Inexperienced Managers: 5 Skills and 7 Solutions Startups Can Use to Turn Performers into Leaders
Startups begin when people with big dreams commit to seeing out their vision. And in doing so, they hire the best they can find for what they can afford.
Teams are built with top performers. Aside from being skilled, these people have a tolerance for heavy workloads, a lack of structure, and often stress.
As the company grows, what typically happens is that these top performers are promoted to managers.
But if you ever sat through a class with a brilliant professor who couldn't communicate effectively, you know that being the best in your subject area doesn't make you the best at supporting people in learning and performance.
Top performer does NOT equal quality manager. A person can have 20 years of experience in engineering and not a single one in managing a team. But that's who they have, and that's who's been loyal, so that's who gets promoted.
This challenge of leadership is one that many startups face.
In this 2013 Y Combinator Startup School interview with Mark Zuckerberg, Zuckerberg is asked how he learned to manage people. His response: "You just have to throw yourself in." He repeats several times that managing people was a challenge and jokes that his team would say he doesn't know how to manage people.
So how do you prepare top performers to manage effectively?
Let's start with what to prepare them for.
What Inexperienced Managers Need to Know
Ok, ok. That's more than we can cover in one post, but if inexperienced managers were prepared with just these five skills, they'd be leaps and bounds ahead of where they started.
Goal Setting & Defining Expectations
To succeed, the team needs to know what metrics they need to meet. Sometimes, this will be laid out by the organization (e.g., $100k in sales). Sometimes, this will be set by the employee (e.g., I want to become Azure certified).
Managers will need to learn how to define what they want from their team, and they will need to learn how to facilitate discussions that help their team members express their needs and wants.
Giving & Receiving Feedback
There are four ways to absolutely fail at feedback:
overwhelm the person with information, leaving no clear priorities or actionable next steps
not giving enough or any
not giving timely feedback-- if it's too late, it may be irrelevant or communicate the person was an afterthought
not being receptive to feedback in return (failing to model the feedback process)
People leaders need to be able to grow their people, and they can only do this by providing clear, timely feedback.
Navigating Difficult Conversations
Whether it's giving feedback you know someone does want to hear, owning up to a mistake you made, having to let someone go, or any number of challenging issues managers need to communicate, the bottom line is: managers need to communicate.
Prepare managers with negotiation, conflict resolution, and empathy skills that result in the best possible outcomes when these difficult conversations arise.
To create a truly collaborative and innovative organization, though, people need to feel able to work together to solve problems. That takes trust and relationship-building. But not everyone feels ready or even knows how to be ready to be the "connector," especially in this world of hybrid and remote teams.
Set teams up for success by helping managers understand how to foster team spirit in meaningful ways.
Prioritizing & Delegating
People who are top performers may get stuck on doing it fast and doing well. They may struggle to lead a team of folks who aren't at their level yet. They may feel guilt about passing off work. They might also struggle with what's a priority when everything is being dumped on them, both from their bosses and their new direct reports.
To be effective and efficient, prioritization and delegation skills will be key.
SHRM recommends these 10 skills for managers, if you're looking for more.
Supporting Their Learning Journey
With the common startup environment in mind-- fast-moving, everyone time-strapped, not much documented, processes evolving-- these are the solutions we recommend.
Templates are a cheap and impactful solution. They can help people remember while also teaching them processes.
For inexperienced managers, templates could help them:
outline their thoughts for a performance review
set departmental KPIs
identify levels of priority for incoming tasks
provide feedback on a product / service / content draft
Really, the list of templates is limited only by your organization's needs and your imagination.
So what if you don't have the funds to invest in $400k worth of training and elearning development right now? Maybe you don't even have the funds to get everyone access to a learning library. That's ok!
Curation is powerful tool.
Consider creating playlists, using tools like YouTube or Vimeo, to curate a list of practical video tutorials and talks.
For example, if I were to train a new manager, I might start with these:
The work that managers do impacts those they lead and the organization. When there's no opportunity for practice, the risk of getting something wrong in a high stakes situation is amplified.
Coach bots-- especially those with machine learning-- can help managers practice conversations and get instant feedback, so that they're prepared when it's time to take action in real life.
Ready to dive in and develop? Check out the Forbes article 7 Things I Learn from Building an AI Chatbot for Leadership Development.
Employee Experience Check Ins
Managers learn when they get feedback from their employees. They can do this with:
weekly check ins
data from tools like Viva Insights (if you're using Microsoft)
survey bots, like Workhuman or Flourish
Of course, they have to take action based on that feedback. They can't just let it sit.
Modeling & Mentoring
Identify at least one strong leader on your team who can regularly meet with inexperienced managers to mentor them and to model positive leadership.
Inexperienced managers often doubt their own judgment, or sometimes, the opposite happens, and they're overly confident when they shouldn't be.
Having a small community-- whether that's a group in Workplace by Meta, a Slack channel, a Teams chat, or something else that is accessible whenever they're working-- can foster peer to peer learning, relationship building across the organization that breaks down siloes, and culture building.
And it does all this while providing managers a "gut check" in a safe space.
Inexperienced managers who want to make a name for themselves may simply be too overwhelmed to do what it takes to improve themselves. Force them to take a time out.
If it's in the budget, send them away for training-- whether that's to a workshop, a conference, a retreat, or something else.
The less expensive version of this looks like giving them a dedicated learning day. If you go this route, don't just treat it as a day off. Have the inexperienced manager work with their mentor to define goals and come up with a game plan. Will they spend the day reviewing a playlist? Will they tap into LinkedIn Learning? Will they complete some kind of stretch tasks while they view tutorials on YouTube that they will later have assessed by their mentor?
Don't Leave Your Managers Out to Dry
Managers are relationship builders. They're the glue that holds the organization together. They may not be the C-Suite, but how they treat people and how they get their work done will have a major impact on your growing business.
Don't leave them to their own devices simply because they've shown they can rise to meet challenges.
They need support, and with the simple solutions listed above, it's simple to offer it.
Need your new managers to succeed? We're here to help.
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