I’ll never forget a conversation I had with the CEO of my last company. He asked where I wanted my career to go, and I said into management.
Make sure you really want to be a manager, because it’s hard and not for everyone.
He was right. I ended up becoming a manager at that company but it was the hardest job I’ve ever done.
Nothing can truly prepare you for management. No amount of books, research, or articles on the internet will instantly make you a great manager. They can help, sure, but you’re going to feel like shit after the first hard conversation you have.
Here are 4 things I wish I knew before I became a manager.
You don’t need to be a manager to grow your career
In most careers, the path to career growth is paved by management. Moving from associate to manager, director, and eventually, VP only seems possible through increasing how many people report under your umbrella.
That’s bullshit. Not everyone is cut out to be a manager, and you shouldn’t feel compelled to get into management just to increase your salary.
Buffer does this well, they have defined career tracks for both management and individual contributors. They call them Manager and Maker frameworks. You can read more about them here.
Unfortunately, most companies don’t have a clear and transparent framework like Buffer. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try and define your path.
Spend time thinking about why you want to be a manager. If your only answer is to get promoted and make more money, then it’s probably the wrong reason.
If you’re at that stage in your career where the next step is management, have an honest conversation with your boss. Work together to define a path that leverages your desire to be a strong individual contributor without managing other people. Maybe you become the company expert on several topics and spend your time educating and training others on them.
Create an outline of what your specific duties and knowledge would look like at that role. Talk about how it could benefit the company and add value. Then agree on a plan together to get you there within a certain timeframe. For example, in 6 months you need to be an expert in X and Y systems, and train the sales team. At that point, you’re eligible to be promoted into that role full time.
I know not every company is flexible like this. Many multi-national corporations have defined roles that are set by HR in an office you don’t even work in.
Try anyway. You have nothing to lose. Maybe you discover it’s time to move onto a different company. Desire breeds change.
Managers shelter you from pressure
When you’re starting in your career there’s a lot of things you take for granted. A good manager shelters you from the pressures and demands of the company. They carry a burden for you, so you can be a productive asset to the business.
When you start managing, those pressures and demands go directly to you. If another team is unhappy with your team’s work, you’ll hear about it directly. All of a sudden you have goals and targets that your team has to achieve. Maybe it’s a specific revenue amount, maybe it’s shipping a feature by a specific deadline.
Now you own those responsibilities, and you have to manage your team to get them done. Because if your team fails then you fail as a manager.
Why isn’t your team on track to meet the deadline?
You have to be prepared to answer these questions constantly. Hard questions get asked when things are going wrong, and they go wrong more often than you know.
Before you know it you’ll be defending your team and their work. Your boss will ask why Bob isn’t performing at a high enough level, and then you have to work with Bob to try and turn it around.
Before, maybe your manager helped coach you to improve in a few things. But now as a manager, you’ll have to coach multiple people to success. Very few people are born top performers, many, including me, had a lot of help and direct feedback along the way.
Giving direct feedback is hard
The book Radical Candor by Kim Scott opens with a story from when she worked at Google. She was presenting the results of how AdSense was performing to Larry, Sergey, and Eric, the founders of Google. According to Kim Scott, the meeting was a smashing success. Revenue was off the charts and everyone was happy.
After the meeting was over, Sheryl Sandberg pulled her aside and said
When you say um every third word, it makes you sound stupid
What happened to if you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all?
Read that sentence again. She didn’t say you’re stupid, she said you sound stupid.
The difference between the two is the mark of a great boss. It was direct, actionable, and a little harsh. But it was intended to help Kim Scott correct a speech issue that was holding her back.
As a manager, you will have many difficult conversations. Praising someone for a job well done is easy, giving them constructive criticism, sometimes repeatedly, is challenging.
You become their reality
Everyone has complained about work. It’s a common thread that binds us corporate slaves together. We’ve all had bosses that we didn’t agree with or understand their motivations.
Guess what? Your employees will start complaining about you.
This was one of the most surprising pieces of management advice I got from a friend, and it’s something I constantly remind myself of.
They will go home to their significant other and talk about you. Sometimes they’ll say good things, other times they’ll say things they’d never say to your face.
It could be something you said off the cuff. To you it was insignificant, but to them, it meant a lot more. And you’ll never really know about it.
A good manager gives their employees a safe space to voice their opinions. You need to be a sounding board and also be receptive to their feedback. It goes both ways, and if your employee feels like you never take their suggestions or feedback seriously then you’ll stop getting it.
Their feelings will still be there and could culminate in them seeking other opportunities if you’re not careful.
You can be a good boss if you want to
Management is hard; no one ever said it was easy. It’s way harder than you think it will be.
All you can do is be prepared and always look for learning opportunities.
You don’t need to become a manager to grow your career.
You’ll have to shelter your employees from the pressures of the business.
You’ll have to give direct feedback, and you’ll probably get some in return.
Your employees will go home and talk about you.
You can be a good boss, but you have to want to be a good boss.