Not Sure Where to Start as a New Manager? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am a junior partner in a small investment firm. My job is huge—there is always more to do than time to do it.

Last year, the firm hired a junior analyst to work with me. I did my best, but things just didn’t work out. He worked very slowly, made lots of mistakes, and got super defensive every time I tried to give him feedback. Our HR person told me the fit was all wrong. They found another position for him in the company and I have been limping along without help.

I have finally found someone else but I am terrified of repeating what happened last time. The first guy told my boss that he was intimidated by me. I don’t know what do with that. To be fair, I am a type A personality, I’m good at figuring things out and getting things done, and I guess I expect other people to be like that, too.

I realize I don’t know the first thing about managing someone. I am so gun-shy now. Can you give me some ideas about where to start?

New Manager

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Dear New Manager,

Well, there are about a million books on this subject and even more people out there offering classes on the topic. However, you asked me, so I will take a crack at it.

First let me say that I spent thirty years working hard at being a decent manager, which is not natural for me. If I can do it, so can you. I was never great at it but I was never the cause of a hostile work environment lawsuit, so I am calling that a win.

I have had more people tell me they are intimidated by me than I can count. It took me years to stop trying so hard not to be intimidating, and it never really worked. The only thing to do if people tend to respond to you that way is to make clear from the outset that you care deeply about their success, you intend nothing but the best for them, and you will have their back no matter what.

Avoid BLMS

The first thing you need to know is no one else is like you. You might have things in common with direct reports, but the big difference is that you are a manager and they are not. If they were like you, they would be managing people. Scott Blanchard calls this “Be Like Me Syndrome” (BLMS) – when you fail at managing people because you expect them to be like you. They aren’t. But if you do a great job, they will find their own strengths and become more themselves as they get better at what they do.

Get Better at Hiring

The next thing to know—and I am sorry if this is too late for your new hire, but you can tuck it away for the future—is that most of the battle with getting it right with an employee is hiring the right one. It sounds simple, but of course it’s anything but. I have suffered from hiring disasters and I have also been  lucky. You want to look for a couple of very specific things:

  • A strong locus of control. This means they take responsibility for themselves, their own experience, and their own destiny, and are not inclined to blame others for their own lack of success.
  • A growth mindset.  This means they trust themselves to be able to learn, to grow, to recover from mistakes, and to move on with the confidence that they will be able to rise to whatever challenge they face.

Skills and experience are always desirable, of course, but those can be learned and gained over time. For more on hiring, here is a great article by Adam Robinson, CEO of Hireology. Ultimately, you don’t want to hire a turtle if you need them to climb a tree. If you need someone to climb a tree, hire a squirrel.

Start with Crystal Clear Direction

Once you do get started with a new direct report (DR for short) the most important thing you can do is give them crystal clear direction about what the job is, the exact tasks they are expected to perform, the best way to perform them, and the timeline associated with each task. As Ken Blanchard often says, you must paint the picture of what a good job looks like, catch people doing things right, and offer gentle re-direction when they don’t. Anything you can do to help clarify will be useful, including checklists, examples, detailed instructions, and common pitfalls to avoid.

Explain to your DR that your job is to help them be as successful as possible. You will start by helping them identify transferable skills they can build on while you offer feedback on what is working and what needs to be sharpened. Explain that it will feel like you are a (dreaded) micromanager until you see evidence that they are able to go it alone on any given task, at which point you will loosen up. You will have to find a happy medium between “good enough” and “the way I would have done it” so your DR can build their own confidence and find their own way. Reassure your DR that you will start with tight supervision and loosen up as their competence and confidence increases.

This is a very short version of our flagship training, SLII®. You can find more on that here.

I managed people (badly) for years before I found SLII® and it felt like someone turned the light on in a dark room. I had shied away from giving clear direction because I didn’t want to come off as bossy. (Note: I am, in fact, bossy—how else could I write this column?) This often left me disappointed in what I got from people. Using the SLII® approach will help you to avoid the two biggest mistakes you can make:

  • Breathing down people’s necks when they are perfectly capable of doing a good enough job (i.e., indulging your own perfectionism).
  • Leaving people to their own devices and then criticizing their work after the fact (i.e., using hope as a management strategy).

Share Your Expectations

You will also want to state your expectations for your DR very clearly and be ready to reiterate them. Most managers I work with think their implicit expectations are obvious to everyone, so when they aren’t met, it seems shoddy or willful. But today more than ever, the things you expect to be obvious to everyone simply are not. Your employees will be coming from homes, cultures, educational systems, and generations that are different from yours, and you will need to make your standards clear.

Examples of things most managers think are obvious are their beliefs that people should:

  • be on time
  • ask for help when they need it
  • figure out the platforms and systems you use in your business
  • book time with you to review high stakes work and get feedback
  • proof their work before sending it to you or to anyone else outside of your department
  • review their work to catch egregious errors
  • use spell check and Grammarly if they weren’t English majors
  • try to see the bigger picture of how their work fits into the results of the whole department
  • escalate when they are overwhelmed and cannot complete all of their work
  • come to you for clarification about priorities
  • dress appropriately for the business they are in
  • take breaks and take proper care of themselves
  • tell you when something is wrong.

It sounds like a lot, because it is. But unless you tell people what matters most to you, they will waste their time “boss watching” trying to figure it out and they will get it wrong. You simply cannot expect people to read your mind.

Lead with Values

If your company doesn’t have a strong onboarding program, you will want to explain to your new DR what the business does, who it serves, and how it generates revenue and profit. You will want to share the company values if any exist—and if not, share your own leadership values. If you have no idea what your values are, now is a good time to get some insight so you can share them with others. Read 4 Questions to Help Clarify Your Core Values to get started. It might be a good idea to have your new hire to do the same, so you can start a strong two-way communication about preferences and workstyles.

Scott Blanchard often shares the advice his boss gave him when he started his first job as a supervisor: “Remember that everything you do or say will end up being dinner table conversation tonight.” The fact that you even care enough to do a little due diligence on this is a good sign. You might make some missteps, but if you own them, share your awareness of them, learn from them, and keep trying to do better (all examples of a strong locus of control and growth mindset, by the way) you will be okay.

Be kind. Be clear. Be consistent. Go forth and win hearts and minds.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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