On the Clock

The First-Time Manager: How to Not Get Fired

Being a new manager puts you in the line of fire—particularly if you don’t follow these four rules. Third in a series.

One of the last things that crosses people’s minds when they snag a management role is how quickly it can be taken away from them. After all, when you’re still trying to find your management style, and how that fits in with the broader organization, it can be easy to brush off seemingly small things—a passive-aggressive remark to one of your direct reports, complaining to a colleague about your own new boss, or assuming that because you were an all-star architect that you’ll have no trouble managing a team of architects.

In reality, what happens is the following: eager to shine, you overpromise what your team can deliver and then fail to have the delegating skills or directives to come through. Or you inadvertently complain about an employee to a higher-up before actually letting that executive tell you what he or she thinks, therefore coming off as overly negative. “A large component of learning leadership fundamentals is learning new behaviors and approaches,” says Jennifer Zamora, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. And oftentimes, those behaviors and approaches aren’t spelled out in human resources documents or in management training programs.

At the end of the day, being a successful manager is more about understanding how to work with various types of people instead of whether you can crank out a new project in one day.

With that in mind, here are four common tenets first-time managers can fail to recognize that could save them from the chopping block.
Assume you don’t have the skills for the job.

Maybe you befriended every client in your previous sales position, which helped you earn their trust and find out pertinent information. But you can’t pal around in the same way with your direct reports. Instead, you have to learn new soft skills for your level of management, be it holding your tongue at times or becoming a better listener. “Seek out a trusted partner to help you master the ‘soft skills’—the ones that will complement your technical expertise and are proven to accelerate your career,” Zamora says. Many first-time managers fail to understand the power of such skills, and focus too much on the technicalities of the job. At the end of the day, being a successful manager is more about understanding how to work with various types of people instead of whether you can crank out a new project in one day.

Don’t act like you’ve been promoted to CEO.

While it can feel empowering to climb the ranks, the reality is that as a first-time manager, you don’t have a lot of power. You’re likely caught in the middle between multiple stakeholders and their competing goals. Your job is to advance the projects that matter most to the business through the resources you have available—and that means learning how to smartly engage in office politics.

Also know that you’re at the mercy of HR. Gone are the days when the employee handbook was just a formality; with breaches in a variety of codes of conduct and workplace harassment making headlines over the past few years, HR departments have become powerful. Make sure to learn what kind of behavior is expected from you as a manager, what the company culture values, and ultimately if that aligns with your moral compass.

Understand how you’re perceived.

Changes in leadership bring a certain amount of turnover, even for the best new managers—people loyal to their former boss also jump ship or decide that it’s time to move on to something new, so be prepared for some of your team members to leave within the first year. Do know, however, that no matter how briefly you’ve been their boss or how long they’ve been planning their exit, you’re the manager they’re going to be asked about in their exit interview. So it’s important to prioritize building respectful and successful relationships with each of your direct reports and get a keen sense of how you’re viewed within the firm.

This is even more important during a time when companies have started placing more emphasis on exit interviews, as more cases of workplace harassment are brought to light amid a heightened awareness of abuse of power at all levels. The story a disgruntled employee tells when they leave could have a lasting impact on your career. This isn’t to say you should be a pushover, but if you have to ask yourself whether or not it would be appropriate to do or say something, just don’t do it.

Know you’re only as good as your team.

You will never succeed without your people. You need collaboration with your direct reports to get things done, and to get collaboration, you need to understand what they want. And yet, so many managers forget this symbiotic relationship. That’s why it’s so important to gain understanding of each person’s motivations and goals, and help them find purpose in their work. Of course, just as important is making sure your employees understand what you need so they know how to be successful. That way, you can work together to meet everyone’s goals.

Up next: How to manage older employees, many of whom may be decades ahead of you in age.

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