Surviving the Transition to Management

The way most organizations promote people into management is, to put it bluntly, terrible. New managers are Under New Management signselected on technical skill and maybe some vague concept of “leadership potential,” given a new title, and then thrown in the deep end. If they are lucky, they might get access to some basic online “management training” to help them figure out how to do their new job.

To make matters worse, in technology and science fields, they’ve probably been steeped in a culture that considers management to be “bullshit” and “not real work.”

It is no wonder that these new managers often suck at their new jobs. In some cases, they realize that they suck but assume that since management is “not real work” that their difficulties with managment must be due to some terrible flaw in their character. In some cases, they assume that since management is “bullshit” it doesn’t matter how they do it, and are blithely unaware of the damage they are doing to their team and the larger organization.  In the best cases, the new manager has good management instincts (or absorbed some good ideas about management over the years) and does a good job. Even these new managers, though, are likely to feel a bit overwhelmed and struggle with the transition.

But it doesn’t have to be this way! Management is not easy, but it is also not a talent that you either have from birth or don’t. It can be learned, and most people get better with practice, as long as they are conscious about trying to improve.

With that in mind, I offer a few tips for surviving the transition to management. Here’s what I wish I’d known to do when I was thrown into the management deep end as a newbie manager. (I was extremely lucky and had some good coaching from my own managers to help me out, but I still struggled more than strictly necessary.)

1. Level up and try to avoid rookie mistakes

The first tip is to jettison all the baggage you’re carrying about management, and approach this like any new skill: it is something you can learn with practice, and it helps to do some research so that you can learn from other people’s hard won experience.

I keep a list of resources on this blog, and also have a Kifi library about management and productivity. The Harvard Business Review is also an excellent place to start reading about management.

There are two things you should remember while you’re reading these things. (1) Yes, you can learn from managers working in a completely different field than yours. Management is about people and how they respond to things, and although there are differences based on organizational culture and individual background, a lot of insights transfer across fields quite well. (2) However, you should always evaluate anything you read against the “ground truth” of your specific situation. There is no one true way to manage that will work across all situations.

2. Fight the tendency to micromanage

When you first become a manager, you have to learn a new way of working. At first, it will feel like you aren’t doing anything useful with your days, and you’ll want to dive into the details whenever you get a chance. You’ll see problems come up and be sure that you could solve them in just a few minutes- so you’ll step in and take over.

The problem is, this is micromanaging your team. You probably didn’t like being micromanaged when you were an “individual contributor” and your team won’t like it, either. Fight this tendency.

My best advice for how to avoid micromanagement is to learn how to manage the work, not the people. I’m developing a seminar about this, which I plan to give early in 2016. (Sign up for my mailing list if you want to be sure to hear about it when it is ready.) In the meantime, learn about project management methods. When done well, these methods allow you to focus on the work, instead of the day to day habits of the people doing the work. I am enrolling for a class on project management techniques now. Other good resources can be found on my resources page. I particularly recommend Scott Berkun’s book Making Things Happen.

3. Learn how to handle a more fragmented schedule

The one thing I remember from online training I was required to take when I was first promoted into management is the section about how managers’ days are very fragmented. I am not sure why this is the only thing I remember, but it is definitely true. Management involves a lot of coordination, and that requires meetings. Meetings are usually scheduled around the needs of the most senior people in them… and you, as a new manager, are among the most junior people in the meetings. Your schedule won’t be considered much if at all, and you’ll end up with a fractured day.

On top of that, you need to be accessible to your team. You don’t want their work blocked by the lack of an answer you can easily give them, so you should encourage them to interrupt you. This is good for the team, but only fragments your day further.

Every new manager I’ve ever talked to complains about this, and asks how to get control over their schedule again. The answer is that you don’t, really. Instead, you learn how to work effectively within the schedule you now need to have. There are a lot of techniques people use for this. Two of the most common are blocking off time in the middle of the day to go have a meeting with yourself and shifting your work day so that you have some uninterrupted time before the meetings start for the day or after they end. Another trick I use a lot is to take a note about what I was doing and what I need to do next when I’m interrupting work to go to a meeting.

The optimal answer will depend on the details of your work and your personality. Experiement with various ideas until you find the methods that work best for you.

4. Figure out how to keep in touch with your hands on skills

Although you should resist the temptation to jump in and solve all of your team’s technical problems yourself, you should work to keep your skills up to date. This is important for two reasons: (1) You probably really enjoy the topics about which you are an expert, so you’ll miss them if you abruptly stop doing that sort of work, and (2) it will help you retain your credibility with your team.

There are a lot of potential strategies you can use to keep up to date. You can read the literature in your field. If it is feasible to have a side project, consider starting one- just make sure that it is not too ambitious. You can organize “lunch and learn” meetings and have team members volunteer to lead a discussion about a new topic. (Bonus points if you can provide lunch for these meetings.) You can make a point of attending a conference in your field once every year or so.

Once again, the optimal answer will depend on the specific details of your situation. It doesn’t matter how you stay in touch with your skills, but I strongly encourage you to find a way to do so.

5. Apologize when you make mistakes- and forgive yourself

We all make mistakes, and we make more mistakes when we’re new to something. You’re new to management, and you will certainly make some mistakes. Most of these will be no big deal as long as you learn from your mistakes, apologize to the people hurt by them, and forgive yourself. Don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over. People will rightly assume that this means you don’t care enough to learn how to avoid them. Don’t be too proud to acknowledge the mistakes you’ve made to your team. This will only undermine their respect for you. They’re not stupid: they know you made the mistake. And don’t beat yourself up about the mistake. This helps no one.

Those are my top five tips for new managers. Add your suggestions- and ask any questions- in the comments.



  1. I think that the big thing a lot of managers forget is that they’re not managing projects (well, maybe they are)–really they’re managing people. Mr. Sandwich once had a boss whose philosophy was that personnel issues always came first, because those issues affected the work, and you couldn’t fix anything else until you’d fixed the problems that people were facing.

    My dad has always said that the bigger jump is not managing staff, but managing managers. But I wonder if that’s not because now you’re likely managing people who don’t really have a firm grasp on their primary job duties, whereas hands-on staff are (hopefully) likely to.

    October 16, 2015
    • Melanie said:

      I think one of the hardest parts of the transition is that sometimes you need to focus on managing people- i.e., if there is a conflict or a problem. But sometimes if you focus on the people, you’ll end up micromanaging them. I.e., worrying about when they come in, how they organize their day, etc. That second kind of managing people is really destructive to morale, especially if it is combined with the tendency to jump in and solve technical problems that should be left to your team. I see new managers in science and tech fields struggle with this a lot. That’s why I tell people to focus on managing the work: i.e., look at whether the right work is getting done at a reasonable pace. If it isn’t, then delve in and figure out why. Sometimes it will truly be a people problem. Sometimes it will be a project management-type problem. When you’re new to management, it can be really hard to tell which type of problem you have. Actually, it can be hard even when you’ve been managing for years!

      With that said- I also think a good manager always pays attention to the people management aspect. I tend to frame that more as mentoring, but really that’s just semantics. You want to help your people grow and make sure they are happy in their work, as much as you can.

      I never made the jump to managing other managers. I suspect that is hard because now you have no choice but to rely on your team to let you know what is going on and to make sure you hear about the important things, and since so many managers don’t really know how to do that with their own teams, they probably struggle to do it well when reporting up, too.

      October 16, 2015

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