Stepping into a management role can be both exciting and overwhelming. In this post, we help you to understand what it’s like to transition from individual contributor to manager and provide tips to successfully navigate your first months in the role.
You’re a manager, now what? (What got you here won’t get you there)
Stepping into a management role can be equal parts exciting and overwhelming. Until this point, you’ve likely spent a considerable amount of time proving yourself as an individual contributor, showing your potential and interest to try out a management role, and putting in the work to get the position. You’ve poured a lot of energy into reaching this goal, and you’ve done it. You find yourself in a management position for the first time, and…. Now what? What should you focus on? What should you actually do? “How do you do this job?!”
The good news is that as a senior individual contributor, you’ve (hopefully) already practiced a lot of leadership skills, maybe without noticing it. The catch is, this is a different job. You’re a junior again, congratulations! Whilst each person’s experience will vary, I want to throw a few tips your way which may help you navigate those first months in your journey as a manager.
Know your value
I’ll start with some of the most impactful advice I’ve received: Your value is not the same, and it’s your role to figure it out. Your team may have a vision or mission, but I’m not talking about this. I’m talking about your personal value to your team that can act as your own personal North Star when deciding what to act on and how to lead.
The main challenge is that it’s natural to want to add value where you’re the most comfortable, rather than where you’re needed the most. If you’ve worked in a senior individual contributor (IC) role, you’ll have strong engineering expertise in your domain, and it will be tempting to lean on those skills as much as possible. It makes sense – your technical skills have probably made up a huge chunk of your value up until this point. The catch is that your technical excellence is probably now the least important quality you have. Before you instinctively challenge that, try this quick exercise: Think of the best manager you ever had. What made them great? What brought them to your mind as the best manager you’ve had? Was it their raw technical prowess? I’d wager probably not.
I’m not saying your technical skills won’t be valuable at all. I’m saying the way you value your own manager is probably different to how you value other colleagues in your team, and it will be the same for you and your own direct reports. To make things trickier, your value will change over time depending on the composition of your team and the challenges you’re facing together.
To make things easier, I’ve compiled a list of questions you can ask yourself. I recommend putting these into a document and trying to answer them within the first 30 days of starting your role as a manager, especially as this initial time period will be about absorbing information and adjusting to your new responsibilities. Keep in mind that you don’t have to answer all of them, and you can always revisit or add to them later on:
- What is the team composition in regards to tenure, level, and experience? (Do you have three juniors and one senior engineer? Four seniors and no juniors? Is the average tenure 4 months or 4 years?)
- What stage is the team in: forming, storming, norming, performing? (Lara Hogan’s book Resilient Management is a great resource here for gaining a practical understanding of how to use Tuckman’s stages of group development)
- Do the people in the team feel that their core needs are met? Do people feel psychologically safe? Is there unspoken friction? (To put it another way: how are the teams BICEPS?)
- What are the team focusing on? (Completing your product roadmap? Desperately fixing a mountain of tech-debt?)
- Is the team aware of your OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) and any other organizational goals? Do they feel empowered to hit those goals?
- What are the most important KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) for your team?
- Do the people in the team have a clear growth trajectory and own this growth?
- What are your biases and personal values? What are you naturally optimizing for? (If you’re new to this topic, check out this explanation of personal values, and consider trying the Hero Exercise)
Some of these questions may stick out as more relevant than others. Focus on answering those first. Again, this exercise is about gathering data and building a picture of your team and yourself. You do not need to immediately act after answering any of these questions. 1:1 meetings with your reports will be invaluable in helping you gain a picture of many of these aspects (we’ll come back to that in a moment).
Work on your team, not in your team
When I first started managing, I continued to take small tickets from our backlog. Small chores or minor tasks which needed doing and were valuable to the team. And hey, my team was busy working on big important tasks, and I was helping! I was removing simple tasks which nobody wants to do! And it’s fun, I get to see a tangible effect for myself in the team and I even get to keep coding! What a win-win!
You can imagine my confusion at the first retro meeting with my team, and the unified cries of “Mike, please stop taking all of our quick wins!”
There are multiple things wrapped up here. Most articles would talk about delegation, and that’s a huge part of it. The other part is that, if you’re like me, you will feel an urge to have tangible wins for yourself. Taking a ticket with a clear definition of success and seeing it through to completion was your last job, as an individual contributor. It’s natural to want to feel good about yourself in a way that is easily visible and that comes naturally to you.
The hard truth is that this tangible task-based progress is not a helpful measure of your personal success as a manager. This is why knowing your value to the team is important, so that you can start giving value to your team where you are most needed, rather than where you are most comfortable.
To frame it another way: rather than working in your team (the tasks), you are now working on your team (the people). Your energy is best spent on tasks like ensuring your team has a clear purpose, that there are clear accountabilities and expectations, and that the goals of your team are aligned to those of the company. Ultimately, your new role is to empower the people in your team to be able to make good decisions (autonomy) and to ensure there is room for continuous improvement (mastery).
Let people surprise you
In my first months as a manager, I thought a big part of my role was being a Solutions Master. The Almighty Unblocker. I knew how to be an amazing manager – by letting the engineers do the real work (the coding), meanwhile I’ll write the tickets, define the acceptance criteria, and document exactly which steps to take. If someone is stuck, I can jump on a call and break down exactly which steps I’d take to solve the problem (“my technical skills are still fresh and it’s fun to problem-solve”). I’m helping, right?
“But it’s weird”, I thought to myself, “I’m writing such detailed tickets to tell my reports the exact steps to take, why do they come to me with all their questions?! They’re smart, why don’t they feel that they can figure it out on their own?”
Of course, it makes perfect sense. When you give people exact steps to take, and then at least one of those steps doesn’t make sense, they’ll need to come to you to clarify. You gave them exact steps, so the assumption is you want a very exact result. You didn’t just want them to solve the task, you wanted them to solve it how you would solve it. If you give someone zero space to think, then they can’t.
The fix is easy and it will open up an entire world of delegation, but it requires going against your best “engineer” instincts: Stop offering solutions. Make sure the problem is clearly defined and scoped, then show your team you trust them to propose the best solution. How you do this depends on the team and the situation, but you must implement processes which allow the team to collaborate on solutions (for example with RFCs, and refinement meetings), rather than attempting to push from the top-down. You’ll be pleasantly surprised how often you’ll receive super insightful questions and ideas which may even change the whole direction of an initiative.
“It’s amazing how someone’s IQ seems to double as soon as you give them responsibility and indicate that you trust them.”
Tim Ferriss, The 4 Hour Workweek
Get really good at 1:1s
It’s your responsibility to make sure 1:1s are valuable and I believe a lot of management skills are embedded inside. Getting good at 1:1s involves getting good at an entire group of related skills:
- Active listening
- Setting clear expectations
- Giving regular feedback & recognition
- Building trust and psychological safety
- Hearing the “pulse” of your team (understanding what people are focused on, their motivations, and how you can support)
- Covering your blind spots (getting an overview without being in all of the details)
- Coaching and Mentoring
- Helping people grow
The good thing is as you’ll hopefully be having 1:1s with each of your reports, you’ll regularly have the chance to practice a lot of these skills. To get started, your focus in the beginning is to get to know your teammates as best as possible, and to start building trust and safety. I like to do this by following the 1:1 question template from Lara Hogan. It is also important to set expectations around 1:1 meetings in terms of what they’re for and how they will work. Each person should understand that they’re an important, private meeting for you and your reports to openly exchange feedback, discuss role expectations and growth, and everything else listed above.
One more thing to highlight here is that you must show the importance of 1:1s in your actions and not just your words. Priorities can shift within the week, and a common mistake is for managers to respond by rescheduling their 1:1s to make room for other tasks. This is a huge mistake. By moving or cancelling 1:1s, you signal that they are less important than other meetings or tasks. If you put your people first, that means you put your 1:1s first – their slot in your calendar is sacred. Do not move them unless absolutely necessary.
It’s ok to not know (and admit it)
At this point, you may be worried about all of the new things to learn. The fact is you are switching tracks from something you can do really well to something you are totally new at. Most likely you’re going from senior engineer to junior manager. This is a helpful frame of reference to keep in mind. You’re not going to make all the right calls immediately and that’s completely fine.
There is an advantage to every disadvantage, and this is yours: you will get plenty of opportunities to lead by example by admitting it whenever you don’t know something. Being a confident leader is not about having all the answers. It’s about saying “I don’t know, but let’s figure it out”. If you are open, vulnerable, and trusting with your team, then this will let them do the same with you and with each other. This is the basis of psychological safety.
Throw “fake it ‘til you make it” out of the window. Be open and be honest. Let people know that you are new at being a manager and that you’re figuring it out. The important part is that you will figure it out. That’s why you have been entrusted to take the role!
How will I know if I like management? What if I’m bad at it?
I’m saving this for the end as it’s a question I’ve heard often from mentees. “I’ve never been a manager, what if I don’t like it or I’m bad at it?” There are two things to unpack here: One: you will make mistakes and to start with you will be bad at certain aspects of the role. You’ve never done this before, you’re a junior again, and that’s fine. Two: you will need to do your best to keep this exclusive to figuring out if you enjoy the role.
Management still seems to have a lot of “pull” from being a fancy title (or in some companies, the only career path available for a great individual contributor). Management can feel like the next rung on the ladder which you have to climb. I believe this is what makes it scary, because you genuinely might hate it. There’s plenty of reasons being a manager can suck sometimes.
However, if you’re like me and you have that itch – that question if it’s really for you and that urge to try it – there is no better sign that you should give management a try. For some people their career path is super clear, for most it isn’t. That’s why failure isn’t trying, failure is not trying and then never knowing. To other managers out there: make sure there are safe paths in your company for giving management a try and then switching tracks if it doesn’t pan out. Otherwise, you’ll end up with bad managers who feel stuck in the position, or high-performing individual contributors who feel resentment that they can’t find a way in to try it out.
The most impactful thing my manager did for me was giving me a safe entry point to give management a try, with the full expectation that if I hated it, I could stop at any moment within the first 6 months. I’m eternally grateful for that chance.
Management is not to be put on a pedestal. It’s one potential track switch which you don’t need to take, and should try before you buy.
The road to management can be messy, confusing, challenging, and fun. There’s no one way to manage, but today I shared a bit of my approach and what helped me in those first months in the role. If you have questions, comments, or think I missed something important, please reach out to me on LinkedIn. I’d be happy to help or get your input!
If you like what you’ve read and you’re someone who wants to work on open, interesting projects in a caring environment, check out our full list of open roles here – from Backend to Frontend and everything in between. We’d love to have you on board for an amazing journey ahead.