The hard thing about becoming a people manager

May 18, 2021 - 12 min read


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New managers face performance challenges and inner obstacles

Practical tips and exercises for new managers to explore their own growth

A people-first focus builds a strong foundation

Jon was going to be fired. He knew it. Leadership had made a mistake. They were going to figure out that he couldn’t manage anything and fire him. He’d been a great full-stack engineer — now he was in over his head. He wished that he had never been promoted. 

Being a new manager has never been easy. Now it is more challenging than ever. Managers are directly in the eye of the storm when it comes to navigating uncertainty and rapidly-changing customer demands, employee expectations, and workplace conditions. Under pressure to perform month-to-month, more and more managers also have to develop their people, build diverse teams, and cultivate innovative cultures. 

Many aren’t well-prepared. More than 50 years after the Peter Principle, organizations still often promote people based on past achievements that have little to do with the role of manager. Or, they promote based on markers of potential that aren’t equal to new realities. 

It is little wonder, our coaches tell us, that so many new managers struggle in their role. Stress is a prime catalyst for rapid growth. Yet, like Jon with his imposter syndrome, many new managers are waylaid by their own inner critics at exactly the moment that stress-wrapped opportunity comes knocking.

This month we asked a panel of BetterUp Coaches about the challenges they are seeing in Members who have recently been promoted to people management. 

Coaches Fabian Orue, Bethany Klynn, and Kelly Labrecque joined us for this discussion. 

BetterUp Coaches create an objective, safe space for employees to pause and consider different ways of understanding and interpreting their own experiences. They help members be vulnerable and honest, enabling deep personal insights that allow for personal and professional growth.


New managers face performance challenges and inner obstacles

  • Coach Kelly: What people don't realize is that there is a journey through the looking glass that takes place as you transition from being the 'one who does great work', to 'the one who leads people that do great work'. This can be a radical identity shift. The temptation to jump back into the familiarity of solving problems and doing the work yourself can be irresistible.

    A lot of new managers struggle with delegation because they don't want to overburden their team. They end up working harder than anyone else, often compromising work/life balance and getting burnt out. 

  • Coach Bethany: They’re trying to navigate the difference between doing all the work themselves and delegating to others. At the same time, they have new responsibilities (coaching others, conducting performance reviews, managing work, working with peers) and have to free up time for these priorities. They need to feel confident in their functional skills as well as their ability to lead.

  • Coach Fabian: “What got you here won’t get you there” is a famous quote from M. Goldsmith. Organizations often promote strong individual contributors into leading people, generally not preparing them for their new roles. Bright, accomplished people without the “soft” skills feel challenged and without the right tools, incapable of being effective. This shakes self-confidence and creates anxiety, doubt, fear, insecurity, and frustration.

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Practical tips and exercises for new managers to explore their own growth

  • Coach Fabian: For all new managers I coach, I recommend the following:
    • Take a learner’s approach. You haven't been taught all these skills, but they can be learned and you will be able to grow as a good leader and people manager.
      I suggest the following questions for reflection: When was the last time that you started learning something you didn’t really know and in which you wanted to excel?Go back to that moment of not knowing, how did you feel? What emotions did you have? How did you feel when completing the learning, being skillful and looking back to the overall process?
    • Be self-compassionate. Allow yourself not to know these skills and not to have answers at times.
    • Do not pretend to be something you are not. Approach the new role with humbleness and authenticity.
    • Request support from mentors and the organization. Guidance from leaders and peer-supported learning can accelerate development of the new skills to become a sound leader.
  • Coach Bethany: When stepping into any growth opportunity, I engage Members in an exercise to ANTICIPATE: thinking about what will be most challenging to them and articulating ways in which they might grow. This anticipation helps leaders go into the experience with a curiosity about how they will learn. They consider how the new leadership role will give them the chance to stretch and try new skills.

    Specifically I ask them to consider: What aspects of this role are brand new to you? What kind of help will you need? What information and skills would be helpful? How will you get this help/ information/ skills?  What relationships do you need to build? What are the things you feel most confident about and where do you have concerns about your ability to step into the role? What kind of leader do you want to be? What will it look like when you’re successful?

A people-first focus builds a strong foundation

  • Coach Kelly: Great leaders focus on people-work over paper-work. For the first two weeks, listen deeply and ask questions that will help you understand your new direct reports. A rookie mistake is to come in and make changes without first understanding what's already working.

    In one-on-ones, ask questions: "What worked well in your relationship with your previous manager? What would have made that relationship even better?" Ask questions that lay the foundation for a relationship in which you both thrive: "What allows you to do your best work?" "How do you like to receive feedback?" "What type of work inspires you?"

    Imagine this as a long-term relationship. Invest time in building trust and rapport first and people will be more open to feedback later. 

  • Coach Bethany: I recommend that new leaders do upfront contracting with their team members to get to know each other, establish rapport, and align on expectations. This contract is about establishing a “partnership agreement” with direct reports on their team. I like to make it as formal as writing it down and then getting together to discuss. 
    Specifically, I have them each answer a set of questionss:
    • What are the expectations for each role?
    • What are each of our needs from our relationship?
    • What are each of our communication preferences?
    • How will we work together?

Aligning on topics like this at the outset can establish norms and expectations. It makes it easier on both sides to check in on how things are going.

Finally, for those leaders who have new managers on their teams, supporting your just emerging leaders is one of the most important things you can do. Those new managers set the tone and shape the experience of most of your workforce. As Coach Fabian advises: empathize, be compassionate, be supportive with tools and resources, and stay close as a coach (but don’t micromanage).

It’s worth remembering the Tom Peters quote: “Leaders don't create followers, they create more leaders.” 


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Published May 18, 2021

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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