So You Want to Be A Manager: Part Two – The First Management Job

(See SYWTBAM: Part One – Good/Maybe/Bad Reasons, Prelude)

OK, so you’ve decided you want to be a manager. Your intentions are angelic and your goals are set, and now you’re scouring the land and talking to your manager about it. Then, out of the sky, it comes: your chance to manage a few engineers. Now, it’s not the most exciting project in the world – ok, you ran from it as an engineer – and the team, well, it’s kind of B-Players, but you’ll learn, right? Take it!

Whoa.

Ruthfield’s First Axiom of So You Want to be in Management: If you want to be a manager sometime soon, you will be a manager sometime soon.

Engineering departments that value engineering over hierarchy (see the Prelude for why you want to be in one of those) never have enough people who want to be managers, and even fewer who want to do it for a good reason. So if you’re interested, it’s going to come up, even if it’s not tomorrow.

Why does this matter? It matters because you still get to choose. You don’t have to take the first management job that comes your way – you should treat it with the same skeptical eye as you would any other job, plus now there are even more things to understand and you don’t yet have enough experience to know what questions to ask. Here are a few:

  • Will I be managing mostly A-Players? Not every team is 100% superstars, but you don’t want your first management experience to be filled with up-or-out management of everyone on the team. Don’t get talked into taking the junior or the troubled team. This is a very common trap. I fell into it, and I had to fire my first-ever employee (a wife, two kids, etc.) when more experienced managers kept pushing it off. Nothing good comes from starting your management career this way: it’s an important skill but it need not be the first one.
  • Does this team have a focus? You don’t also want to be setting strategy for a team adrift as your first job. You have a lot to learn up-front about building your team and your own skills: don’t inherit a floating team at the same time. Again, not everything has to be perfect, but starting from zero overwhelms you from doing anything else.
  • Will I have the right manager? Besides the normal things you should look for in a manager, you’re looking for two extra qualities: someone ready to mentor through new challenges, and someone whose view on team leadership matches yours. You’re going to need to spend a lot of the first few months checking your intuitions on how to deal with challenging situations, and you want your manager to care and to be a sounding board you respect.

    The best way to find out if your views on management align is the same as finding out other alignments – talk to people. Current and previous employees, colleagues, etc. Ask what they think of Joe as a manager, how he deals with conflict, how he sets goals for his team, how he provides feedback, does he build consensus, overdelegate, control every decision, etc.

You will always have more than one chance to move into management, and your first job is like your first impression, both to yourself and to your company. Think through it.

(Off on vacation for a week: back after Labor Day.)

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