How to Succeed as a New Manager: Tips and Resolutions

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Stepping into management can be an overwhelming transition. Forget all your past accomplishments that got you to where you are today. As a new manager, you're starting from scratch, and the learning curve can be steep. You'll deal with individuals who have different personalities and ambitions and are even from different generations. You'll also encounter those who are more experienced, entrenched, and talented than you. Plus, all those jobs that you may have taken for granted or just knew you could do better—hiring, training, coaching, evaluating, disciplining, firing, planning, budgeting, etc.—are now your responsibility. It can be overwhelming.

So as we approach the end of the year and enter that period of tips and resolutions, here is a list of tips to get you off to a successful start as a new manager. Remember, your initial steps set the tone for your leadership.

  • Learn the Business of Your Department
    It could be very tempting to overhaul every process and way of doing things that your predecessor had in place and start fresh, but moving too quickly can backfire (especially with staff; change is difficult even if it's good change). Spend your first 60 days (at least) observing, listening, and learning rather than talking and changing things. Learn what's critical and what's "clutter." Start by learning what your people do, including the constituencies, responsibilities, systems, and schedules that drive their day. Don't hide in your office; jump into the trenches, roll up your sleeves, and get your hands dirty. Show you can step in and do their job if need be. Figure out how to grab some early victories to prove you can get things done. In other words, establish your credibility. Without it, you're tagged as a "do nothing, know nothing" boss—the one staff members know will confuse everything. They'll do their best to stay away from you.
  • Seize the Moment
    As the newest person on the team (and its leader), you have the staff's attention, so capitalize on it. Set ground rules and expectations early. Outline your short-term and long-term vision for the department. Identify what's mission-critical, and explain why and how everyone's roles contribute to the end result. Set goals, but keep them relatively short, unambiguous, and achievable. Establish timelines and benchmarks to measure progress. Help members of the team understand that they're working toward something larger than their own job and help them see how the organization, campus, and even their careers benefit from their work.
  • Have a Department Plan
    After meeting with stakeholders, draft three- and six-month plans. Set targets, including starting and ending points (and the steps in between). Hold yourself accountable by evaluating progress regularly and making adjustments as necessary. At a minimum, your job is to get your team members on the same page and up to the same level. Be sure to foster an environment where they can excel. Without a plan and a commitment to carrying it out, the team will inevitably lose sight of the mission as well as their own potential and value to the organization.
  • Meet with Your Team Often
    Everyone is anxious about having a new boss, so early on give your staff plenty of time (including one-on-one time). Learn about their history and aspirations. Watch them in action to see who will help or, inevitably, disappoint. Don't overlook getting buy-in from your top performers and respected veterans. You will definitely need their support so that others will follow.
  • Provide Ongoing Communication
    Your team's perception of you can be either your biggest asset or your biggest drawback. Start off on the right foot by reaching out. Set aside time for each person in order to provide guidance and support. Keep all team members current on organizational developments, and share what you're doing to help them. Be transparent and seek feedback on what's important to them. You're now responsible for others, and they need to know you're watching out for their interests.
  • Be Consistent
    Being the boss doesn't automatically mean respect. It ebbs and flows for many managers unless they possess a critical quality: consistency. As higher education IT becomes ever more complex and uncertain, your staff should never guess how you would react in any given situation. Instead, they should view you as a person who will provide a fair hearing and give honest feedback. Otherwise, they'll end up telling you what you want to hear rather than what you need to hear. Know that silence is a far greater threat to any organization than is candor. Understanding and embracing that concept will differentiate you from other managers and leaders.
  • Keep Emotion Out of Situations
    There's a price to pay for leadership: you always have to be the "bigger person," which means you cannot take things personally, publicize your views, or get too close with your team. At times you'll have to have really tough meetings about responsibilities and performance, among other issues, and you must remain calm and levelheaded despite how you may feel inside. Find an outlet outside of work to keep you balanced and grounded.
  • Develop Each Person on the Team
    How can you take your staff to the next level? Like most things, doing so requires planning, attention, and commitment. Start with recognizing each person's strengths, goals, and areas for improvement. From there, establish individual plans (no different from your department plan). Seek out opportunities where they can learn and contribute (and even move out of their comfort zones). Check in regularly on their performance, and always remember that there should never be any surprises when it comes time for performance evaluation. Regular contact and feedback will ensure that no one feels hijacked by the annual review. Be cognizant that most staff won't stay in their jobs forever. Learn what they really want to do, and provide motivation by helping them get there.
  • Take a Genuine Interest in the Team
    No one aspires to be a lousy manager. It's often the accumulation of little things—careless comments or hypocritical acts—that erodes camaraderie and trust. Small things like a kind word or gesture set good managers apart. How can you strengthen your relationships? Start by learning what makes others tick. Are they looking for recognition, influence, or meaning? What are their interests? Most importantly, accept them for who they are. Not everyone is a superstar, but steady performers bring equal value over the long term.
  • Treat Staff Like the Professionals They Are
    You're managing highly driven, talented, and accomplished professionals. Chances are some think they could (or should) have your job, so be flexible. That means asking questions and examining all sides of issues instead of making snap judgments. Respect their time. Always be prepared, relevant, and succinct in your interactions and meetings with them. Don't micromanage unless they're not meeting expectations. Keep an open mind. Don't be afraid to accept input (or even criticism). You will win your staff's respect and loyalty if you do.
  • Be a Good Role Model
    The staff will adopt your attitudes and anxieties, consciously or not. Always be cognizant of the image you project. Show confidence and stay composed even under stressful circumstances. Always own up to your mistakes (and do so quickly), so that your team will know you're an authentic leader. Follow your own rules, and let your staff see that no job is beneath you. Stay approachable and positive at all times. Your team will watch what you do more than they will listen to what you say. Make sure your own conduct and attitude don't hamper your team when it comes to securing resources for the department.
  • Energize
    You're the leader: set the tone, and others will follow. Recognize others publicly, praise regularly, and always highlight the positive. Ensure that the team is exposed to best practices (e.g., host speakers or share videos and articles). Assign projects to foster collaboration and to build closer relationships within your team. Reinforce every day why they want to work there and not somewhere else.
  • Build Bridges with Other Departments
    Along with being a manager, you're also an ambassador. The ROI on this role is immeasurable. Invest time in building relations with other departments. If they're not coming to you, go to them. Talk with all levels of department staff, not only your counterpart. Listen and learn how your department is viewed throughout the organization. Identify areas where you could improve relations.
  • Increase Your Team's Exposure
    Turn your staff into your department's ambassadors as well. Look for opportunities to give them the spotlight, such as training sessions, project leadership, and committee assignments. Most importantly, give them the opportunity to interact with organizational leadership. You want to expand, not narrow, your team members' experience in order to enhance their value to the organization.
  • Recognize Your Limitations
    It takes time to make things happen, and there will be mistakes along the way. Be patient and celebrate your achievements. Realize you can't be everything to everyone, and learn to be comfortable with that.
  • Find a Mentor
    Being the boss can be lonely. Find a mentor who can put your challenges in perspective. Stay in touch regularly and listen carefully to his or her advice, however critical it might be. If you're hesitant to ask someone to be a mentor, know that most people will be flattered by your request and that many want to give back, since they were likely helped along the way themselves.

And Now for the Resolution Part...

Are you energized or depleted after reading this list? Maybe both? You're not alone, and there are various resources where you can get answers, find a group of similarly situated people, continue the conversation, and grow. EDUCAUSE is offering several upcoming programs that will help you be the manager you envision:

  • If you are a new manager or have been managing for up to two years, register for the New IT Managers Program at either Connect Denver (March 2–4, 2016) or Connect Miami (April 6–8, 2016).
  • If you have been managing for more than two years and up to five years, register for the Management Boot Camp also at either Connect Denver or Connect Miami.

Most of us enter leadership positions with high hopes. We want to do great work, we imagine building cohesive teams, and we certainly want to make a difference. But often the people, politics, and obstacles wear us down. As a final tip, I offer here the best piece of advice I ever received when I stepped into a new managerial job: Be humble and give yourself time to grow into the job. Managing is a rewarding experience. Be sure to enjoy the ride.

Joan F. Cheverie is Manager, Professional Development Programs, EDUCAUSE.

© 2015 Joan F. Cheverie. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.