10 Actions For New Managers

My team grew in February, and three new members became line managers for the first time. As a newly graduated MBA with over ten years of line management experience, I wanted to give them some immediate actions to help them in their first six to 12 months. I have previously written about my approach to leadership and management, but I wanted something simple and practical that would allow each person to begin developing their management style. I went through my MBA and undergraduate texts and collected together some resources, three of which I share below:

5 things new managers should focus on first‘ by Anthony K. Tjan, from the May 2017 edition of the Harvard Business Review, suggests the following:

  • Establish a leadership philosophy
  • Focus on the day to day of management and leadership
  • Be clear about your communication and your top priorities
  • Set common values and common standards
  • Remember that it’s okay to be scared and vulnerable

I firmly believe in setting common values and standards and being clear about your top five priorities. Establishing a leadership philosophy, however, might be challenging while establishing yourself in a new role. The best takeaway from this list is to focus on day-to-day management and leadership, organising your resources (people and funds) to achieve your objectives. This organising can be done simply by listing your deliverables and their due dates and, working with your team to allocate tasks and monitoring them, adjusting task allocations to ensure you hit deadlines and quality expectations.

The book ‘The Making of a Manager‘ by early Facebook employee Julie Zhou has a great definition of the job of a manager; “Getting better outcomes from a group of people working together.” The book suggests a great manager is someone whose team “…consistently achieve great outcomes.” Zhoe recommends managers arrange their tasks into three buckets: 

  • Purpose (what): ensure your team knows what success looks like and cares about achieving it.
  • People (who): Ask yourself: are the team set up to succeed, have the right skills, and are motivated to do great work? Build trusting relationships, understand their strengths and weaknesses to make good decisions about allocating work, and coach individuals to do their best.
  • Process (how): set out how the team works together.

The famous productivity book ‘Getting Things Done‘ by David Allen suggests six horizons of focus to define work:

  • Ground: Calendar/Actions
  • Horizon 1: Projects
  • Horizon 2: Areas of Focus
  • Horizon 3: One-to two-year goals and objectives
  • Horizon 4: three to five-year vision
  • Horizon 5: Purpose and principles

This list presents a valuable hierarchy of activities for new managers from day one, compiling a complete inventory of actions and dates and capturing this into a shared calendar and to-do list to identify multi-task projects and assign areas of focus and accountability. Once these things are working correctly and everyone is producing consistently good work, focus can expand to thinking about annual objectives and a three-year vision to guide which work to priorities and set the direction for the team. After the first year or two, once the manager is established, experienced, and has work under control, they may prefer to take a strategic approach, start from horizon five, and work backwards. However, trying this from day one might cause missed commitments and poor outcomes.

Ten actions for new managers

I settled on the following ten actions for the new manager’s first six to 12 months. The steps start from immediate one-to-one activities and gradually move out in scope and from individuals to the team. You can quickly fix many problems by talking to your direct reports 1:1 and face to face each week and tracking the resulting agreed-upon actions in a to-do list and calendar. However, developing trusting relationships at a team level may take a long time with many shared experiences. Each step should be satisfied before moving on to the next.

  1. Have a 1:1 for 30-60 minutes every 1-2 weeks​
  2. Track all agreed-on actions using a shared to-do list​
  3. Co-create achievable quarterly and annual objectives with clear successful, strong, and exceptional performance targets​
  4. Create a detailed development plan for each role and personalise it based on the strengths and weaknesses of each team member and their long-term career goals​
  5. Cultivate psychological safety​
  6. Spend time planning as a team​
  7. Have a mixture of shared outputs and personal responsibilities​
  8. Develop a clear vision for the team supported by key performance indicators​
  9. Create weekly, quarterly, and annual cycles​
  10. Develop trusting relationships​

This list will evolve and change as these new managers develop and as new line managers join my area. I will detail some of these actions and how I teach them when they come back into my work focus, and I may justify the list and its order at some point with the detail I share with new managers on my teams. 

If you are a new manager or supporting a new manager with their first direct reports, I recommend reading ‘The making of a Manager’ and then ‘Getting Things Done’ to support this list or to develop your own.

Managing Oneself

Peter Drucker is arguably the most influential thinker on management. One of his best-known works is the 18,000-word book ‘Managing Oneself‘ published in 2008 from a 1999 Harvard Business Review article. The article now be found in HBRs ’10 must Reads: The Essentials’, the collection of the 10 most important articles published in their 100-year history. The book’s core idea is that you need to cultivate a deep self-awareness to achieve ‘true and lasting excellence.

Drucker presents a series of questions you can answer about yourself to gain the self-awareness needed to ‘build a life of excellence:

  1. What are my strengths?
  2. How do I work?
  3. How do I learn?
  4. What are my values?
  5. Where do I belong?
  6. What can I contribute?

The most difficult of these questions is the first. With over 180 cognitive biases that affect our ability to process reality, such as confirmation bias where we look for evidence that justified our existing beliefs, how do you truly know what your strengths are? Drucker’s recommended method is feedback analysis; each time you make a key decision write down the outcome you expect and then return in a couple of months and compare the actual results with your expectations. By assessing patterns using this method you will be able to assess your strengths from where you can create desired outcomes. You can then spend time improving these strengths as the most effective route to high performance. Creating a series of feedback analyses can take two to three years for meaningful patterns to emerge, so what can we do immediately while collecting these experiments?

Success in the knowledge economy comes to those who know themselves-their strengths, their values, and how they best perform.

Peter Drucker

How do I perform?

My current focus is on the second and third questions of Drucker’s questions. A set of sub-questions are presented to help us get to:

  • In what ways do I work best?
  • Do I process information most effectively by reading it, or by hearing others discuss it?
  • Do I accomplish the most by working with other people, or working alone?
  • Do I perform best while making decisions, or while advising others on key matters? 
  • Do I perform best when things get stressful, or in highly predictable environments?

By answering these questions you can start to understand what kinds of productivity techniques and tools might suit you best. I know for instance that I can consume and process information through listening. I am often able to recall things I have heard better than those I have read, although this means I often have to avoid listening to things like the radio when I am driving home from work and processing the day’s information and decisions. I have set up techniques to support this including preferring listening to audiobooks over reading them or listening to the week’s economist rather than reading the paper version.  

An interesting point though is how much of overall performance is improved by foundational skills and how much is open to preference and styles? Time blocking for example, where blocks of time, usually in 30-60 minute intervals are allocated to specific tasks, is widely seen as the best method to organise a day. Many methods of note-taking from GTD to Zettelkasten, and the ‘Building a Second Brain’ method all base themselves on the premise that the brain is built to process information rather than store it. Which of these ideas are universal for improved performance that forms the starting point for developing exceptional ability?

How do I learn?

I did not enjoy school nor did I develop any good learning habits or achieve anything exceptional academically. I did however get obsessive with other pursuits such as music production, where I did much better. Drucker suggests that people that excel at learning through writing tend to do poorly at school as most classes are not set up to exploid this approach. One of the reasons I set up this blog is I have a google drive full of documents I have used to organise my thoughts and when learning something new, I usually reach for a pen to organise the idea in my own way. Drucker suggests that there are multiple ways to learn including readers, listeners, talkers, and writers and says that most of us know how we learn best but rarely act on this, and so do not reach high performance. 

As a teacher, I know there are definitely foundational skills and techniques that everyone can benefit from using more. Encoding, spaced repetition and active recall are all seen as highly effective methods of rote learning. Kolb’s cycle presents four stages of experiencial learning; planning, doing, reflecting, and learning but perhaps the most effective way we do each of these stages can vary from person to person and within different contexts. Bloom’s two sigma problem suggests that 1:1 and very small group tutoring produces results two standard deviations better than other methods and John Hattie’s invisible learning presents a meta-analysis of the meaningful research on teaching methods.

 My actions for gaining self-awareness for excellent performance

With my MBA graduation over and the immediate actions complete for my new job, it is time for me to refocus on my performance. I am working on a number of methods to improve my understanding of my strengths but what can I do to improve my ways of working and learning? 

First, I need to work on my foundation skills and update my productivity and learning systems. Then, I need to build on these foundations with more advanced personalised methods that fit the way I work and learn best. Finally, I need to use these two sets of skills on a daily basis. 

Some resources I am using:

Leardership and management 101

I believe there are three keys to strong leadership and management:

  1. Vision
  2. Wellbeing
  3. Productivity

First, you have to have a clear and ambitious vision for the future your team is creating and communicate it so that they believe it. Next, you need to look after the individual team members and promote psychological safety. Finally, you need to break your vision down into clear goals and let each team member know what they are responsible for, then let them get on with it.  

Vision: the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom.

Oxford Languages

Wellbeing: the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy.

Oxford Languages

Productivity: the effectiveness of productive effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input.

Oxford Languages

A new manager can start with simple steps for each of the three elements and then gradually built upon them to spiral out their capabilities as a manager and leader. For example, once you have written a vision, you are holding regular open and honest 1:1 meetings with each team member, and everyone is clear on what they should be working on, you could turn your vision into a strategy, You could add a daily stand each morning to build community in the team, and you can start to have more control over the flow of work by identifying and removing constraints.

If you want some ideas on how to spiral out your vision and productivity, Jim Collins’s Level 5 leadership and the Capability Maturity Model (CMM) are an excellent place to start. For wellbeing, begin by learning about creating a psychologically safe workplace and then take the lessons of Self-determination theory to encourage your team to develop autonomy, competence, and relatedness in their work.