One privilege I get as part of mentoring and investing in a few dozen startups is a chance to work with first-time managers. The reality is, most start-ups are better off with a Stretch VP than a Never Did It But Has a Great LinkedIn VP. More on that here
And as part of that, I see a lot of ambitious, driven first-time managers screw it up
I thought I’d share 7 actionable tips to help you if you’re getting your first big shot now …
- Make a firm rule: No Excuses. This is probably the rookie error most first-time managers make, and many second and third-timers as well. Excuses actually work fairly well in Big Companies, because it’s often not exactly clear who is responsible for many things in large organizations. But the #1 reason a VP is hired in a start-up is be an owner. As part of an owner comes the rule of No Excuses. Missed the quarter? Just tell me why. Made a few wrong hires? We all have. Just tell me the action plan. Etc. Never make excuses. Instead, simply identify challenges and mistakes as early as possible, and just come up with an action plan.
- Get a Formal Mentor. We all need mentors, but especially, first-time managers. Tell your CEO or boss that you need one. And founders — reserve some shares and a full dollars to mentor your stretch VPs back. Maybe reserve 10% of their salary and/or 2%-5% of their option grant for their mentor. And if they don’t know a good one? Go find one for them. Or use a tool like PlatoHQ.com to help you, e.g. for your engineering leaders.
- Do Weekly 1-on-1s. Force your boss to do one with you (nicely) if she/he doesn’t do them. An unstructured, weekly 1-on-1 is one of the best way to collaborate, raise concerns — and build trust. More on that here.
- Ask for Help. This is #4 on our list, but probably the most common mistake. You are not hired as a first-time VP or manager to know everything. No one expects you to. But they do expect you to ask for help when you need it. Not on everything, but even as often as once a week. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of self-awareness.
- Understand Your Boss Likely Isn’t Perfect. First-time managers often have idealistic expectations of their bosses. Often, their bosses haven’t done it either. Don’t let this frustrate you. Instead, focus on the fact that she hired you and believed in you.
- Learn to Thrive on Criticism. This is hard for all of us, this author included. But the best managers thrive on criticism. The 5:1 / 10:1 rule (5-10 pieces of positivity for every 1 piece of criticism) is a good golden rule for line management. But as a leader, ask for more feedback. Criticism with a caustic bent is never truly helpful. But the more senior you get, the fewer pats on the back you’re going to get when you ask for feedback. Learning the 5 things you could have done better last quarter? Tough to hear perhaps, but also priceless if you can find a way to not take it personally.
- Understand the Rules on Being Topped. This is one I was never great at, but as a first time manager, ask how long you get until you are “topped”, e.g. until a VP or SVP or CRO or whomever might be brought in above you. Sometimes, your boss may not know. But I’ve learned having an honest conversation here, if you can, is better than not knowing.
Plus a Bonus 8th Tip, probably the most important:=
- Transparency is Your Top Ally. Don’t hide from anything. Don’t hide from bad news, or mistakes. Don’t hide from a tough quarter. Instead, share as much as you can, dispassionately, again with action plans. However you do it, remain confident but share. Transparency always builds trust. Everyone knows this, but sometimes, first-time managers retreat here a bit when times aren’t perfect. That’s the time to share more, in fact.
Whatever you do, realize as a Stretch VP, your boss knows. She knows your a stretch. She isn’t expecting the impossible. What she/he is expected is that the organization does better, and that you help get it there.
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