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Young managers - What are you really in charge of?!

Young manager

The mining industry is finding it necessary to give ever younger people significant responsibility early in their careers.

The mining industry is finding it necessary to give ever younger people significant responsibility early in their careers. As firms become leaner, flatter and more dynamic, with ever more complex relationships, new managers say the transition is getting harder.

Recognising leadership myths can help.

Harvard Business School Lecturer Linda Hill spent 15 years studying people moving into management and found they were shaped by their first impressions as managers. Decades on, many describe their early days as transformational experiences that forged their management styles in ways that still hurt and hobble them today!

Strong words, yet many of us know people who were promoted for star performance, but struggled to adjust to the entirely different responsibilities of their new role.

‘Becoming a boss is difficult!’

The skills required for personal performance excellence are very different to those required for managerial success. A new managers role is already by definition, a stretch target. This is made worse if the new incumbent is poorly prepared, which seems often to be the case.

Becoming a boss is difficult, but it’s often harder than it need be due to the new manager’s ideas about what it takes. While these ideas may hold some truths, they’re often simplistic and incomplete and individuals may struggle to reconcile them with the reality of managerial life.

By acknowledging several misconceptions, new managers can improve their chance of success.

Myth 1: Managers wield significant authority.

Asked to describe their job, new managers often focus on the rights, privileges and freedom that come with it. No longer will they be ‘burdened by the unreasonable demands of others’.

Those making this assumption face a rude awakening! Many of the managers Hill studied said that instead of feeling free, they felt more constrained and hemmed in by interdependencies than in their previous role as a star performer.

Until new managers trade the myth of authority for the reality of negotiating interdependencies, they can’t lead effectively.

Myth 2: Authority flows from the manager’s position.

While new managers wield some power, most mistakenly believe that they are presented automatic with significant formal authority due to their loftier place in the hierarchy. They soon learn, however, that subordinates don’t always do as they’re told.

‘It took me three months to realise I had no effect on many of my people. It was like I was talking to myself.’

Many new managers are surprised how hard it is to earn people’s trust and respect. They’re shocked and even insulted that their expertise and record don’t speak for themselves.

While these things are helpful, new managers also need to demonstrate their character and intention to do the right thing. This is particularly important to subordinates, many of whom analyse every word and gesture of their new boss, to try and discern their motives.

New managers feel the need to demonstrate the technical expertise that got them promoted as individual performers. Though important in earning respect, this isn’t the primary competency subordinates seek.

‘Once I stopped talking all the time and began to listen, people started to teach me about the job and questioned my calls far less.’

Gaining and wielding influence in an organisation is hard, as new managers are the ‘little’ bosses. One surveyed manager said, ‘I thought I’d be on the top of the ladder I’d been climbing for years. But suddenly I felt like I was at the bottom again – except this time it wasn’t even clear what the rungs were and where I was climbing to.’

Rather than rely on authority, new managers must build influence by creating a web of strong, interdependent relationships based on credibility and trust, both in their team and across the organisation.

Myth 3: Managers must control their subordinates.

Most new managers yearn for subordinate compliance. To gain it, they often rely too much on formal authority. Though this can produce some control…

compliance doesn’t equal commitment.

Uncommitted subordinates don’t show initiative, which is required to take the calculated risks that lead to the continuous change and improvement today’s business environment demands. Without initiative, managers can’t delegate effectively.

The more power managers share with subordinates, the more influence they command. When they lead in a way that lets their people show initiative, they build their credibility as leaders.

Myth 4: Managers must focus on good individual relationships.

To manage interdependencies and exercise informal authority, new managers must build trust, influence and mutual expectations with a wide range of people. This is often achieved via productive personal relationships. Ultimately, however, new managers must harness the power of a team. Focusing on individual relationships can undermine this.

Many new managers don’t recognise their team-building responsibilities. Instead, they see people management as optimising relationships with each subordinate, erroneously equating team management with managing the individuals on the team.

They focus on individual performance and pay scant attention to team culture and performance. They seldom use group forums to identify and solve problems. Some spend too much time with a small number of trusted subordinates – often those who seem most supportive. They tend to handle issues (even those with team implications) one-on-one and thus base their decisions on unnecessarily limited information.

Myth 5: Managers must ensure that things run smoothly.

Like many myths, this one is partly true, but keeping an operation running smoothly is an extremely difficult task. Often (and this comes as a surprise to most new managers) this means challenging organisational processes or structures that are beyond their area of formal authority.

Only when they understand this can they seriously embrace their leadership responsibilities. Rather than change agents, most new managers see themselves as targets of changes ordered from above. Their hierarchical thinking and formal authority fixation, often leads them to define their responsibilities too narrowly. Consequently, they tend to blame setbacks on flawed systems (and the superiors responsible for them) and wait for others to fix problems.

‘To succeed, new managers must generate change in and beyond their formal area of responsibility.’

This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of their role. They must work to change the context in which their teams operate, even if it means ignoring their lack of formal authority over that broader business context.

To you as a new manager. You’re not alone!

As a new manager you can gain great advantage by recognizing the above misconceptions, but you’re still going to make mistakes and feel pain as your professional identity is stretched.

Unfortunately, Hill’s research shows that few new managers seek help. This is partly due to yet another misconception: “the boss is supposed to have all the answers” and so seeking help could be interpreted by senior management that the new manager is a ‘promotion mistake’.

Another reason new managers don’t seek help is that they perceive dangers in forging developmental relationships. When you reveal your fears, errors and shortcomings to peers, there’s a chance they’ll use it against you.

Such fears can be justified. Many new managers have regretted trying to establish a mentoring relationship with their boss. One research participant said, ‘I don’t dare even ask a question that could be perceived as naïve or stupid. Once he made me feel like I was a kindergarten kid. It was as if he’d said, “That was the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen. What on earth did you have in mind?’’’

To you as the boss of a new manager.

This is a tragic loss for all concerned. You lose a chance to guide your new manager’s initial impressions of the role and how to approach it. The new manager loses access to assets you could best provide, from financial resources, to insights on senior management priorities. And with its newest leader suffering a false start, your organisation too, can only suffer.