Suppose Today Was Your First Month As a Manager
If you’ve learned nothing else in the past year or so, then you certainly know now just how fast things can change. One day everyone is working in the office, and the next they’re all working from home. One day they’re late because of the wrong kind of snow on the railway tracks, and the next they aren’t allowed to use public transport at all.
This is what organisational life looks like now. And no matter what is going on when you read this, you know that it could happen again. History has a way of repeating itself.
One things that has come out of all this is the ease with which employees can change jobs. And that means that you, as a manager or a new manager, must adapt much more quickly than you ever have. You can’t sit on the sidelines to see how things will develop. Tomorrow, it may be different. And so you have to learn to manage in the moment; not just for the future.
With that in mind, let’s suppose that today was the beginning of your first month as a manager of wherever you are right now. What would that look like, or what should that look like?
For one thing, you’d need to grasp right out of the blocks what the organisation was about, what its purpose was, and who its customers were.
What the organisation is about, it’s purpose and customers
It’s remarkable how many managers there are who know what they do when they get to work, but not why they do it. The bog-standard answer about delivering value to shareholders just doesn’t cut it anymore. That’s because it’s a given. It’s something that everyone does and says, which means that it’s not unique. You could do that anywhere. Not just where you happen to be working today.
And your organisation wasn’t created for that purpose in the first place. The shareholders may have made the organisation possible through investment, but that’s not why it was created. Instead, it was founded to deliver value to its customers. One or more people saw an unfilled need in the marketplace and decided that they needed to create an organisation to meet it.
That is what the organisation is about; filling the needs of its customers. When the organisation does that as it should, then the shareholders also receive value; but it’s a mistake to get the two reversed.
Nowadays, you have to adapt to customer needs even more quickly than you did before, and that’s because you simply don’t know how soon the next big change will come. You don’t have six months to “get your feet under the table.” Instead, it’s more like one.
Not only that, but you may change jobs or even companies in much less time than you used to, partly because you must do what’s best for your own career, and also because with so many of your employees working from home, there are fewer people to manage. Why fewer people? Because they are having to manage themselves to a much greater extent than before.
The working-from-home movement has made the workforce the most autonomous it has been since the mid-18th century, before the Industrial Revolution began. Many more of today’s employees are self-managed. They have to be because you can’t supervise them the way you once did. The idea of MBWA - management by walking around - is obsolete because if you do that, you may find that you’re the only one in the building.
How can you adapt quickly?
By determining what is most important; that is, what needs to be accomplished first. Stephen Covey may not have been the first person to coin this phrase, but he certainly was the one who made it famous: First things first.
Another way to think of it is to say that you need to keep the main thing the main thing, which is another popular way of saying it.
Think of it like this. If you knew that you had a month to get the hang of things and, at most a few years to make an impact, what would you do? There’s no time to waste, so stop wasting it. You don’t have six months. You have one . . . maybe.
Build relationships with your people
Sometimes when new managers arrive they distrust everyone. They assume that they’ve been brought in to clean up some mess left by the previous one, and maybe they’re right. But it helps no one to come in with that attitude.
A bit of compassion goes a long way.
What if you assumed instead that people really did want to do their best? What if you demonstrated that you had every confidence in the people you were going to supervise? Do you think that they might trust you? Do you think that they would be more cooperative?
You can bet on it.
The vast majority of employees don’t go to work every day so that they can connive ways to sabotage its success. Instead, they want to see their organisation thrive as much as you do. So why not assume that that’s their attitude, and then work with them to bring it to pass?
You can do that by behaving in an entirely ethical manner, by being fair in everything, by being transparent, not hiding anything, and by bending over backwards to communicate with everyone. Rumors occur when people are left to their own devices to figure out what’s really going on. You are in the best position to clarify that and to stifle those negative emotions.
Relationships are built by interacting with others. You must resist the temptation to immerse yourself in the pile of briefing manuals, documents, and what-have-you that’s been left conveniently on your desk. That’s the easy path; the path of least resistance. It’ll also put you to sleep.
Focus on building relationships which, by the way, take time. If you only have a month to get up and running, then you must start getting to know people on the first day, and then work on it every day. Fit the consumption of the masses of reading material and your meetings around your efforts to get to know everyone because it’s through them that you’ll be able to make the most positive difference in your new position.
What else can you do?
If possible, have a chat with your predecessors. This kind of thing goes on regularly within the Forces and the Government. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t do it, too. In fact, you’re likely to miss out on some important nuances if you don’t.
Remember. You simply don’t have time to find out these things yourself.
In a similar vein, encourage people to work together. In fact, you should reward them for doing so. Doing this can give you some quick wins and create much needed momentum. This is important because with adaptability comes speed, and given the short time frames, working faster is key.
Everyone is supposedly on a team nowadays. It must be one of the most overused and yet misunderstood words in the organisational vocabulary. You should spend less time worrying about creating formal teams, and much more on getting people to work together. You see, it’s possible to have one without the other, so make sure you emphasize the right things.
This is especially important in meetings. The goal of any meeting is to accomplish something that can’t be done in any other way, such as have a discussion. Everyone at the meeting should know why you’re having it, and why they should attend. It’s not to brief people, or to start an argument, or to enable someone to win “brownie points.” That’s how children behave.
Meetings are held so that a group of people can discuss something enough so that a decision can be made.
It’s unlikely that your predecessors will attend any of your meetings, but even in your one-on-one communications, you shouldn’t allow them to comment on individuals by name. That’s because of something called the halo effect. The halo effect occurs when automatically you apply your positive impression of something about someone to other things about that person.
That, in itself, isn’t so bad.
Where it becomes a problem is in its opposite form. Someone warns you about the bad behavior or substandard work of a person, and that prevents you from seeing the good that they do or the efforts they’re making to improve.
You need to evaluate the work of those you supervise on the basis of what they do for you now; not what they did or failed to do for those before you. To do otherwise is unfair to them and to yourself.
It’s worth finding out who has been there the longest. These people can give you a potted history of your organisation and save you a lot of time. If they’ve been there for donkey’s years, then there’s probably a pretty good reason. Don’t just blow them off.
And take time to evaluate personally the strengths and weaknesses of those you supervise. If you notice that there’s a gap in the skills of your employees, then either develop them in-house, or bring in someone who has them. But don’t make people feel guilty because they lack them.
There are bound to be projects that are in progress when you arrive, and it’s likely that you’ll be informed on what they are. As you are a fresh pair of eyes, you’ll want to find out their status, but more importantly, you’ll want to know why they’re being done at all.
There’s a story that illustrates this about Apple. At some point, Steve Jobs called a meeting. He had the managers tell him what projects they were working on. The story goes that the list amounted to something like 20 altogether, all of which Jobs recorded on a flip chart. When the list was complete, Steve crossed off the last 17, circled the top three, and told everyone to concentrate on them.
This story isn’t meant to suggest that the projects your predecessors had going were there simply because they were bored and couldn’t think of what else to do with their time and budget. Instead, it’s simply a reminder that you have to be a good steward of the resources you’ve been given. And so rather than just accepting everything as it is, you need to make sure that you have bona fide reasons for continuing them. It’s easy to keep on doing what you’ve always done without every calling it into question.
This is another place where you can seek input from those who’s with whom you’re developing relationships to determine if the projects are necessary, if changes should be made that weren’t considered before, or if there are efficiencies that could be taken advantage of. You shouldn’t just assume that your predecessor had all the answers, and that things should be allowed to continue to tick over.
You’re now responsible for those projects and must make decisions accordingly.
Resources and decision-making
You also need to ascertain what resources are available to you, and who decides how they’re used. Things are seldom as straightforward as they appear on the surface. It’ll be worth your time to find these things out. That way there’ll be no nasty surprises later on.
No doubt, you’ll learn who you report to, as well, but you also want to learn where you fit into the grand scheme of things. That’s because there are likely to be people outside of your chain-of-command that it would be good for you to know. This is how cross-company projects can be accomplished more swiftly.
Be on the lookout for what could go wrong
Even when you do your best, however, the unforeseen can happen. No doubt you’ll already have a backup plan ready to go when it’s needed, but you must remain vigilant to spot problems before they cause any serious damage.
What if you’re a seasoned manager?
We’ve been thinking of things in terms of your first month on the job. But what if you’ve been there for a while?
The same advice applies. Pretend that you’re at the beginning of your first month, and then redouble your efforts. Don’t let the coming weeks or months pass without improving yourself in these ways.
Decide what you should accomplish in the next 90 days, or even six months. Write it down, and then give yourself that much time to accomplish it.
It’s impossible to know when the next big change will occur.
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