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25 tips for managing your first direct reports

6 min read


Congratulations, you’re now the boss! Welcome to the deep end of the pool — now it’s time to learn to swim.

Managing your first direct reports is one of the most challenging transitions a leader will ever have to navigate. If I were to sit down over a beer or cup coffee and mentor a new first-time boss, here’s what I’d have to say (over a series of meetings, not all at once):

1. Be prepared.
Granted, while in many cases it may be too late to prepare, it shouldn’t have been. There are lots of things an aspiring leader can do to get ready to be a manager, including on-the-job experiences, reading, taking courses and learning from others. If you get offered a promotion and you’re not prepared, you’ve got nobody to blame but yourself.

2. Recognize that it’s a new job.
Even though you were most likely promoted within a function where you were the best engineer, you are no longer an engineer — you’re a manager. The good news is, you have a track record of success. You know how to learn and succeed so don’t ever lose sight of that and don’t lose your mojo.

3. Learn “situational leadership.”
SL is a must-have leadership framework for any manager. Buy the book, take a course or ask someone to teach it to you. It’s basically a model for figuring out how to manage each of your employees, depending on how much direction they need.

4. Get to really know your employees.
Spend time with each and every employee and get to know their jobs, career and development goals, hopes and dreams, strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, the names of their children and pets, where they live and anything else that’s important to them.

5. Learn and practice active listening.
If I had to pick just ONE skill, listening would be the one I’d say is the most important skill to master as a leader.

6. Let go of the details.
Focus on the what, not the how. From executive coach Scott Eblin, author of “The Next Level.”

7. You’re no longer a “friend.”
Last year, I wrote a post called “I’m Your Boss, Not Your Friend; 10 Reasons Why Your Boss Shouldn’t be Your Friend.” Based on the comments, it was clear that not everyone agreed with me. You may choose to disagree with me, but you should at least be aware of the pitfalls and traps in trying to be friends with your employees.

8. You may be surprised to discover your former co-workers have some “issues.”
New managers are often shocked to discover some of the performance and personal issues their boss was discreetly dealing with. Now, it’s your job to pick up where your boss left off.

9. Learn to deal with performance issues.
Your previous boss may have been sweeping issues under the rug or perhaps been in the middle of working with an employee. Either way, you’ll need to learn a consistent and effective way to deal with employee performance issues. Didn’t anyone tell you? It comes with the territory.

10. Treat EVERY one of your employees with respect.
Never, ever, ever waiver from this.

11. Use the four magic words: “What do you think?”
From management guru Tom Peters.

12. Pay attention to your new team.
While you may be the team leader of your team, you’re now a member of a brand new team — your manager’s management team. Managing sideways is just as important as managing up and down. From team guru Patrick Lencioni.

13. Be available and visible.
Don’t let “I never see my boss” be how your employees describe you.

14. Set up and maintain a schedule of regular one-on-ones and team meetings.
Then treat these meetings as a top priority.

15. Embrace your role as a leader.
This one’s not as obvious as it sounds. I managed employees for over 20 years before the light went on for me and I realized what an extraordinary and rewarding responsibility leadership could be. Don’t take it lightly.

16. Learn and practice a coaching model.
GROW (goals, reality, options and will) is as good a model as any. Again, read about it, take a course or ask someone to teach it to you.

17. You’ll make mistakes.
Lots of them. Get used to it, and most importantly learn from those mistakes, and don’t repeat them.

18. Learn to ask awesome questions.
You don’t have to have all of the answers — it’s better to ask the right questions.

19. Have a box of Kleenex on your desk.
Trust me on this one — don’t get caught short-handed. Unlike baseball, there is plenty of crying involved in management.

20. Read Bob Sutton’s “12 Things Good Bosses Believe.”
There are a lot of great articles and books I could recommend, but this one is a must for any boss. Read it over and over at least once a year. The key take-away: Get over yourself.

21. Subscribe to at least five leadership and management blogs, and read at least one leadership book each year.
I know a lot of managers who read a book a month — but I realize that’s not realistic for many. Blogs are free, easy to read and digest and plentiful. For a sampling of many of the top leadership blogs, try here, here or here. And don’t forget to subscribe to SmartBrief on Leadership.

22. Be you.
It’s called “authentic leadership,” and it involves being clear on who you are and what you stand for.

23. Develop a strategy.
Better yet if you involve your team in creating a vision, mission and goals. It’s all about alignment.

24. Be clear on and agree on expectations.
Expectations are a two-way street — make it a dialog.

25. There is no “on” and “off” switch.
Being a boss — better yet, a leader — is a 24/7 role. It’s not something you can turn off after 5 p.m. and go out and let your hair down with the gang. You’re a role model, good or bad, and your behavior sets the standard for the culture you create for your team. From Marshall Goldsmith, author and executive coach.

Dan McCarthy is the director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire. He writes the award-winning leadership development blog Great Leadership and is consistently ranked as one of the top digital influencers in leadership and talent management. He’s a regular contributor to SmartBrief and a member of the SmartBrief on Workforce Advisory Board. E-mail McCarthy.