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From Contributor To Leader | 3 Common Challenges New Managers Face

A Black woman leading a meeting.

Moving from individual contributor to first-time people manager is a big jump. In fact, it’s the most difficult transition you’ll face in your entire professional career. But making the leap successfully pays off. The people who get it right can contribute two to three times more than those who don’t. Talk about social impact.

At Education Pioneers, our mission is to attract and develop exceptional people to become education leaders who will transform education for students and communities. Over 70 percent of our 2,500+ talented alumni are or will be new people managers. To ensure that they transition successfully to increasingly impactful levels of work on behalf of our nation’s students, we offer targeted supports during that critical shift. Along the way, we’re learning important management lessons.

Ready to become a rock star manager? Here are three common challenges that all new managers face and how to overcome them.

Measuring your work and impact differently

Before becoming managers, our worth as workers is typically defined by getting things done ourselves. Letting go of that “me” mindset is tough, but holding onto it will limit your effectiveness as a manager.

Bill Gentry from the Center for Creative Leadership explains it this way: “A major reason why so many [first-time managers] get tripped-up, struggle, and so often fail is because they focus so much on their own abilities, and getting their own work done that they neglect others. They can’t make the transition from a technical expert to a leader of people.”

As a manager, your job is to think bigger and guide others to achieve that vision. Now, your success is measured by the outcomes you produce for your organization as you help your team work more efficiently and effectively. Accept the challenge, start thinking about your work differently, and get ready to learn a new skill set.

One word of caution: The individual contributor mindset might tempt you as you adjust to your new role. Your intentions may be good when you think about solving problems or “fixing” things, but taking over others’ work means that you’re disempowering your team and compromising the time you need to do the higher-level work of a manager.

At EP, we often refer to a lesson learned from The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey, ensuring that the right “monkeys” (or projects and responsibilities) are with the right people – and stay there.

Making time to manage effectively

As a manager, you have to balance the work you’re responsible for doing yourself, managing your team, and making time for big-picture thinking to increase the social impact of your organization. That’s a lot to juggle.

As managers in the nonprofit sector – where we’re all responsible for high-stakes work and often face limited budgets and capacity – making the most of your time matters. Mastering your calendar will help you become a better manager and enable you to do more good.

Set standing weekly, one-on-one check-in meetings with your direct reports where you assess the status of projects, give guidance and support, assist with problem-solving, and debrief on completed work. Making check-ins, feedback, and debriefs one of your standard practices will help you grow more comfortable with coaching, giving feedback, and assessing performance.

In addition, proactively schedule time to get your own work done and for higher-level thinking (a critical part of being a manager). Having a good handle on how you’re spending your time will increase the chance that your efforts are driving social impact.

At EP, we stick like glue to our check-ins and calendars as much as we can, and use both The Management Center’s tools and the Together Group for great, free resources – like daily and weekly worksheets, to-do lists, delegation worksheets, and performance evaluation forms – as well as paid workshops to help get organized and stay on track.

Restocking your toolbox with critical skills

The things that made you successful as an individual contributor aren’t necessarily the skills that you need in your manager’s toolbox. Now, you need to excel at delegating, coaching, giving feedback, building culture, managing performance, and more.

Learning on the job can boost your performance three times more than just passive training, but it’s important to do both. Think about divvying up your learning into the Center for Creative Leadership’s 70-20-10 leadership development model, where 70 percent of learning happens on the job, 20 percent comes from coaching and mentoring, and 10 percent from formal training.

We encourage our team to take responsibility for their own learning, and also actively support team members’ growth through formal training. Whether or not your organization is able to help you in your new role, you should seek out resources, organizational mentors, and perhaps even formal management training to get up to speed quickly. Don’t be afraid to ask your boss for help. Presumably, he or she has been a manager longer than you and can give you general guidance and help you problem solve challenging management situations.

Reflecting on the bosses you’ve had in the past can also be instructive. Which ones helped you perform at your best? What did they do that motivated you and helped you succeed? Draw on your own experience to develop a management style that suits you, feels natural, and positions your team to achieve its goals.

Mastering your mindset, time, and skills will help you become an effective manager. And becoming an amazing manager is one of the surest ways to maximize your impact at work and on the world.


About the Author: Gianna Shepard is the Director of Career Advancement for Education Pioneers, where she oversees the engagement of EP's network of over 2,500 Alumni and supports their effectiveness in the education sector, from securing their first job post-Fellowship through advancement into increasingly senior, high-impact roles.

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