and the EDUCAUSE New IT Managers Program by using a similar structure. In this structure, the behavior was given, then the consequence. For example, "When you rolled your eyes after Chris said his idea, he stopped contributing. Can you change that next time?" or "When you raised that we were behind schedule early in the project, we were able to remedy the issue before it became a serious problem. Thank you."

The toughest part of this may be ensuring the feedback is about something observed, such as a gesture, tone of voice, specific action (sending an e-mail), specific words used, etc. This is opposed to labeling the action, such as "You acted like a jerk." or "You were great in the meeting!" This feedback is not specific enough for the receiver to improve or continue a desired behavior.

Before I gave feedback in this structure to the team, I presented a few slides on what I would be doing. I aimed for 90% positive feedback, as most of their work is something I would like for them to continue. I am not certain that I have yet reached my goal, but I continue to work at it. Giving feedback was quite awkward in the beginning, but the team knew what I was doing and why. The discomfort has diminished, and it has become easier to give feedback, especially since it takes 10 seconds and is more frequent. The frequency also has helped when a correction is needed. Since most of the feedback is positive, the person receiving the feedback understands that it is a blip on the radar and the feedback does not seem as ominous. However, for more serious or reoccurring matters, often a deeper conversation may be warranted.

Setting Expectations

There were several times when our ticket queue seemed to build up or a project had been forgotten. I realized that I needed to set expectations and discuss prioritization of responsibilities. I will not spend too much time on SMART goals. However, I have found them to be a great guideline for setting expectations (for the uninitiated, SMART stands for specific, measureable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.) Each individual had different styles of work, different priorities, and different motivators. During our one-one-ones, we were able to align priorities, stay on schedule, and increase performance.

Some examples of expectations included language and tone when communicating with customers, timeliness to answer tickets, completeness in answering questions, and breaking down projects to smaller tasks and deadlines.

Letting Things Go: Delegating

As a manager, I realized that I did not have enough time to complete all of my work. When I expressed this concern, my boss told me that I should not be doing several of items that I had considered my responsibility — my team should. This was tough to swallow. I enjoyed many of my tasks and was nervous they would not be done to the level I expected. Before I was a manager, I had made the mistake of not communicating to my team about some of my projects. In turn, my team was unaware of several details, and this would require some education and training. I quickly realized that my fears were silly. Our team comprised highly capable and intelligent people who were quick learners.

I took a breath and set the expectations with each employee for the new tasks he or she would cover. I had the benefit of hiring a few new, excellent employees, and therefore I could start out of the gate with appropriate expectations. I did spend several hours over the course of several months covering certain responsibilities. When possible, I gave them the freedom to complete the task their way, with the only requirement being to get from A to B in a reasonable time frame. By allowing people to do a task their way, they could do it faster and often times with better results.

The result? I was able to complete my management tasks, as well as have more time for one-on-ones with each staff member, our weekly staff meeting, and the several other meetings on my calendar. I had time to work on new projects (for which I schedule blocks of time in my calendar). I also had more time to research ways to improve our services and look into pockets of the university we had not yet reached. In effect, I was better able to do my job as a manager.

I hope I have been able to provide some useful tools for new and experienced managers in this post and perhaps even provide some comfort to managers who feel that they may be stumbling. You are not the only one. I was fortunate to have people, including my boss, who helped guide me, as well as access to the training I needed. I strongly feel that building a foundation of trust in your team will help bring you to a level of excellence that you may have never anticipated. Using the tools listed here, your team will have a strong foundation to achieve the hurdles your organization may face.


  1. On the podcast's success, see Dahlia Bazzaz, "How to Be a Better Manager in 30 Minutes a Week," Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2016.
  2. For more on why I ban mobile devices, see Kathleen Owens, "How to Get Employees to Plug In to Your Meeting and Not Their Devices", Fast Company, November 6, 2014; and Kevin Kruse, "Why Successful People Never Bring Smartphones Into Meetings," Forbes, December 26, 2013.

Jackie Milhans is manager of computing and data support services at Northwestern University.

© 2017 Jackie Milhans. This EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0.