The 9 leadership mistakes you don’t know you’re making as a new manager

Don’t accidentally become a bad boss by overlooking these often imperceptible leadership mistakes.

9 mistakes to avoid

I’ve never met you, but I’m going to make a guess about you:  You’re making leadership mistakes you don’t even know about. 

I don’t mean to sound presumptuous (or crass!). I’m in part reflecting on personal experience – I’ve made a boatload of leadership mistakes, myself.

More objectively, I’m citing probability: Gallup’s research on millions of managers over the past 7 years revealed that companies choose the wrong manager 82% of the time. And if that’s not disconcerting enough, they found only 1 in 10 managers possess what they describe “the natural talent to manage”. 

In short, the likelihood that you, as a new manager coming out of the gate, are inherently endowed with the perfect blend of traits, experience and skills to be a great manager… Let’s get real. It’s unbelievably low.  

Such is the “curse” of a new manager. Leadership is not as intuitive as we’re eager to believe. What we’d like to think work don’t actually work. And the only way to find out things don’t work is to mess them up pretty badly. 

Or, is that the only way?

Based on the research we’ve done over the past 5 years with 15,000+ people, and interviewing hundreds of CEOs, executives and managers, I’ve pulled together the mistakes most leaders tend to overlook. These are the most dangerous kinds of leadership mistakes – the mistakes that unintentionally hurt our team, without us ever knowing.

My hope is to spare you some of the self-inflicted suffering I and many other leaders have kicked themselves about, after-the-fact. So, without further ado, here are the 9 most common, imperceptible leadership mistakes to avoid:

Mistake #1:  You think building trust is about team-building.

When we want to build trust as a leader, we often resort to team-building activities:  Company retreats, informal lunches, recognizing employees publicly for a job well done, etc. However, in our survey of almost 600 people, we found that team-building activities were in fact rated as the least effective way to build trust. What was rated as most effective? Being vulnerable as a leader, sharing your intention, and following through on your commitment. In other words, trust isn’t about building rapport – it’s about you making clear why you’re doing something, and then acting on it. 

Mistake #2: You think your team members generally know what’s going on.

You’re in Slack, you’re on calls, you’re in team meetings… You do a ton of communicating and sharing of info as a leader with your team. What’s not to know? Well, a lot apparently. When we asked 3,197 people across 701 companies through Know Your Team, “Are there things you don’t know about the company that you feel you should know? 55% people said, “Yes, there are things I don’t know about the company that I feel like I should know.” Furthermore, in a separate survey we ran with 355 people in the fall of 2018, we found that 91% of employees said their manager could improve how they share information. Specifically, 42% of employees wanted their managers to communicate more regularly with them and 38% said they wish their managers shared more of their decisions and the reasons behind why they make them. While you might feel you’re communicating enough as a leader, your team feels otherwise.

Mistake #3:  You believe being busy as a leader is good.

You’re getting things done. You’re making things happen. When you’re busy as a leader, you can be tempted to believe you’re doing a good job. However, in leadership, that’s not the case.  I interviewed Michael Lopp, VP of Engineering of Slack, who underscored this for me: “If you’re too busy doing the actual work, as a manager, that’s a huge mistake.” The best leaders help employees navigate what’s fuzzy, provide structure around about what needs to happen, and reveal why the work matters. But you can’t do that as a leader if your nose is in your email inbox all day, or you’re out traveling to visit clients every week.

Mistake #4:  You sort-of prepare for your one-on-one meetings (when you have the time).

Did you prepare for the last one-on-one meeting you had with a direct report? Be honest 🙂  In a recent survey we conducted of 1,182 managers and 838 employees, we found that only 24% of employees believed their manager was well prepared for their one-on-one. The other 76% percent were managers who were seen as only “somewhat prepared”, “not prepared” or “not prepared at all.” Ouch. When you show up to a one-on-one meeting without a clear agenda or set of questions, it shows. You waste everyone’s time and squander a valuable opportunity to support your direct report. Here are some recommendations for how to prepare for a one-on-one meeting as a manager.

Mistake #5:  You try to solve the problem yourself, because you’re the domain expert.

Someone comes to you with a problem. As a leader, you roll up your sleeves and dive in head first to resolve it. After all, you’re the one with the most experience in this particular domain. It makes sense to do what you’re good at… Right? Wrong. Peldi Guilizzoni, CEO of Balsamiq shared this counterintuitive insight:  When you focus doing always on what you’re good at, the team never learns to get good at it themselves. “Instead,” shared Peldi, “focus on delegating training and making sure that everybody gets good at doing those things.”

Mistake #6:  You think transparency all the time is good.

From making salaries public within the company to open-book management, the concept of transparency in the workplace is more popular than ever. Understandably (and rightfully) so. However, transparency can backfire if you don’t hold two concepts in view:  Transparency requires context, and transparency is on a spectrum. Des Traynor, co-founder of Intercom, dispelled critical wisdom on this topic, explaining:  “The key thing people forget in transparency is it’s not about opening up the Google Drive and making sure that everyone can read everything – it’s about transparency of context as well.”

Mistake #7:  You think you communicate the vision in your team well.

Vision is crucial. But do you know how crucial?  According to our survey of 355 managers and employees, respondents said vision is #1 piece of information a manager should be sharing (45% of people said this). And yet, when we asked 2,932 people across 618 companies through Know Your Team, “If someone asked you to describe the vision of the company, would a clear answer immediately come to mind?” almost a third of employees (29%) squarely said, “No.” As a leader, we must thoughtfully reconsider how to help more folks answer “Yes” to that crucial question.

Mistake #8: You think you’re giving enough feedback. 

The barrage of feedback seems endless. You’re doing one-on-one meetings, employee surveys, annual performance reviews. Yet, despite this, in our data collected through Know Your Team, we found that 80% of employees want more feedback about their performance (1,468 employees were asked about this across 138 companies). And yes, these are folks who are already using Know Your Team as a tool to get feedback! What it illustrates is a strong desire from your team to receive even more critiques, suggestions, and ideas – the bad along with the good – about what they can be doing better. You might think you’re giving enough of it, but you could be giving even more.

Mistake #9: You’re nice. 

Don’t be an asshole, by all means. But don’t overcompensate by focusing solely on being nice. When we’re preoccupied with seeming likable instead of fair, when we optimize for feel-good conversations instead of honest ones — we damage our teams. Hiten Shah, founder of Kissmetrics, Crazy Egg and FYI, was emphatic about this point to me, describing how when you overly prioritize being nice, “there’s a level of toxic culture that develops that’s hard to see, especially on a remote team.” Instead of seeking to be nice, we should seek to be honest, rigorous, and consistent.

Was my guess not far off?  Have you found yourself making one (or a few) of these leadership mistakes, unknowingly? 

If you tensed your mouth and nodded a “Yes”, don’t be discouraged. Leadership isn’t about avoiding every mistake in the book – that’s impossible. Rather, the best leaders are unendingly curious to know what their mistakes could be, and deeply rigorous about trying to spot them in advance the next time around.

This is how you get better. It doesn’t always feel pleasant, but that’s the perilous process of gaining new knowledge: It’s bumpy, it’s uncomfortable, it’s frustrating, and, at times, humiliating. Rarely do you learn how to ride a bike and not get a scuffed up knee or two along the way.

Seeing your leadership mistakes for what they are – these nine in particular – is part of that learning. If you want to be a better leader, here is where you start.

7 things to consider when using a performance improvement plan (PIP)

Coaching an underperforming employee? Here are 7 things to consider if, when, and how to use a performance improvement plan.

It’s always easier to be a good manager when things are going well. But when an employee is struggling – especially someone who shows a lot of promise – what do you do?

The first step is to figure out if the employee knows they’re underperforming (I discuss this at length here.) Then, it’s time to coach an underperforming employee (hopefully) to success. You need a plan of action.

One way to help an employee improve their performance is through what’s classically known as a performance improvement plan – or PIP, for short. Some companies have a formal PIP process in place, with templates and predefined steps, while other companies and managers forgo having any type of PIP at all.

What works best depends on the employee’s particular situation and the company’s cultural environment. For instance: Has this poor performance been chronic, or something more recent? Does your company generally view process as a means to reduce complexity, or are they process-averse?

To get a better sense of if a formal performance improvement plan would work for you and your team, we asked our 1,000+ managers in our online community, The Watercooler, in Know Your Team about their experiences.

Based on their responses, here’s what you should consider when coaching an underperforming employee and using PIPs:

Is it a lever, or a crutch?

Netflix vocally eschews all performance improvement plans. They’ve observed how other companies use it as a crutch to flag poor performance, rather than as a lever to improve performance. Managers will put an employee on a PIP as “proof” to HR that they tried to help someone. Or in more nefarious situations, a manager will use a PIP to usher someone out of the company. Like any process in an organization, performance plans only work if the intention matches the outcome (whether that outcome is intentional or not.) If the ultimate outcome of PIPs are that they’re a convenient “out” for managers – rather than a genuine path for employees to improve – performance plans will be toxic for your company. Empty relics serve no one.

Never make the PIP a surprise.

Any low performance should have been discussed in a previous one-on-one meeting already. Your direct report should not be caught off guard that you’re suggesting a performance plan to them. In larger companies, this is also something that should have surfaced in feedback to HR (be it ad hoc or via your monthly feedback cycle, depending on what your cadence is.)

Let the employee know a PIP is a possibility.

Folks can turn the ship around, before needing a performance improvement plan. Knowing that a PIP might be on the horizon can be a powerful motivator for some. However, given this, be conscious to not frame the possibility as an ultimatum. Instilling fear is not productive in the long-run. Rather, be transparent as possible about the person’s level of performance is and what the potential next steps might be. For instance, during a one-on-one meeting, you could say, “We need your performance to be at [X tangible level], and I want to work with you to improve. I don’t think we’re at the point where we both need a performance improvement plan in place yet. But, I do want to share that could be a potential next step down the line if we don’t improve, together. Right now, I do want to support you to figure out how to make things better. Would you be open to discussing that?”

Consider having others in addition to the employee present for the conversation.

Watercooler members who are part of larger companies recommended the meeting about the PIP involve the employee, the manager, and HR. This is to make sure all relevant parties are on the same page. If you do choose to involve HR, be wary that some find it distracting (if not a bit ominous) to have HR in the room when the PIP is being discussed. At the same time, others prefer to have HR present from the beginning because it helps establish continuity of information. You’ll want to weigh these trade-offs, for your own team, when evaluating whether or not others should be a part of the PIP conversation.

Have an overall consistent flow for the PIP.

Based on what Watercooler members shared, here’s a general outline for how you could set up a PIP in your company:

  1. Meet with the employee to discuss the performance plan. Make it clear ahead of time that this is the purpose of the meeting, so the employee can plan accordingly in advance, themselves.
  2. Clearly define, together, what “success” tangibly looks like, and when it should be achieved by (typically 4 – 6 weeks out). Discuss why this marker of success is important to the team, and how it helps move the team forward. Get on the same page for how a successful outcome will be measured. Agree on the method of measurement.
  3. Develop a plan during the meeting for how to reach success. What might daily or weekly activities look like? Do either of you have suggestions for what should be done different so success is attainable?
  4. Set up 4 – 6 weekly checkpoints. Talk about what “success” for each weekly checkpoint might look like. What will the measurable output be?
  5. During each weekly checkpoint, discuss the progress made to date, based on the metrics you previously agreed to. What’s been going well and not well? How can either of you do things different to make better progress? How well is the employee tracking toward “success,” as was previously defined?
  6. During the last weekly checkpoint, declare success – or decide it is time to part ways. Obviously, one of these conversations is much harder to have than the other. If the employee has fallen short of meeting the successful outcome, have this discussion as directly and respectfully as possible. Here are some tips on letting someone go with grace and dignity.

Draft the plan always with the employee’s input.

This is paramount. An effective performance improvement plan is “we can improve together” and not just “I’m telling you what to change.” Every step of the way, from having the initial discussion about poor performance to defining the weekly check-points, you should be co-creating the PIP, and working together to figure out how to get to the outcome you both want to achieve.

Understand the cultural implications of a PIP.

For some Watercooler members, PIPs work incredibly well for their team because their team thrives on having clear processes and structures in place. However, another Watercooler shared how, because 80% – 90% of employees who were put on a PIP left the company during the PIP period, it culturally made the PIP “a herald of doom.”

Regardless of whether you decide to move forward with a formal performance improvement plan or something more informal – the important piece is that you’re purely focused on helping your employee improve. That’s your purpose as a manager, after all: To create an environment for your team to do their best work. It doesn’t matter if you call it by a three letter acronym (“PIP”) or not. The outcomes are what matter.

How to discuss poor performance with an employee

Managing an underperforming employee is tough. Here’s advice from 1,000+ managers in Know Your Team on how to address poor performance.

It’s time to have “the talk”: The one where you have to figure out how to discuss poor performance with an employee.

This not-so-fun conversation you likely saw coming. After missed deadlines and low quality of work, you may have tried to have it, inquiring about their underperformance, one-off. Perhaps this employee even admitted to you that they had some personal problems affecting their work performance.

But you didn’t address their poor performance, head-on. Now, you need to… Or else they might be sticking around for much longer.

A manager who is a member of The Watercooler – our online community of 1,000+ managers in Know Your Team – expressed how he was facing this exact conundrum. An employee wasn’t performing well, and had divulged he was having some family issues.

This manager wondered: How should he approach this conversation in his next one-on-one meeting? How do you address poor performance with an employee, particularly when it seems they might have external issues influencing them?

Here’s how some of the 1,000+ managers in The Watercooler recommended approaching “the talk” about underperformance with an employee…

Don’t tell a bad performer they’re “a bad performer.”

You’re assigning them a highly loaded label, and this can cause the person to be defensive. Strong castigation doesn’t give any room for a productive conversation to discern the root cause of the bad performance. Rather, describe what behaviors you’ve noticed and the gap in performance, as objectively as possible. Do this without personally tying that person’s identity into their work. Ask, “This is what I noticed. Would you agree, or did you see things differently?” Decrying, “You’re a bad performer” is essentially yelling at the person – and yelling doesn’t make something easier to hear.

Size up the general shape of any external issues.

You’ll want to get a understanding of the “outside of work” issues. You don’t need to pry for details – just see if you can get a sense of the shape of things. Are there issues that could be solved through a more flexible work schedule? (For example, having the person take an afternoon off to handle a situation.) Are there issues that are emotionally taxing on them? (For instance, a sick family member can obviously bear a great toll on a person). In some cases, you might consider offering a short personal leave, so the person can focus on finding stability with their personal situation. If you do this, you’ll want to set expectations about their performance when they return.

Figure out if you have Problem A or Problem B.

One of our Watercooler members, Paul Sanwald, a VP of Engineering at a small fitness startup, shared an excellent framework for thinking about how to approach an underperforming employee…

Figure out which of these is true: (A) The employee knows they haven’t been productive or (B) The employee thinks they’re productivity has been acceptable. As a manager, your job is to figure out which of these two situations you’re in. The first (Problem A) is a problem of everyone understanding the consequences of unacceptable productivity. The second situation (Problem B) is a disagreement on understanding what acceptable level of productivity is.

One of the ways to discern if you have Problem A or B on your hands is to ask simply ask: “How have you been feeling about your performance lately?” Based on this answer, you’ll know which of these problems is true for you.

What to do if you have Problem A: The employee knows they’re underperforming.

If the employee knows they haven’t been performing well, here’s a recommendation of how to structure the conversation:

  1. Recognize the problem: Before meeting, ask the person to reflect on their performance: What’s going well? Not well? Get their perspective, and then offer your own.
  2. Identify the cause: Is the reason for underperformance something you did or didn’t do, as a manager? (Here are some questions to ask to figure that out). Is it situational to the task they were given? Is is systemic to the work environment? Are there mitigating factors you weren’t initially aware of?
  3. Explore possible solutions: Discuss different possible routes to resolve the underlying cause of poor performance. For example, if the person works best with greater context, you as a manager need to be providing more detail and support on the project. However, if you’ve already been doing that consistently, another potential option is for that person to get a different job. “Best outcome” doesn’t always mean just forcing the person to “work harder” and stay at the company. Consider fit, and what is best for you, the other person, and the team.
  4. Outline next steps: You’ll want to plan out concrete next steps to address the underlying cause of the issue. What are the actions both you and the employee will take? By when? Will there be a follow-up conversation to check back in and see if those actions are fulfilled, and how they are going?

What to do if you have Problem B: The employee doesn’t know they’re underperforming.

If an employee doesn’t believe their performance is suffering in any way, Esther Derby, a Watercooler member and well-known organizational consultant, recommends that you consider:

  • Does this person know that their co-workers feel they can’t rely on them? Have they talked to the person, directly, or only complained to you?
  • How do you know that the employee is underperforming? For instance, have you been told that the employee is “slow”? What does slow mean in this case? If the person spends more (perceived) time than other people doing similar work but does so with fewer errors, you might in fact prefer that.
  • Can you articulate the expected level of performance? What specifically does this person need to do to improve?

Don’t delay. As soon as you feel you might need to have “the talk,” the clock countdown starts: Every minute you postpone talking about an employee’s poor performance, the greater likelihood their performance will get even worse. Schedule a one-on-one meeting immediately, if one isn’t already on the books.

Yes, it’s far from fun to have to talk about poor performance with an employee. But you only exacerbate the damaging ramifications on your team by not having the conversation sooner.

The time to have “the talk” is now.

What makes a good leader? Leadership is your product, not your identity.

The minute you stop tying your leadership so closely to your identity, you become a better manager.

Your leadership style is not your identity.

You are not your leadership style. In order to be a good leader, you must internalize this. As much as you might self-identify with being an “empathetic leader” or a “decisive leader”, you’ve got to let these notions go.

This is not an obvious truth because leadership feels inherently personal. The adjectives we use to describe our own leadership style might be the same adjectives we use to describe our own personality or disposition: Calm, patient, deliberate, compassionate, rational…

But the minute we fuse our identity to our leadership, we cling to it – and it blinds us.

I was recently reminded of this when I interviewed Desiree Vargas Wrigley, CEO and founder of Pearachute. She emphasized to me:

“The more you can remove your sense of self-worth from the performance of your business, the better your business and your leadership will be.”

Desiree admitted how, as a leader, it’s easy to cement yourself as “a certain kind of leader” – and you fail to see problems for what they are, because of this.

For example, if you see yourself as a “motivating leader” but an employee isn’t performing up to par, it’s tempting to feel frustrated. You might think to yourself, “I’m doing everything I can over here to be supportive… How can this person be flailing?”

Or, if you consider yourself a “fair leader” yet a team member implies you’re playing favorites, their critique feels like a personal attack. “Wow, I’m a fair leader, and they really think they’re not getting their chunk of the pie?”

In both situations, you view your own leadership as static – it’s the other person who needs to change. You shut the door on collecting more information, evaluating the situation objectively, and the possibility that there’s something better you could be doing.

The closer we tie our sense of self to how we lead, the harder it is to improve.

Instead, can you view your leadership as a product – not an extension of your identity?

With a product, you welcome feedback, you experiment with what works, you see it as a work-in-progress. With a product, you take a step back every now and then to reflect if it is indeed working.

You’re not incredulous if it’s not working for some folks. You’re not personally offended if some people don’t seem to like it. You adjust, test, readjust.

If anything, when leadership is your product, you’re excited for your leadership to evolve, and get better.

Otherwise, your leadership is self-righteous. “This is just the way I am” or “This is just how I’m wired” become the default mode of thinking.

The most important thing your leadership should be doing is serving your team – not your sense of self. Is the way you communicate, make decisions, handle conflict, set direction helping my team get closer to what they all want to make happen?

Leadership is a tool to help your team achieve the outcome it wants. It’s not a precious thing, in itself, that needs to be held on high.

Our leadership isn’t an outward expression of some grand inner personal philosophy, gilded in gold. Our leadership isn’t a foundational core of who we are, set in stone.

The more you relish in self-identifying as a “certain kind of leader,” the less responsive you become to the needs of your team and how you can become better over time.

The more you separate your personal identity from your leadership, the better leader you’ll be.

Building trust in teams: What and why?

How do you build trust in a team? First, let’s understand what trust really is and why it matters.

Who do you trust?

The first people who likely came to mind were your partner, your family, and your friends (hopefully). 

How about your boss? Your coworker? It’s harder to say. 

A 2016 study conducted by Edelman surveyed 33,000 people in 28 countries. From it, they discovered: One in three people don’t trust their employer. And only 24% of employees in this study believe their CEO exhibited highly ethical behavior.

In our own Know Your Team survey this past year of 597 managers and employees, we found that folks were slightly more trustful of one another: About 8% of employees said they rarely or never trust their manager. That’s almost 1 in 10 employees not trusting their manager. 

Why defining trust matters

Whether 1 in 3 employees or 1 in 10 employees don’t trust their managers – both are significant occurrences. Especially given the amount of time we interact with our coworkers, and the projects and outcomes that are on the line, it’s startling.

Are we really spending all this time with people we don’t trust? Should we be doing anything about this?

To answer those questions, we first have to define “trust” clearly. Misconstrue what trust actually is, and you spend time on the wrong things. Get it right, and building trust gets easier.

What trust is NOT:  Likability

We often equate trust with likability. We think, “This is a nice person” or “This is the kind of person I’d want to hang out with on weekends”… So we trust them. 

However, that’s only part of the equation. 

Consider someone in your company you don’t trust. You might like her. She’s affable, genuine and definitely tries her best. But trusting her with a high-profile project? You hesitate – she hasn’t shown the track record you need to feel confident. You don’t give her the big project because, honestly, you just don’t trust her enough.

So you if you want someone to trust you, it’s not enough that they like you. It’s not enough that they think you have good intentions. They’ve got to think you’re capable. They’ve got to think you have what it takes to prove something through. 

You might think someone is a good person – but you don’t trust them to actually get the work done. You need both.

This is an important distinction because many leaders accidentally optimize for likability as a means to build trust. They try to “be friends” with their direct reports, thinking it’ll mean their team will trust them more.

If we can internalize that trust is not likability, it causes us to not fall into the trap of trying to please everyone around us. If we want to build trust, there’s something deeper we have to access.

So then, if trust isn’t likability, what is it?

What trust IS: Intentions + Behavior

In a 1998 paper, Denise M. Rousseau suggested this definition of trust:  “A psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another.”

In short, trust is two things:  Intentions and Behavior. It’s people’s perception of who you are, and their expectation of what you can do. 

The 4 Cores

Stephen M.R. Covey defines trust in his popular book, “Speed of Trust,” similarly to Rousseau. To Covey, trust is the belief in who the person is, and a belief in their abilities – a person’s “Character” and their “Capabilities.” Covey then further breaks down trust into what he calls “Four Cores”:

  • Integrity – This means being honest, walking the talk, and being congruent with what you believe. You can’t trust someone unless you believe they have integrity. When someone is assessing your integrity, they’re wondering, “Do you have values I align with? Are you a good person?” 
  • Intent – This is your agenda or mission. Your team must trust your intent before they can trust you. A person sizing up your intent will wonder, “Are you thinking about yourself, or others, in this situation? Do you have the short-term, or the long-term in mind?”
  • Capabilities  – This is your talents, attitudes, skills, and knowledge. When someone is determining whether or not to trust you, they’ll consider, “Does this person have the expertise to do this job as well as they say they can?” Based on our survey, we found that both managers and employees most question their each others’ capabilities (26% of employees said this, and 36% of managers said this).
  • Results – This is your track record, your performance. You can’t be trusted unless you’ve shown results in some way that you can be trusted to follow-through. When you ponder about a coworker, “What has this person done that proves I can trust her?” you’re seeking results.

Warmth + Competence

Another related lens for understanding trust is described by organizational experts Amy J.C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger. They revealed the two elements needed for a leader to be trusted were “Warmth” and “Competence” – with warmth needing to come first. 

According to their research, when you project strength too quickly, people have a harder time trusting you. They explain in Harvard Business Review, “Before people decide what they think of your message, they decide what they think of you.”

These perceptions of warmth and competence are powerful: “Insights from the field of psychology show that these two dimensions account for more than 90% of the variance in our positive or negative impressions we form of the people around us.”

How do you show warmth and competence? Cuddy and her research partners detail how warmth can mean positive body language, affirming words, generous actions, and even a smile. Competence can be projected similarly through body language (such as standing up straight), your past track record, and the actions you take going forward.

Like Covey, Cuddy’s research and explanation of the requirements for trust echo Rousseau’s definition of intention + behavior. Trust is all about who people think you are (warmth), and what they think you can do (competence).

Getting this distinction straight helps lay the groundwork for you to build trust in your team. You can now understand why someone might distrust you. Perhaps you haven’t defined your intent clearly enough. Perhaps it’s because of your past behavior. As a result, most importantly, you now can start to think how you can build trust in your team.

The clearer understanding we have of trust and what it really is, the clearer path we have to our teams trusting us more.

The Mindset Shift: How to become a good new manager

Are you a first-time manager? Of all the management advice for new managers, embrace this one, first.

Image for the mindset needed to become a good new manager

Don’t be fooled: Becoming a new manager is deceptively difficult.

No matter how many leadership books you’ve read or conversations you’ve had with mentors – the transition to becoming a manager is precarious.

Talk to any leader, and they’ll affirm this. “I was a terrible manager when I first started,” most will say. Myself included!

This is because the change required to be a good boss isn’t apparent from the outside looking in. You’re not truly aware of the change that’s needed in the role, until you’re actually in the role.

So what change do you need to make as a new manager? From 15,000+ people we’ve surveyed through Know Your Team and thousands of conversations with managers in our online community, the #1 consistent insight folks have shared is this:

Becoming a new manager isn’t merely a change in what you do – it’s a change in how you think.

When you become a manager, your responsibilities change and your daily schedule changes. But it’s your mindset that changes the most.

The biggest change in thinking, as a new manager, is that your best work is not you doing your best work. Your best work is creating an environment for others to do their best work.

You don’t think about, “Am I moving fast enough?” Instead, you now contemplate, “Am I removing obstacles so my team can move fast enough?”

You don’t consider, “Do I know the answer to this?” Instead, you ask yourself, “What am I doing to help my team become experts and find the answer?”

Becoming a good manager starts with how you think, not what you do. Shift your mindset, and the actions follow.

This shift in mindset, while seemingly obvious, is both substantial and hard to internalize. What previously indicated “success” for you as an individual contributor doesn’t indicates success anymore.

No longer do you pat yourself on the back when someone says, “Great work” or “I love what you did here”. As a manager, the small bump of validation happens when someone says: “Now I understand,” “Thank you for listening,” or “I’m excited to work on this.” The small wins change when you’re a manager.

This shift doesn’t happen overnight. We have to disregard the prior experiences of we were rewarded for as an individual contributor. We have to reconfigure our default settings of behavior that got us to where we are now.

But if you can embrace this mindset shift as quickly as possible, your ability to become a good manager exponentially increases.

You don’t have to wait til you’re in the thick of everything, as a manager, to know what you must change.

Now you know: You must change your thinking, first.

The most counterintuitive leadership tip? Leaders, stop doing what you’re good at.

Playing to your strengths as a leader doesn’t make you a good boss – in fact, it can make you a bad boss. Here’s why.

Of all the leadership tips to be a good manager, “leaning into your strengths” has got to be one of the most frequently cited.

“Do what you’re good at. Focus on your strengths.” That’s the conventional advice we all receive. There’s no shortage of StrengthsFinders assessments and personality tests urging us to triangulate which strengths we should zoom in on.

However, I recently had a conversation with Peldi Guilizzoni, CEO of Balsamiq. His insight on this topic turned my head sideways… in a good way. Peldi asserted:

“Doing what you’re good at hurts the team.”

Huh? Let me explain.

Peldi admitted to me that he’s good at getting stuff done. He makes things happen. He thinks he’s killing it. But as a CEO, 10 years in, should he really the one doing all the doing?

After a decade running his business, Peldi noticed he’d created an environment where his coworkers were depending on him to get things done. If he takes a vacation – he leaves them hanging. If he has to be out for a week – they’re stuck.

Peldi conceded:

“What I realized is that I should stop myself from doing things I’m good at  —  which is so counterintuitive  —  and instead, focus on delegating training and making sure that everybody gets good at doing those things.”

Doing what he was good at was hurting his team, not helping.

I could relate.

I’m good at communicating. So I do it internally. A lot. I write-up about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, a new approach I’m thinking about, a new concept we should try… But, when I take a step back, it’s a bit too much. We’re a tiny, two-person company. For our size, all that communicating is overkill. I could easily spend some of that same time somewhere else in the business and have it be more meaningful.

For both Peldi and I, our predisposition became a preoccupation. We’re good at it, so we automatically assumed it was good for our team.

Whenever you’re good at something, you don’t objectively assess its effectiveness as you should. You apply less of a discerning eye. You know you’re good at it, so you figure the more you do of it, the better.

But as with anything, repeated actions without rigorous judgment become lazy and reckless. And naturally, they have unintended consequences.

Now avoiding this pitfall, and actually internalizing this counterintuitive leadership tip, is hard.

No one is going to stop you. Rarely do others have the temerity to stay, “What you’re good at is bad for the team.” Plus, doing what you’re good at is fun. It’s inherently satisfying to flex your strengths. Who wants to not feel that way?

So, you have to ask yourself: Are your actions feeding your team, or your ego?

Focus on what you’re good at, and the team never becomes good at it themselves. Focus on what you’re good at, and you never see things for what they really are.

Resist viewing your strengths as the only way to make the team strong. Resist falling in love with the short-term results of doing what feels good to be doing.

Pause. Don’t be so busy. Take stock. Why are you doing those things? Because you like doing them? Because you’re good at them? Or because it’s the best way to move the team forward?

Find someone who will tell you the truth. Your co-founder, your coworkers. Ask them if what you’re doing that you’re good at is really helping move the team forward.

This truth-seeking takes 10 minutes to do. Start today. And stop doing what you’re good at, all the time.

New managers, here’s how to run your first team meeting

How to approach your first meeting as a new manager (it doesn’t have to be as daunting as it feels!)

It happened: You’re a new manager now. Perhaps, it’s the first time you’re leading a team. Or you’re taking over a new team as a manager. Either way, that first meeting as a new manager is a daunting event. What should the agenda for that first meeting with the new team be? How should you set expectations as a new manager? Should you make prepare some sort of “new manager introduction speech”?

First impressions are often lasting ones. And there’s no better time and place to solidify that impression than the first meeting with your entire team.

Whether you’re taking over a brand new team, or you’re a first-time manager, here’s how to approach that first meeting. I’ll walk through what you should be thinking about, some things you can say, and some questions you can ask…

Build trust, don’t chart a vision (yet).

The goal of this initial meeting with your new team isn’t to map out the vision for the next nine months or declare your mandate for change. You’ll have the space (and greater knowledge) to do both in the coming weeks. This first meeting is to establish trust and set the tone for the kind of team environment you wish to foster.

Specifically, as a new leader, you’ll want to internalize these goals for your first meeting:

  • Show you’re worthy of your team’s trust
  • Show that you’re humble and ready to learn
  • Show that you’re intention is that you want to help

This may feel like a passive approach to your new leadership role at first. But keep in mind this one truth: You’re new. And your team will be skeptical of you (rightfully so). So, as tempting as it might be to come into a new team situation and project confidence, certainty, and a sense of direction — know that it will only be seen positively by your team if they trust you. Without trust, your confidence will seem arrogant, your certainty will seem oblivious, and your sense of direction will seem misguided. Nothing moves forward without trust.

How can you build trust within this first meeting? Read on…

Get to know your team members — and take notes.

This may be one of the most over-looked aspects for new managers: Getting to know their team members, personally. Icebreakers can feel forced and trite — but I encourage you to spend some time in your first meeting asking at least a few get-to-know-you-questions to the group. (Here are the 25 best icebreaker questions we’ve found to work well, based on four years of data.) Take notes. Think about how you can incorporate their answers in future interactions, events, etc. For example, someone’s favorite food is ice cream? Consider bringing in ice cream to celebrate their birthday or work anniversary.

Share who you are, more than surface-level stuff.

This isn’t about touting your accomplishments and expertise (though, of course, you can share those things in this first meeting if it feels right). Rather, when introducing yourself to the team, it’s a chance to expose who you really are — what motivates you, inspires you, and brings you fulfillment. The more your team knows of the real you, the more likely they are to trust you.

How to do this? Share your leadership philosophy: What do you see as the purpose of a manager? What do you value? Who do you look up to? What drew you to the organization? Share your intentions: That you are here to help, to help them do the best work of their careers, to get out of their way and support them to accomplish something greater. Share your personal interests: What do you like doing in your free time? What social causes or nonprofits do you support? Be mindful to make sure you don’t spend more than 25% of the meeting, tops, talking about yourself. In building trust, the last thing you want to do is come across as self-absorbed.

Make it clear that you’re in “learning mode.”

If you want to build trust as a leader, you have to be vulnerable. You should let your team know that you don’t have all the answers and you have much to learn. This is one of the hardest parts of being a leader. As leaders, it feels like we’re supposed to have all the answers. Admitting that we don’t can feel like a blow to our sense of self. Yet exposing this vulnerability helps build trust in a team — it shows you’re humble, fallible, and human like the rest of us.

To do this, try saying something like this: “I am the new person here, and so all of you in this room know more than me. You carry with you insights and experiences that I don’t have. I am sponge, and I am to learn from all of you.” No need to beat yourself up and say that you’re ignorant, by any means. Essentially, you are saying that you’re “in learning mode” as a new leader. A learning mindset is one of the greatest ways to show vulnerability, and build trust with your team.

Ask 2–4 probing, thoughtful questions.

The majority of your first meeting as a new manager should be spent asking a few key questions to your team as a group. I’d also strongly recommend setting up separate one-on-one time with each individual employee before or after the first team meeting to further learn what’s on their mind (whichever is most appropriate).

Here are some ideas for questions you can ask…

  • What do you want to change in this team?
  • What do you not want to change in this team?
  • What’s typically been taboo to talk about in the past? What have you been nervous to bring up?
  • What looming concerns or apprehension might you have?
  • What’s been the most frustrating thing to have encountered with the team lately?
  • Where do you see the biggest opportunity for improvement with the team?
  • How do you prefer to receive feedback? (Verbal, written, in-person)? How do you prefer to give feedback? (Verbal, written, in-person)?
  • What’s been the most motivating project you’ve worked on all year? With whom? And why?
  • What excites and energizes you about the company?
  • What are you most grateful for in being a part of this company?
  • What do you think has been a big obstacle to progress?
  • What do you wish was communicated to you more often?
  • When have you felt micromanaged? When have you felt like you’ve needed more support?
  • Who’s the best boss you’ve ever had and why? The worst boss you’ve ever had and why?
  • What was the best team experience for you? The worst team experience?
  • How do you like to be shown gratitude?
  • How often would you like to set up a standing one-on-one or check- in meeting? Every week? Biweekly? Once a month? Once a quarter?

If this list of questions overwhelms you, remember, you only need to pick two to four of these questions for the all-team meeting. Save the rest for your one-on-one followup conversations.

As you listen to the answers, there are a few things to pay particularly close attention to:

  • Listen for the things you can fix, solve, and knock out quickly. Is there a project that is deadweight? Is there a useless policy that’s slowing people down? The best way to build trust with your new team and show that you’re here to help is to actually help.
  • Listen for what people view as “success” and progress, and consider how you’re going to define and measure that. As a leader, one of your primary jobs will be to say what “success” is, and how well the team is doing to get there.
  • Listen for what people’s communication needs are. What do they feel “in the dark” about? How might people prefer you sharing what’s going on? How regularly will you need to set up touch points with team members?

Be proactive in your next steps

As you wrap up your meeting, one of the worst things you can say as a new manager is this: “Feel free to stop by my office if you need anything.” Don’t say that. Why? You’re implying that if they have questions or concerns, they have to come to you. The burden is on them, not you. Instead, try saying: “In the next __ days, I’ll be setting up a time to meet with each of you. From there, based on your preferences, we can set a standing one-on-one time. In the meantime, if you want to meet anytime sooner, grab me in the hall, send me an email — I’d love to sit down sooner.” There’s a huge difference between the two statements. One is reactive and sounds lazy (the former), while the other sounds proactive and that you want to help (the latter). A strong way to end your first meeting is to show that you’re willing to come to them — that you won’t be waiting for them to bring up issues. You want to show as much proactiveness as possible.

Be prepared for tough questions

Note that you may get asked questions during your meeting such as, “What do you think you’ll change?” and “What do you see as the vision for the team?” Some might be tough to answer, especially with you being new. Be prepared to answer them honestly — and with a good dose of humility. There is much for your to learn. This is only Day 1, and the more you can level with your team that you’re here to learn from them about what the direction or what those changes should be, the better. You’re here to listen and to serve.

This is by no means comprehensive. Every team is different — from who managed the team before you, to the interpersonal dynamics at play, to the challenges that they’re facing with their work. You’ll likely need to tweak some of the question suggestions I offered, or some of the phrases I recommended. Regardless, I hope at the very least these tips give you a framework to start planning your first meeting as a new manager, and kick things off on the right foot.

Best of luck to you!

P.S.: Please feel free to share + give this piece 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😄 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew).