The first-time manager—5 practical tips for navigating the challenges of managing people

What to consider before you embark on a new career as a manager

You were an engineer, developer or designer and then you got promoted. Now you’re a manager, and your life will never be the same.

If you’re like most first-time managers, you might be asking yourself what exactly is a new manager supposed to do?

The common misconception is that the job of a manager is to tell others what to do. That is indeed false, and managers who believe this have not learned what their role is.

The purpose of the manager is not to direct people but to guide them in becoming self-directed.

Embarking on this new career path requires skills beyond those of being a capable developer or a designer. You’re going to be judged not by your code or designs but by how well your team members perform. It is now the time to make the leap from individual contributor to a leader that rallies others to build great products.

“Effective managers are typically not involved in the details of the team’s technical work. Instead, they identify the levers they can pull to add the most value to their teams.”

Julie Zhuo, VP of Product Design at Facebook

The three levers that Zhuo discusses in her book “The Making of a Manager” are:

  1. People — Our relationships with other people are the most exciting and challenging opportunities in our lives. Becoming a great manager is not only about hiring the right people to do the job, but it’s also about being there to coach and support your team in difficult moments.
  2. Process — Apart from assembling a brilliant team, being a part of management is also about helping your team members operate effectively and efficiently. You have to develop the right workflows and structure to leverage the available talent, solve problems, and work through conflicts.
  3. Purpose — You must communicate effectively to ensure your team is aligned with the greater purpose of your company. Does everybody understand what success looks like? Part of managing a team involves creating a clear map of the values and desired outcomes of your department and making certain everybody is on the same page.

To help you navigate this challenging journey, here are five simple and practical tips for first-time managers.

1. Move from details to the big picture

Many first-time managers who have been promoted from an operational position are so distracted by tiny aspects of the work, that they completely neglect the big picture. Assured that the skills that made them a good product person will make them a good manager, they never stop focusing on the micro-details of the project.

You probably were involved with a small part of the entire process, and you had a deep technical understanding of that area. Now as a manager you have to expand your focus.

How you handle this shift is essential in your first months as a manager. You have to train yourself to move past the details and switch your attention to overall operations. Develop a low tolerance for busywork and day-to-day errands and give yourself at least 30 minutes every day to think about new ideas, goals and the overarching purpose of your team and your company.

2. Use “We” instead of “I” or “They”

Your use of pronouns can reveal your personality as a manager.

Studies suggest that people manipulated to focus inward often increase the rate of first-person singular pronouns (such as “I,” “my,” or “me”) used in their speech. By contrast, the researchers theorized that individuals using first-person plural and second-person (such as “we,” “us,” or “you”) ought to demonstrate an outward focus, considering the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of others.”

Harvard Business Review

As a manager, it’s your role to put your team’s thinking in the right perspective. Instill a sense of togetherness by building the concept that the only collective that exists is we.

We’re in this together.

Celebrate accomplishments—build a culture of gratitude on your team—by sharing credit but also establish the idea that “We’re in charge of our success, and we should not blame nebulous outside forces” (“them” or “they”).

In your daily communication with your team, the only time when you should use “I” is when you have to accept responsibility personally.

3. Learn to listen

Do you fake listening while impatiently waiting to say something that you’ve already formulated in your mind?

As a new manager, you may think that you have to talk a lot to look smart and authoritative. The truth is that you have to listen with the intent to understand in order to respond knowledgeably.

Learning to listen is a skill that needs to be developed like any other managerial skill.

To assess how well you listen, Jeffrey Gitomer, author of Listening. How to listen with the intent to understand has developed a handy little survey. Answer the questions below and see how well you rank as an effective listener.

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4. Find your leadership style

Part of becoming a great manager and a leader depends on understanding your own personality. Being aware of the strengths and shortcomings of your leadership style will help you communicate better with your team, advance your career as a manager, and increase the success of those you are guiding.

Finding your leadership style is a long-term process. To expedite this process, we have compiled a list of the 22 types of leadership from the three most common personality profiling tools.

5. Don’t play the hero

Imagine the typical manager and Herculean pictures come to mind. man or woman standing alone on top of windblown hills, bravely carrying the weight of the whole team on his or her shoulders. This is all about the dream of making the company successful.

It’s common for first-time managers to believe that if you want something done right, you had better do it yourself. These managers are convinced that their team doesn’t accept responsibility and rarely admits that it’s because he or she refuses to delegate.

“They have so little faith in their subordinates that they trust them with nothing important. What they’re really saying is that they don’t know how to properly train their people.”

The First-Time Manager, Loren B. Belker, Jim McCormick, and Gary S. Topchik

Micromanaging and constantly controlling your team will bring down their spirit and erode initiative taking.

Instead of offering solutions to your team, try this instead:

  1. Ask the right questions to guide them to their own solutions.
  2. Clearly articulate the desired outcome of the project.
  3. Include people in the communication process.
  4. Provide full support and coaching.
  5. Let your team know that you appreciate their accomplishments when they do their job well.

Go forth and lead!

As a first-time manager, you have the challenging task to find the right balance between authority and a responsibility to serve. As you embark on this new career path, you have a lot to gain from developing empathy and building trusting relationships with your team. The tips we’ve shared in this post will serve you well as a starting point in this journey.


We’d love to hear about your experiences as a first-time manager and what you thought about this piece. Let us know on Twitter at @rangelabs.

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