New manager? Here are the 10 most important things you need to know to excel in your new role. (This advice also works for more experienced managers who are struggling.)
1. Set clear goals. It sounds obvious, but too many managers simply tread water or get pulled in too many directions instead of figuring out what the most important things for them to achieve are and focusing there. Try this exercise: Pretend it’s a year from now. Looking back on the previous 12 months, what would you need to have accomplished for it to have been a successful year? After you’ve figured that out, make those things your concrete goals for the coming months. Write them out, form plans to achieve them, and then be disciplined about sticking to them.
2. Think about what your team shouldn't be spending time on. There will be all kinds of ways that you and your staff could spend your time, many of them quite worthy. But some will have more of an impact than others, and those are the ones you need to focus on—which means saying no to the others. Ineffective managers frequently say yes to anything that sounds like a good idea. Effective managers are rigorous about asking, “Is this the best possible way we could be spending our time and resources?”
3. Set clear standards for your team. Your staff members need to know not only what you expect them to do, but how you expect them to approach their work. If you consider it unacceptable to take more than two days to return a client’s call, make sure your staff knows that. If you want your assistant to view her role partly as making it easier for you to do your job, tell her that explicitly. Too often, managers don’t set clear standards and then end up frustrated when their employees don’t live up to a set of expectations that were never communicated.
4. Look for trouble. Assume that some things will go wrong and poke around to find out what they might be. Instead of waiting for problems to come to you, ask questions! You’ll often uncover problems this way and have an earlier chance to fix them.
5. Never hint. You may feel kinder or more polite sugarcoating a difficult conversation, but it’s not at all kind to let someone miss an important message. If something is important enough to say, it’s important enough to be straightforward about. Be clear about what you need people to do, whether it’s instructions on a project or a message about performance.
6. Be brutally honest with yourself about what’s working and what isn’t. Evaluate your management style and your team’s work. Ineffective managers are often ineffective because they allow themselves to avoid seeing problems and go on believing things are “good enough,” when in fact they’re far short of where they could and should be.
7. Address it immediately when an employee isn’t meeting a high bar. Even if you’re uncomfortable addressing shortcomings, your job now is to talk about these things. Don’t value your own comfort over the work you’ve been hired to do or an employee’s ability to get honest feedback.
8. Know that you will have to fire people. Firing people will be one of the hardest things you do, and also one of the most important. If you’re serious about running a high-performing team, you will have to fire people. You can do everything else right—setting clear goals and expectations, delegating effectively, giving feedback, striking the right balance between being hands-on without micromanaging, and so forth—but if you aren’t willing to transition out people who aren’t performing in the way you need, you’ll never accomplish what you otherwise could.
9. Treat people with compassion. Even in the hardest moments, like letting someone go, treat all your employees with kindness and dignity. You have the power in this relationship, and that comes with the responsibility of exercising it with reason and decency.
10. You can’t give too much positive feedback, as long as it’s sincere. Giving positive feedback is like handing out chocolate; people will always appreciate it. Take a minute each day to send a positive email or make a positive comment. Believe me, that email will be read over and over. You can make someone’s day with only one minute of your time.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.