When I got my first management job I was really excited. Of course I pretended like it was no big deal and I tried to act like I’d been there before, but on the inside I was giddy. When you get your first shot at managing a team it feels like you’ve crossed over to the other side, like you’ve graduated. Normally at that point you’ve had more than your fair share of experiences working for crappy bosses and you’re determined to be the best manager these people have ever had. We all start out with this ultra-positive resolve to be a great leader. Of course this begs the obvious question: If we all set out with such noble intentions and with such healthy perspective, why are there so many terrible managers out there? Why have there always been? Why do I feel like there always will be?
I think there are at least two parts contributing to this rather sad situation. Half of the problem, in my opinion, is a result of some basic human ugliness that takes hold under the natural pressure of management. There’s something that happens to certain people when pressure and power converge in a leadership situation. But we’ll save that issue for another day. For today, let’s talk about the second contributing factor, one that is much more in our control to improve. In my experience, one of the big reasons it takes so long to become a decent manager is that nobody gives you the actual tools you need to be good at it.
Management training, leadership development, these programs seem to dwell at the conceptual level of management and never get deep enough to make a meaningful difference in the day to day activities of a manager. I’ve done several of these programs over the years including Multipliers, which is universally well regarded. And while they almost always offer an insightful and positive perspective, they never seem to get specific enough into what a manager should actually be doing on a day to day basis. And so we’re left to our own trial and error to develop the tools and practices we need to operate as effective managers.
Here are 5 tactics I use as my fundamentals for managing teams. You can easily implement them in your first week on the job. Whether it’s a team of 50 or 5, these practices will help you get off on the right foot and give you a chance to be the great manager you are so determined to be.
The temptation is going to be to gloss over this one as a management truism. Unfortunately, it takes a few tries at managing a team before you really get the importance of a shared mission. I certainly paid it lip service for several years until I began to see firsthand how powerful it can be and how negative things can get in its absence. Everything starts from a shared mission. Think of all the best teams you know – World Series Champions, Superbowl Winners, whatever team it was that delivered the iPod. You just know they had clear shared purpose … “win the world title”, “put a thousand songs in your pocket”. This is what galvanizes them, what creates a purpose larger than the individual needs of the team members. Now think of the team you work on. Do you have the same kind of mission? Does everyone know what you’re trying to accomplish? Why you’re here?
In my experience there is nothing more important that communicating what outcome you’re trying to achieve. And even more critical, to clearly articulate why this outcome is a worthwhile goal for the members of the team, the company and the world around them. If your team is not 100% clear on its purpose and 100% bought into its value, there is no amount of “management” that can compensate.
My recommendation to first time managers is to immediately sit down with your team and communicate what the mission is. It can be a mission for this year, this quarter, or even a longer term purpose. The only things that really matter are that you communicate it, your team believes in it, and you do it in week 1.
Once you’ve established a mission, you need to set some mission metrics. There is no reason this needs to take longer than a week either. The temptation will be to deliberate on this one for weeks and months but that is a strong indication you don’t have a clear mission in the first place. For me, the team’s mission metrics are the only metrics I really care about. In theory you start at the company success metrics and they roll down to each department and team until ultimately each individual has metrics born from the company’s goals. I’m not opposed to that in principle but I am much more interested in metrics at the team level than at the company or even individual level because I want everyone to define success that same way. It can be confusing and even damaging for a team when one individual our group is claiming success when another individual or group is seeing failure. I want everyone on the team sharing in success and failure equally and for that reason I keep everyone focused on team level mission metrics instead of individual measures of success.
My recommendation for first time managers is to spend time with your team in the first week to map out the 3-5 (no more than 5!) mission metrics for your team. For example, if I’m managing a Marketing team and our mission is to build a world class demand generation engine, our mission metrics for the year might be 100,000 web site visits, 10,000 leads, $10 million in sales opportunities. And then from that point onward, all our discussions, reports and celebrations will be based on the achievement of these mission metrics.
Now that you have a shared team mission and some metrics to define success, you need to manage the path to achieving it. One of the trickiest things I’ve found in managing teams is to sustain purposeful momentum towards an outcome. It’s usually pretty easy to get people excited about something new and to get off to a good start, but a lot more challenging to sustain that purpose over many months and years. Everyone starts off with the best of intentions but then things happen – distractions, changes, new people – inevitably something comes up that clouds or confuses the mission.
One of the best tools I use to keep everyone focused on the mission and mission metrics is the weekly team stand-up. It’s a 30-minute meeting with the entire team at the beginning of every week to reiterate the mission and reflect on the big wins from the previous week against the core mission metrics. I usually spend 10 minutes on wins from the previous week, 10 minutes on wins we’re shooting for in the upcoming week and 10 minutes on a general message to provide guidance or motivation to the team. The team stand-up should be the anchor point in the week – you should never skip one and team members should not feel ok missing one either. In my experience stand-ups are great even for very large teams.
My recommendation for first time managers is to book a recurring team stand-up every Monday or Tuesday and never miss one. If you’re going to be travelling, do it remotely. If you’re on vacation, have your second in command run it for you.
At the end of each week I like to send out a “weekly wins” email to my team and my own manager. This is a way of reinforcing the importance of the team’s mission and metrics. It’s also a great way to get your boss and other executives aware and supportive of what your team is doing. One of the things that can often disrupt momentum towards a shared team mission is when competing priorities come in from superiors. By sharing your team’s wins with your boss and other leaders, you reduce the likelihood of that happening by getting them invested in what you’re trying to do.
Another positive outcome of sending weekly win emails is it creates a desire in team members to receive public recognition. When they see colleagues getting acknowledged for wins it gets them even more invested in doing things that will result in their own “wins”. That’s a great situation to be in as a manager. The most important piece of advice I can offer for structuring win emails, is to make sure you only recognize wins that directly hit on the team mission and mission metrics. The temptation will be to call people out for all sorts of positive contributions, but I would caution you against that. If you want to keep your team focused on the mission at hand, you should only recognize wins that directly impact your agreed upon mission metrics.
My recommendation to first time managers is to start sending out weekly win emails to your team and manager as soon as you have your mission and mission metrics set. I usually try to find 3-5 wins each week and I do my best to share as much credit as I can so long as the wins directly advance our team’s mission.
Up until this point all the tactics have been focused on the team and not individuals. That is by design. But it is important to keep a regular cadence with each member of your group with the purpose of helping them find success in the mission and ultimately in their careers. Even in individual one on one meetings I still like to keep the context rooted in the team mission and metrics. The only difference in this case is we use this particular meeting to focus in on what the individual is doing to help advance team goals and how success in the mission will create success for them in their career path. There’s lots of good content out there on how to structure a 1-1 meeting so I won’t focus on that. The only thing I will say is that a 1-1 meeting with a team member is primarily about you listening to them and helping them be successful within the team mission. It is an opportunity for you to provide critical feedback when necessary but my advice is for you to focus as much as possible on listening and helping vs. criticizing and directing.
My recommendation to first time managers is to book recurring weekly 1-1 meetings with each team member before the end of the first week.
If you’re a first time manager or you’ve been doing this for a while and want to tighten up your game a bit, these 5 tactics have been really helpful for me along my journey to becoming a better manager. Try them out and let me know how you do.