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First-Time Manager Stories of Failure and Success

I’ve promoted scores of people into first-time manager positions. Some did well and some didn’t. Here are a few of their stories, with names changed and a few relevant facts altered to protect the individuals involved.

This was early in my career, and I didn’t have any experience in promoting people into management. But I was working for a rapidly growing company, and my organization had gotten too big for me to manage all by myself. I needed to add a manager below me to supervise some of the programmers.

Fred had already demonstrated project leadership skills, and he seemed to relate to people pretty well. I didn’t have a lot of other candidates in my organization, and I wanted to promote from within, so I decided to give Fred a shot as a new manager.

Two things sabotaged Fred’s chances from the start. First, he seemed to think that making him a manager made him always right. Where previously he would have open and honest discussions with project team members about technical details, now he didn’t want to get their feedback. The way he saw it, he was manager so he told his people what to do. If he didn’t know what to do, he just made something up. Big mistake!

Second, he couldn’t handle the pressure. This was probably related to the first reason, but it made matters worse. He would freeze up and become almost unresponsive in certain confrontational situations. It’s as if he was trying to hold himself back from exploding.  Or maybe he just froze out of fear.

I tried to help Fred in his new role, providing advice and coaching. But it was clear that things weren’t going to change very quickly, and so I took Fred out of the manager role and looked elsewhere for a solution. Fred calmed down once he was off the hot-seat, and he went back to being a good project leader. I lost track of him over the next few years, so I don’t know whether he ever got over his initial problem and went into management again.  His first attempt certainly didn’t work out well, so I could understand him being reluctant after that.

Lessons Learned (by me, by Fred)

  • You can’t always tell in advance who will make a good manager and who won’t.  Obviously I was wrong about Fred.
  • Some guidance from my own manager about how to pick a new manager would have been useful, but I was pretty much left to fend for myself.
  • Being in management doesn’t give you any special knowledge or insight that you didn’t have before. And it’s important that you don’t act like it does.
  • Being a manager gives you some authority and the opportunity for some different behavior.  It’s up to you how you use it.
  • It helps if there’s a way to reverse a bad promotion.  In some companies you couldn’t move Fred back to an individual contributor role — you’d have to fire him.  And in other companies Fred’s pay grade would have changed with the promotion, and it would be an administrative nightmare trying to change him back to his old position and salary.  Few companies allow you to “try out” a manager.

Years later, with a lot more management experience under my belt, I got a promotion but kept responsibility for my old department too. I needed to “replace myself” in my old role. Again I wanted to promote from within if at all possible (it’s always my first choice unless I want to take the organization in a radical new direction). My existing employees all had relationships with our customer organization, and industry experience was important. I made it known to the employees that I was asking for internal candidates, and I talked to three or four employees who wanted to apply.

I decided on Pam, who had years of experience with the customers, and who had an in-depth understanding of the industry. She wasn’t as technically knowledgeable as some of the other candidates, but she had good people skills and she was respected by all of the employees.

In preparation for the management turnover, I spent a lot of time with Pam talking about each of the employees in the department, pointing out strengths and weaknesses, and giving advice on how to best motivate each employee. Pam absorbed the information eagerly, and she was very prepared for the turnover when it happened.

Once Pam had officially taken over the department, I got together with Pam every day to see how things were going and to offer coaching advice where needed. After a week or so I stopped the daily meetings, but I still kept in touch and I made myself available whenever needed for advice and coaching. A few times Pam got herself in over her head on particular issues, but I worked with her to help her get herself out of trouble — I tried very hard not to “take the wheel” and make her look incapable. It was important that her employees viewed her as the manager in her own right — not as a figurehead representing me.

Lessons Learned (by me, by Pam)

  • The support I gave Pam really helped.  I used it as a model for future management turnovers.
  • Good management skills can be taught as long as the new manager wants to learn.
  • I had to clearly communicate to employees that Pam was the new manager and that they had to work through Pam to solve any problems.  Otherwise the employees would have done an end-run and come to me.  This would have put me in the middle between Pam and the employees — not a desirable place to be.

More Stories to Come
I’ll put more stories in a future post, but for now I invite you to add your own stories in the comments.  Don’t forget to talk about any lessons learned by you or by the new manager.

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