What does it mean to be a manager?

A lot of people say they want to become managers, only to realize there's a learning curve that comes with a leadership role. When you are a first-time manager, you move from being assessed primarily on your hard skills (being a designer, a content writer, an account manager, etc.) to being assessed based on your soft skills (communication style, ability to build relationships, motivate team members, uphold deadlines and team KPIs, etc.). On top of that, you are now expected to carry a different level of professionalism. 

You now represent the company, in the sense that the company has chosen to promote and represent you. 

Something our Head of People does at ThirdLove, for example, is hold role-playing exercises. She will have managers come together and have one person say something (talk about a conflict, or share something on their mind) and then the other person will have to respond. This is how we do a lot of our communication training.

So, if you are reflecting on ways your company can better empower its own first-time managers, or maybe you're wondering what you should be working on to become a manager yourself, here are four pieces of advice I would encourage you to take to heart.

1. You don't have to have an immediate answer for everything.

Especially if you are leading a big team, you don't always have to know, right away, how to handle each and every question or conflict that arises--especially when you're caught off guard.

If somebody comes to me and says, "I'm really upset at this thing that happened" or catches me off-guard, I will usually say something to the effect of, "You know what? That's interesting. Let me think about it and come back to you." That is a perfectly acceptable answer (so long as you return to the person with a thoughtful takeaway or action step). This gives you time to digest, ask others for advice, and come back with the best possible path forward. 

Being thoughtful will make you a whole lot more effective than being reactionary. 

2. Lead by example and make empathy one of your core soft skills.

As a manager, your job is to serve everyone else. In fact, at each of our leadership meetings, I say the same thing to the group -- your 'team' is the people around the leadership table. Of course, you also need to be accountable to your direct reports, and you must set a positive example for the people below you and the people around you. You can't be defensive for example when you are asked questions, or others will think that is acceptable behavior.

You also need to get to know your team, understand who they are, what they want, and what they need in order to be successful. This is what takes you from being an IC, where you see your job is your own and no one else's, to being a manager and a leader, where your job is to positively impact every single other person at the company, in some way, shape, or form. Empathy is a must. 

3. Your job is to give direct, honest feedback.

Being able to give constructive feedback is a skill. 

It takes a lot of practice to be able to tell people what they need to do in order to improve without making them feel offended--and instead, making feedback a gift for them to learn and improve. A lot of first-time managers think their title of Manager is going to be the thing that gets people to take them seriously. It's not. 

People follow people who have cultivated a mindset that conveys genuine confidence and empathy at the same time. Your team needs to know you mean business, but that your feedback is also coming from a good place. 

4. The company should invest heavily in training new managers, and first-time managers should invest heavily in educating themselves.

Nothing is more important internally than training and empowering your managers.

Great managers are the only way your company will ever scale. So, some of the things you need to prioritize giving these new managers is a clear understanding of their day-to-day responsibilities, as well as teaching them things like how to set their own goals, how to onboard a new team member, how to develop 30-60-90 day plans and review new employee performance. And most of all, communication training, and showing them how you would like them to communicate with their direct reports.

That said, if you are a first-time manager, you should be taking it upon yourself to proactively seek answers to these types of questions as well--both within the company and externally. Talk to friends. Grab coffee with someone who is a manager at another company and ask them what works. Read leadership now and newsletters. Invest in yourself, so that you can rise to the occasion.