09 June 2015

4 key mistakes first time managers make when transitioning to leadership

Author :

I first made the transition from team member to General Manager in October 2010. Prior to taking over the role of General Manager for a conference production division at an Australian Conference organisation, I’d work in a team of one, me, at a boutique publishing and events company.

The first thing I realised when I walked into the office that first morning was I had absolutely no idea what I was going to say to the team. The second thing I realised was I shouldn’t have worried. The team I’d been hired to manage had resigned as group before I’d even been hired.

There was a part of me that thought this was probably a good opportunity for me to put my stamp on the team and the way it functioned. Turns out, I was wrong. One producer had already been hired, the Marketing Manager for the team had resigned and was finishing up that Friday and her replacement had already been decided on.

All in all, it was definitely a time of massive change. From memory the first thought that crossed my mind as I sat at my new desk was “I feel exposed.”

That could have been because of the massive desk I was parked at, placed there by the owner of the company on the direction of a Feng Shui expert years before. But mostly it was because I felt like a fraud.

Who was I to manage a team? I had zero experience in mentoring and developing other people in the conference industry. I’d done it in my previous life in call centres, but this was different. Plus, back in the call centre days I wasn’t “in charge,” I was just a team member who got handed the new hires to make them “phone ready.”

I can remember a conversation with a friend of mine when word came down that I’d gotten the job. His advice “Call everyone Joan.” I didn’t take that bit of advice on board but it struck me as sadly amusing.

Most of the “bosses” I’d worked for over the years treated staff as a number, or more accurately, a series of numbers. How many days a week were you at your desk, how many mistakes did you make today, how many hours do I need to sit staring over your shoulder to make sure you do what I asked? As I sat in the middle of the office in the Sydney CBD I wrote a list of what I wanted to be as a manager.

  • How I wanted to lead the team
  • What sort of style I would adopt
  • How would I create a cohesive team, moving in the same direction

On paper it looked great. It was for the most part the exact opposite of how I had been managed in the past.

It didn’t take long for the wheels on my grand design to begin to wobble though. Employees don’t work like robots. They are people. They have their own drivers, their own motivators, and their own way of doing things, even those fresh out of University with minimal work experience.

So to the point of all of this. Over the years I’ve learned how to manage staff a little better. Not too much though, I wouldn’t want to scare anyone but, there were several key mistakes I made the first time around though.

The four main mistakes I made transitioning from Team Member to Team Leader:

A Part of, but a part from the team:

Of all the well-meaning advice I received from family and friends back in 2010, the first and most important was “now you’re a manager you need to maintain a distance, you can’t be friends with your staff.” That sounds all well and good – and like something out of 1950’s management text book – but the reality is you do need to maintain a certain line with staff members. It’s fine to have a joke around with the people who report to you, but there needs to be a line and both the staff and you need to adhere to it.

Maintaining that line was the first error I made. There were times when I managed it successfully and other times when I blew it completely.

Just let me do it

This was a big one for me to learn. It was “easier” to just do what needed to be done rather than delegate it to a staff member and leave them to it. I had a long history in conference production by the time I inhabited that desk. I knew how to write saleable marketing copy, I knew how to lay out a brochure, and I knew how to “fix” problems.

Instead of explaining to the team how to do it, it was just easier for me to get out my red pen and make the changes on the word document. Even though I had my job to do, letting go was – and at times still is – harder than expected. I became my worst nightmare, the dreaded micromanager.

Sticking to the step, not the big picture

I spent many years writing legal events. My one and only priority was the conference. When you’re producing 2 Contract Law events a year it’s hard to make it fresh and new, but I strived to do that with every event. When I became the GM of the Division there was a lot of time where I forgot my new role was more strategically focused, and less “step-by-step.” Letting go of the steps others needed to take was difficult. While it’s always been important to oversee my team’s projects from beginning to end, learning to look outside the box to the bigger reason the project was being undertaken was a massive learning curve. When you’re bogged down in the minute details of an individual project it’s easy for the team to swerve off the road without you noticing.

Passing the buck

Now I know how that sounds, but the traditional meaning of the phrase is not what I mean here. When I first went into management I was the first person to pass praise on to the team. If praise came from higher up the ladder, the first words out of my mouth were “I’ll pass that onto Joan, it was her work,” or “Don’t thank me, thank Joan, it’s her event.”

Yet if the mud hit the wall, the first thing out of my mouth was “well, as manager that’s totally my responsibility.”

Credit where it is due is fine, but so is acknowledging the mistakes a team member has made. While it is true – and I still hold to the belief – that if a manager misses something the mistake is theirs to own, it doesn’t help your team if you are constantly acknowledge all mistakes as “yours,” while handing all the successes to the various members of the team. It actually makes you look incompetent.

One of the reasons for it was the list I wrote on the first day. I had in the past had managers who, when congratulated by those higher up the ladder had taken the credit, the thanks and the promotions. When I transitioned to management, I swore I wouldn’t do that to my team and in the process I took away from my team the opportunity to learn and grow by their mistakes. 

Making the transition from team member to team leader is an exciting time. It’s a moment when all the years of hard work comes together, where the late nights, unpaid overtime and extra night classes prove to be worth it. But it’s also a time of change for you and it is okay to admit you don’t have all the answers. Reach out to other leaders in the company and make sure to ask questions. Transitioning into a leadership role doesn’t mean you have all the answers and no one expects you to.

Mike Cullen has recently returned to Akolade after a period as the conference producer for one of Australia's leading economic think tanks. Mike began working in the conference industry in 2007 after looking for a career change from the high pressured world of inbound customer service. Mike has worked for some of the most well known conference and media companies in the B2B space and in his spare time is working on his first novel in a planned Epic Fantasy trilogy.

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