I have served on all types of teams in my nearly 35 years: girl scout troop, high school community service club, sorority executive board, AmeriCorps member working with middle school students and as a nonprofit professional with three different organizations and eight different managers that range from really great to could have been better.
At 26 I started managing and only realized then that the really great managers I’d had made it look easy - being a manager is tough! I’ve been a manager in five roles since 2006 and I know that I didn’t start out as a perfect manager and still am not one today. I am learning, surprised in my work all the time and refining my management style on a daily basis.
In a recent conversation with my first supervisor she noted that when it comes to new managers, “No one starts out as a strong manager. People need the chance to learn to manage in a supportive environment where they will get feedback and opportunities to improve, adjust and try again.” So, not everyone starts out as a great manager? What a relief!
In an earlier piece I talked about how to move from accidental to purposeful manager. Here are a few big management lessons I’ve learned over the years:
You don’t have to have all of the answers
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned I also mention as a myth of being an Executive Director: you don’t have to be an expert in everyone’s job to be a successful manager.
You have to give yourself permission to not have all of the answer and trust the insights and leadership of the people around you. A great manager I had and one I’ve loved learning from and watching in action just shared this quote which speaks to what you have to do when you aren’t the expert in everyone’s job (even if you WERE, you wouldn’t have the time to do all the work anyway, so forget it!):
“When you trust people you work with and you let them have that freedom, that’s when the real chemistry happens.” - Jeff Ament
I’ve also had to get very comfortable with the phrase, “Good question (or good idea)...let me think about it and get back to you.” Take the time you need! Your team will appreciate a correct and thoughtful answer over the quick knee-jerk response in the moment that might change or be wrong later.
Don’t assume! Check for understanding
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve given information or direction thinking I’m crystal clear only to have it come back to me in the form of confused or misled team members and late, incomplete or incorrect work.
The lesson in here is to not assume that what makes perfect sense to you makes perfect sense to anyone you are leading. Give time for your staff to be able to ask you questions during your check ins or during team meetings. Better - ask them instead of waiting for them to come to you! They might not want to risk looking confused in front of their boss and will guess instead.
Taking the time to ask if your staff are clear, feeling good and have what they need can go a long way to them feeling supported and can ultimately save everyone tons of time. This doesn’t have to be anything formal or time consuming - I did it a few weeks ago after an email I sent. I got a question back from someone on the team via email, which I replied to (thinking I was clear.) The next time I saw him in the office, I casually asked if my response answered his question - it didn’t! I got another chance to get him the information he needed.
I asked a dear friend and mentor---not to mention the most solid manager I’ve ever had or seen---to share a few lessons she’s learned as well. Elizabeth Nielsen and I met at City Year in 2002 when I where I was an AmeriCorps Member. When I returned to the organization in 2006, she was my direct supervisor for one year. Elizabeth is the Senior Development Officer at the Valley Medical Center Foundation in San Jose, California. She has 17 years of experience managing early and mid-career professionals in nonprofit settings. Here is her advice:
Being an advocate is now part of your job description
A major role of the manager is listening to and understanding what employees perceive as good processes and areas for improvement. Star managers trust and listen to their employees as they voice their frustrations and needs, and then transform that feedback into useful improvements for the organization. A manager is also the voice of his or her team in higher-level decision making and should actively advocate for the resources to address the needs, ideas, and solutions brought forth by team members. I’ve advocated for new operational strategies, software purchases, and even the adoption of telework policies, all of which were organizational improvements suggested by my team members. Being an effective advocate is an essential role that only a manager can fill.
Advocating for employees can sometimes be a risk for managers, but is well worth it for deserving employees. Want to explore this more? Strategic Performance Coach Victoria Labalme has some great thoughts about advocating for employees.
Management isn’t a fit for everyone
One of the hardest transitions I've seen for new managers is in the realization that they are now responsible for--and accountable for--the work of other people. It's no longer just about how great their work product is; now their job is to help other employees perform at top levels... and sometimes those employees won't meet expectations. Managers have to be comfortable relying on others, and they have to be dedicated to building a strong team and doing whatever they can to help each member of that team excel in their role.
For some people, being highly involved in and responsible for the work of other employees is not enjoyable. That’s okay! Choosing not to pursue a management role doesn’t mean you’re a lesser professional. You can still be wildly successful as a manager of projects and a rockstar individual contributor on a team.
It is common that leadership roles will require you to manage others, especially as you ascend within an organization. If assuming leadership roles is part of your future plan, start developing management skills now. Cut your managing teeth early to give it a try -- even managing interns or volunteers will give you a great feel for the work. Management expert Victor Lipman offers some helpful tips for managing volunteers and interns that can help you get started.
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About the Authors:
Elizabeth & Megan met in 2002 while at City Year in San Jose, California. They instantly connected over their belief in community service and their love of the Sonoran Desert. 13 years later they continue to be colleagues in the social good space