30 lessons I learned managing people for the first time

30 lessons I learned managing people for the first time

I joined a startup out of college, wanting to effect change and make an impact right away.

Two years thereafter, I was thrust into a management role. It was exactly what I wanted. It started with a couple direct reports, and over time, I found myself leading 20 analytics professionals. Having no prior management training, I made many mistakes. People have quit, projects have failed, and targets have been missed. That said, I’ve also successfully helped the company grow from 12 to 100+ team members.

I owe my team for all the knowledge I’ve gained. The team that served as guinea pigs early on, forgave me time and again, and never gave up in our pursuit of success. Here are 30 lessons I learned on my journey so far:

  1. Don’t set any expectations with new hires, apart from the need for them to learn and ask a ton of questions. In other words, expect them to be curious. Expecting anything more has a high chance of catalyzing impostor syndrome.
  2. Before trying to influence people, first gain their trust.
  3. Perks, ping pong, and free beer matter less to team members than a purposeful mission, fast-tracked professional development, and fair compensation plans. Plus, all these standing desks, designer offices, and free food create a comfortable and entitled atmosphere that incentivizes chilling, rather than the underdog culture that pushes people to strive for more, to win. Which one do we want?
  4. It’s unreasonable to expect our boss to be perfect. It’s unreasonable to think that the CEO knows everything, and will always take the right decisions. We have a much better view of the challenges facing the business from down here. It’s thus our duty to speak up.
  5. One of the world’s top thinkers (Clayton Christensen) has researched and explained how to disrupt a market. We thus don’t need to reinvent the process or “figure it out” all over again. Let’s just make sure that our solution is actually disruptive and not sustained in nature (i.e. a solution that offers worse performance than existing solutions at first, and that existing clients don’t want right away, but that can be improved rapidly)
  6. Innovation isn’t brainstorming a ton of ideas and trying everything that seems interesting. There’s a systematic process that can make innovation projects much more effective, starting with problem definition, not problem solving.
  7. Forecasting is overrated. Scenario planning is much more critical when it comes to planning for the future.
  8. Managing my boss is just as important as managing my team. I have to understand that my boss doesn’t have time to explore what I need, how I’m doing, and what is reasonable to expect from me. It’s up to me to communicate all of that.
  9. As the organization grows, there is a tendency for teams to work in silos; caring only about their specific team goals. This can be detrimental to the organization as processes that require cross-team collaboration (i.e. everything) can break down. When/if that happens, everyone needs to come together and see the company as one unit, working towards the same goal.
  10. Surveys are misleading and lack context. Instead, let’s make time to observe. Observe team members to get a sense of their fears and motivations, observe customers to understand their pain points, and observe leadership for clues on the business challenges ahead.
  11. Toxic culture will destroy a companyThis includes both organizations where people stay silent and don’t bring up problems, and those where leadership listens to problems, but sweeps them under the carpet. Dishonesty prevents the company from seeings the obstacles ahead and plan accordingly.
  12. Don’t let instincts get in the way of a great work culture. Our subconscious can behave differently than desired, leading to biased decisions that hurt the company.
  13. Before hurriedly analyzing data to answer a question, let’s first why we care, what actions we plan to take, and what reports we envision being useful. Otherwise, it’s very likely we’ll get distracted by data and waste time.
  14. Adopting the right metrics helps to guide people when we’re not there and reminds them of what is important. It’s thus crucial for effecting change.
  15. Define the problem before solving it. Too much time is wasted solving the wrong problems.
  16. When it comes to decision making, the most important step is to evaluate all potential outcomes and to plan around each scenario. Nothing ever happens as planned, so we need to stand ready to face the worst case scenario.
  17. Before taking a decision, let’s first check our blind spot: Look for biases, subconscious tendencies, and invalidated assumptions.
  18. A hiring process is comparable to a sales process: A funnel with multiple stages that can be improved. The goal is to maximize the ratio of [people interviewed] over the number of [people hired and successfully working with us].
  19. Even A-players will feel unsuccessful without clear expectations and goals.
  20. Great insights are often lost because we don’t think to ask people about their past experiences. Before going live, let’s ask team members whether they’ve worked on similar projects, have experience with a new role we’re creating, or have previously implemented a change we’re considering.
  21. Implementing change is hard, because human beings are animals of routine. Before changing, we need to plan ahead, win hearts & minds, and reach mutual agreement. Ideally, change feels like a natural evolution everyone is excited about.
  22. Having too little processes makes operations chaotic, while having too many processes brings inefficiencies. A fine balance can be found via a set of guidelines that empowers team members to make individual calls.
  23. We should feel comfortable to disagree with our boss and challenge their opinion (with evidence). A healthy culture welcomes constructive debate and feedback.
  24. Shying away from having tough conversation and giving constructive feedback will make us frustrated in the long run. It’s a sign that we’re not comfortable exposing our thoughts. To make it less personal, we can focus our feedback on the behavior, not the person.
  25. Great leaders are also great coaches who diagnose, train, and support their team members. It’s unfair to delegate tasks to team members without diagnosing their capabilities first. It sets them up for failure.
  26. If someone is underperforming, they could be: A bad fit, not trying hard enough, or not getting the coaching they need. Work with them if it’s the latter case, but let them go otherwise. To avoid feeling bad when firing someone, set clear expectations, and give the team member a fair chance to improve. Let’s however not hold on to hope if there is no hope.
  27. Goals are important, but not more than everyday advancements. In addition to celebrating goals, let’s make time every day to praise team members’ effort and progress. This reinforces a growth mindset.
  28. +1’s matter. Showing support for other people’s ideas matters. It shows how popular an idea is, which influences the final decision. If we decide not to voice our support, then we are not entitled to complain after the decision.
  29. While we’re on this journey, let’s remember to breathe, to be mindful of the present, and to appreciate the value we’re bringing to our team, our company, and the world. There will always be a new mountain to climb, a new problem to solve. Let’s take time daily to turn around and appreciate the view on this adventure. Yoga helped me a ton with being mindful.
  30. Change jobs and move on when you’ve stopped learning and growing, when the culture is making you unhappy, or when you don’t trust the leadership.

 

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