Learning & Development
4 min read

How to pick and develop a first time manager

Didier Elzinga

Founder and CEO, Culture Amp

Reading Time: 4 minutes

At Culture Amp, we talk to everyone about how they can get to their next role. For a lot of people, leading a team or looking after other people is important to them.

But being a manager isn’t for everyone. Before we put anyone in a management role we take them through a process to help them understand what is required. This also helps us understand if they’re ready to be a manager.

When I’m considering whether somebody would make a good first-time manager, there are three things that I focus on:

  1. Are they actually going to enjoy it?
  2. Do they have the communication tools to succeed?  
  3. How will they cope with discomfort?

Management is about someone else’s success

Managers need to be invested in and accountable for the success of their people. That’s because managers aren’t creating things directly – their role is to help other people achieve. We know that great managers also show employees how they are valued within the company.

A manager is only successful if their people are successful. While some people enjoy helping others achieve, not everybody does. The biggest challenge for a first-time manager is accepting that they will be measured based on somebody else’s results.

This doesn’t happen overnight so we spend time teaching people to change their lens. We ask them to think about how they would feel if their entire performance assessment was based on only the success of their people. Often, this is a really interesting conversation. People are going from being masters of their own domain to having to deal with the intricacies of working with other people.

First-time managers need to understand that their job is to make other people successful. This shift in mindset can be difficult. For example, in a high growth company managers need to be able to get good people to come and join the organization. A lot of first-time managers struggle to understand that a critical part of their job is to hire all these people.

It’s also important to look at what makes someone satisfied or fulfilled at work. Many people like to feel a sense of achievement, but a manager needs something different. A manager should have a sense of satisfaction from the achievement of others. Behavioral interviewing helps us identify this by looking at what motivates people.

For a manager, I think one of the most important skills is communication. Managers are responsible for people so they must be able to communicate their ideas and that of the organization. Many new managers may be flexing those muscles for the first time. That’s why I always look at whether they have the tools they need and the ability to communicate well with others.

Feedback is an important part of the job

As a manager, you need to be able to give feedback that people don’t always want to hear. Talking to somebody about their career journey and giving difficult feedback is hard. To do this well managers need to be able to cope with discomfort.

At Culture Amp, we run a feedback training program with Refound. This lets first-time managers reflect on this part of the role and gives them the language and framework for providing effective feedback. While first-time managers may be less willing to have hard conversations initially, it’s important for everybody to understand how critical it is.

We also give our first-time managers some very specific technical and tactical training. This includes how to have a one-on-one meeting, how to build a more diverse team and more. There’s a lot of value in bringing people together in cohorts to share some of the uncomfortableness.

Managing people isn’t for everyone

A few years ago I spoke with the person responsible for training Facebook’s managers. When he joined they had 700 employees – a year later the company has 700 managers. They had an explicit understanding with new managers – if it isn’t working out or the manager isn’t enjoying their role after three or six months they can go back to their previous role, no harm no foul.

This approach is a really good way of thinking about first-time manager roles. This is because you don’t really know until you’re doing the role whether or not you’re going to enjoy being a manager.

By understanding what motivates someone and whether they can deal with discomfort, we can make an assessment if someone will enjoy being a manager. We can then use this information to decide whether to give them a role as a first-time manager or if there’s another way to help them grow.