New Manager Development: Put Your Back Into It

There’s lots of guidance out there for aspiring managers, but not so much for those charged with promoting and developing these newbies.

During college, I worked a variety of manual labor jobs inside factories to earn much-needed money for the upcoming school year. For one of the more physically demanding jobs, the foreman could regularly be heard shouting at the workers “Put your back into it.” This was his not so subtle code imploring us to work harder and faster. He was a Navy veteran from World War II and given his considerable size and strength it was clear he had spent a great deal of time acting on that same simple instruction. When he shouted, we responded. When it comes to new manager development on your team, I’m borrowing from the engine rooms of warships and factory floors, and construction sites everywhere with a simple motivational message: it’s time to put your back into it!

There’s a great deal of guidance out there for aspiring and first-time managers and precious little for the individuals charged with promoting and developing these newbies. While a few organizations treat new manager development as a strategic imperative, in most I encounter, the work is ad hoc with inconsistent results.

Too often, competent contributors are tapped on the shoulder and given a “great opportunity” to step-up and manage a group. Lacking context for this challenging role, they flail and regularly fail, creating headaches for the promoting manager, the team, and the hapless formerly solid individual contributor turned lousy manager. If the new manager flames out during the first year, the promoting manager is back to square one and in many cases, the cycle repeats.

It’s time to stop this cycle, and you as the promoting manager can get out in front of this problem. Of course, yes, you guessed it, you have to put your back into it.

The Cost of a Failed New Manager

I’m a devotee of the late, great quality guru, W. Edwards Deming, who offered: “the most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable.” While the direct cost of a failed new manager might be accounted for by looking at the recruiting and training costs, the actual damage likely exceeds those figures many times over.

Failed first-time managers leave a trail of wreckage behind them, including:

  • Demoralized team members and higher employee turnover.
  • Reduced quality and potentially reduced customer satisfaction.
  • Reduced levels of collaboration and innovation.

And while, as Deming suggests, those costs are unknown and unknowable, if you’re charged with developing and coaching new managers, just the thought of those issues should find you staring at the ceiling at night thinking about ways to do a better job.

Six Ideas to Better Assess Aspiring Managers

1. Start with “Why?”

I love individuals who profess a desire to jump on the management track. I’m naturally suspicious of their intentions but grateful for their enthusiasm, and I always ask them my one question: “Why do you want to manage?” More than a few emerging management careers stopped emerging—at least on my watch—with some less than notable answers, including:

  • “I’m motivated to get my own office.”
  • “Managers get the best parking spots.”
  • “I’m good at being in charge of people.”
  • “My parents told me I had management potential.”

2. Use the right questions to explore what it means to manage.

In my article, “Thinking of Becoming a Manager? Pause and Consider These Questions,” I outline 10 questions every aspiring manager should think through and answer. Here are four I focus on during a series of one-on-one meetings with the prospective manager:

  1. What do you think the job is all about?
  2. What evidence can you provide that suggests you might be good at managing?
  3. Are you a teacher?
  4. How do you feel about giving up the work that has made you successful thus far?

The questions challenge the individual to think through the role and the series of one-on-one discussions give you valuable context for this individual’s level of management maturity and mindset in advance of the promotion.

3. Help aspiring managers understand a work day in your life.

One of the more disorienting parts of starting-up as a new manager is adjusting to days that are no longer your own. Every experienced manager understands the daily battle to carve time out for important issues in the face of endless meeting requests, constant fire drills, and the inevitable problems rolling downhill from corporate or the boss. It’s reality, but it’s dramatically different from the life of an individual contributor.

Let your aspiring managers job shadow you and observe what a typical day is like in your life. One experienced manager of managers makes certain to expose her aspiring managers to a variety of her days encompassing regular operations, team meetings, and meetings with peers, project teams, and even her bosses. Her rationale: “I want my prospective managers to see every aspect of this work before they decide to take it on as a career path.”

Make sure to sit down after the job-shadowing day(s) and ask for their observations. I’ve had several individuals opt out of consideration for the role after experiencing the job through the calendar of their manager.

4. Have them interview three experienced managers.

I developed the habit in my management career of encouraging aspiring managers to interview at least three established managers about their respective experiences. The ideal mix of interviewees includes a senior manager or executive, a middle manager of managers and an established first-time manager.

I let the prospective manager structure the interview questions, reach out to set up the appointments, and provide me with a brief presentation on what they heard and learned and how it applies to them.

It’s a fair amount of work and takes some time. This tactic is also a great test of the individual’s conviction, not to mention an incredible networking and learning experience.

5. Always let them try before you buy.

The other steps are valuable; however, I encourage experienced managers to never promote someone without giving them an opportunity to try the role on for size. Projects are ideal for this and offer the aspiring manager the most valuable context of all—creating results through others with minimal authority.

Take the opportunity to observe the individual in action, but don’t micromanage them. Let all parties know you will be surveying the team members on this project manager’s overall leadership and effectiveness. Offer to coach as needed, but keep the accountability for outcomes squarely on the shoulders of the aspiring manager.

During your debrief, focus on sharing what you observed and asking questions about their experiences and challenges with the initiative. Review the team member feedback together and discuss what worked and what didn’t work.

6. Make an informed decision together.

You own the decision to promote or not to promote. The above activities offer valuable context for the role and the affinity of the individual for management. Your feedback throughout the process should be clear, behavioral, and business-focused and your final discussion and decision must be the same.

If the individual opts out based on the experiences, it’s time to define a new development plan for them as an individual contributor.

If you are moving forward, indicate why and back it up with examples. Highlight areas that will require additional development and suggest the need to immediately kick-off a coaching program to support this development.

If you are not moving forward with the promotion, you owe clear context for your decision and a commitment to defining a fresh development plan with the individual. In my experience, some opt for additional exposure to the role and others are excited to refocus their efforts on developing as individual contributors and subject experts.

The bottom line for now: There’s a great deal of work outlined above. And while the benefits of getting it right likely also fit that unknown and unknowable category suggested by Deming, you can be assured the results will exceed the ad hoc and sink-or-swim tactics so widely employed. Just remember this doesn’t happen unless you put your back into it!

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.