ready for manager

When you’re hiring a new manager, the stakes are high. You need someone who can effectively lead people, manage a budget, liaise with upper management — and, usually, do it all from day one. But what if a potential hire doesn’t yet have a track record in doing all of the above? Would you hire or promote a star player into a management role if they’ve never managed anyone? To gain some perspective on how to handle this kind of challenge, I reached out to some management experts for their point of view on the skills and personalities to look for.

An important thing to look for in this situation is an awareness of the nature of management. Moving into a management role requires divesting oneself of some individual contributor duties and taking on new duties as a team leader. If the new manager doesn’t fully understand that, they might hold things up by:

  • Doing tasks that should be delegated to team members
  • Taking back the tasks that they have delegated because they believe they can do them better
  • Undercommunicating with direct reports, making them unsure of their duties
  • Micromanaging in a way that doesn’t allow team members to expand their own capabilities

A good way to gauge whether a candidate understands the role is to ask what they think management is about, and what specifically they would strive to do in managing this particular team.

It can be helpful to ask what other management experiences they have had outside of work: leading an athletic team, a school literary magazine, a squad of volunteers, a large number of younger siblings? They may have gained a very useful view of effective management in any of these former roles.

For some real-world perspective on becoming a first-time manager, I reached out to my friend Dr. Jim Mitchell, a computer scientist who made the leap into management from an engineering position, eventually retiring as Vice President at Oracle Laboratories. He said that people skills, including empathy and self-knowledge, were the most important characteristics he himself needed to possess when he transitioned to management. Self-awareness, gained from life circumstances or professional experience, is therefore what he subsequently first looked for in a potential new manager. The individual, for example, must understand that his knowledge of the work his team does (one of the basic qualifications that can help him be promoted to manager) can actually lead to inappropriate, ineffective micromanagement of the people who would now work for him.

For a management perspective, I spoke with my friend Martin Brauns, retired chair and CEO of Interwoven Inc., who agrees that emotional intelligence is what he looked for in a new management hire. He also says that hiring managers should observe what he calls horizon, the individual’s ability to look beyond the current task and the immediate situation to the additional considerations that a manager should demonstrate: a vision for the future and the ramifications of that vision as well as an understanding of how to implement big-picture thinking.

It’s also important for both the candidate and the team to understand the critical elements of management in this particular organization. What’s the organizational culture, what kind of professionals work here, and what are the constraints or resources in this kind of work? This sort of information may be better understood by an internal candidate, of course, but an avid, promising outside candidate will have researched these elements of the job, or at least will know the right questions to ask in the interview process.

If you’re considering promoting a member of your organization, you can ask them or their coworkers for examples of the above-mentioned management characteristics and skills. Ask questions such as:

  • When have you had to increase your self-awareness in order to assure that you could move something forward?
  • What do you view as the challenges of managing this team at this time?
  • Have you managed a group outside of work that helped you learn something about management?
  • Who among your coworkers has already seen your ability to manage a group and a project?
  • How would you prepare to move from your current role on the team into the role of team manager?
  • How have you developed your people skills?
  • How would you balance your attention to the big-picture goals and your team’s everyday implementation of them?

By considering these issues and by listening, observing, questioning, and discussing the potential of this candidate with others, you may conclude that they could be a talented and effective manager. And if that’s the case, you want your decision to hire or promote them to be a successful one.

That’s why you need to discuss the resources you can supply to assure that the new manager will flourish. You can tell them that you or someone else will be available for mentoring, that there will be regular check-in meetings, that they should remember you want them to succeed, and that it’s quite all right to acknowledge the ups and downs of becoming a good manager. After all, every manager had to take the first leap into managing people — and someone had to take a leap of faith with them.


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