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From the case files of the reluctant manager: My first employee

My first management position wasn’t one I asked for, or even wanted. In fact, to say I was a reluctant manager is a HUGE understatement. I was happy and busy implementing a performance management system in a company that had retained me for a year for this purpose. I’d relocated from Canada to Southern California and was dealing with the culture shock of decorated palm trees for Christmas, people asking if it ever got warm in Canada, and Thanksgiving being in November. The project was successful, and the company owner and COO were happy with how things were going. So happy, in fact, that they wanted me to do MORE…FASTER. Now for me, this was a good news/bad news scenario. The good news was that everything was going so well, and I wouldn’t be sent packing back to Calgary early. The bad news was I wasn’t sure how I’d add on more projects. That was simple, they told me. They’d give me an assistant. In fact, they already had someone picked out. We can call her Alice.

The first time I ever spoke to Alice was when I was told she was my new employee. She hadn’t asked to be my employee, and knew nothing about what I was doing. She was a musician in a band and that was her career goal. Her mom worked for the company and got her the job.

I had no idea how to be a boss. The performance management program I implemented is pretty technical and rooted in behavioral psychology. It seemed like overkill to train her in that. My thought process was that Alice could manage the data and I’d initiate the new projects. She assured me she knew Word and Excel, so I put her in charge of the data.

So about the data. My performance management programs are VERY data centric. We collect a lot of baseline performance metrics, and then daily information for every employee in the program. It’s a lot of work, but it’s based on PhD work into applied science. There’s a lot to it, but suffice it to say, the data was a big deal. My mentor was a professor from Notre Dame, and he was only doing this project so he could publish it.

So to recap: I had an assistant I didn’t think I wanted or needed, and Alice had a new boss and new job she’d never applied for. I had no idea what she was supposed to do and a ton of data I was managing on a spreadsheet that was mundane but critical to the program, and Alice said she knew excel.

What do you think the right thing to do would have been:

  1. Start training Alice in the performance management program and have her take on a project from the ground up?
  2. Have Alice keep performing her previous duties while I drafted out a job description of what I needed her to be doing, along with the training?
  3. Tell my bosses I had no work for Alice and I’d let them know when that changed?
  4. Put Alice in charge of the data management because that was the item that needed the least specialized training, and could free me up to start new projects?

Comment with your answers, and I’ll let you know what I really did (it wasn’t good).

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Carrie Maldonado is the founder of Today’s Leadership Solutions, a Seattle-based mentoring and training company committed to equipping managers to overcome the typical tactical, strategic, and personal development challenges facing managers in growing companies. Will a full suite of mentoring, coaching, training, and on-call support available for managers and leaders, we’ve got you covered! For more information, visit our site or contact us for more information about how we help leaders and managers grow.

Business Management

From the case files of the Reluctant Manager: Investigating ‘Handsy’ (my first assignment)

As I’ve shared previously, my rising through the ranks of management happened quickly, abruptly, and, for me, surprisingly. As a creative, introverted psychology major, my life plan included either helping people in a clinical fashion (as in, have a seat on this couch and tell me about your mother) or living in a cabin on a mountaintop writing bestselling novels. So naturally, I ended up in charge of an HR department in a busy, rapidly growing company in a different country from my birthplace. But I digress.

I think most of us expect life to progress along a pre-planned track: Graduate, go to college, graduate college, get a starter job, get promoted, personal stuff, get promoted some more, etc. At least that was what I expected. Of course, we all eventually realize that it’s NEVER like that but not without spending a few years (or decades) wondering if we were doing something horribly wrong because our experience was so different from the plan.

Such were my thoughts when I was thrust somewhat reluctantly into the role of manager for the first time. Because I’m highly competitive and achievement-oriented, I rarely say no to a challenge or advancement opportunity so initially I was quite excited about being asked. But then it sunk in that I had accepted a job I really didn’t know how to do and had never done before. Not only that, it was in a field in which I had zero expertise – Human Resources.

At the time, I was an organizational behavior management consultant – working for a professor emeritus from Notre Dame running projects for him all over North America. HR had never been on my radar, not even a little, but because OBM involves training, development, and performance it sort of made sense that it fell under HR – I guess. I’m not sure why it made sense for ANYONE that that meant I should be in charge of HR (least of all me) but that was the plan.

No sooner did I agree to the promotion when I was informed I needed to perform an investigation of a manager who had been accused of…things…that a manager shouldn’t be doing. Things that involved his administrative assistant. Given the cultural context in which I’m writing this, all I can say is that that allegations were mild compared to what we’re seeing and hearing these days, but at the time it was a big deal. The complainant was upset and the manager much more so, and furthermore he adamantly denied everything.

What I remember most about the incident was frantically Googling how to conduct an investigation. There was no senior leader who had done my role before, and even though I KNEW my boss KNEW that I knew NOTHING about HR, I still thought he’d figure he’d made a mistake if I told him I didn’t know how to handle my first assignment. I went out and bought a mini-cassette recorder to record the interviews and did the best I could. The investigation was a disaster (in my opinion) because everyone had a different story, nothing lined up, and there was no clear evidence one way or the other. It was very unsatisfying to me, who had been expecting an Agatha Christie-like closure to the case. Of course, I was later to learn they’re all like that, but that’s another story.

What most sticks with me after all these years is how scared I was, and how confusing it was to try to find answers to the questions. The fact that everyone believed in me really didn’t help. It was nice and all, but I knew that I didn’t know what I was doing, so their utter confidence in me was a little disappointing. What I would have appreciated more than anything was someone to guide me a little. Not to tell me exactly what to do (because I hate that), but to at least point me in the right direction.

Luckily, I was a quick study, and I’m proud to say we never got into legal trouble on my watch. But that experience started a fire in me to make sure to provide context and structure for people walking after me. That’s why I love mentoring so much, and why I am so passionate about helping first time leaders. I don’t think the employment landscape has changed much since when I first started managing. There’s still not a lot of practical help for newer managers, and a lot more to be done than time to do it in. But it feels good to know I can be helpful.  If you’re interested in hearing more about how I mentor first time managers, you can click here.

And because I just love giving out bonuses, click here for a free link for a basic employee investigation process (just in case you have a ‘handsy’ of your own)

Do you have any horror stories from your first time managing? Do share!

Carrie Maldonado is the founder of Today’s Leadership Solutions, a Seattle-based mentoring and training company committed to equipping managers to overcome the typical tactical, strategic, and personal development challenges facing managers in growing companies. Will a full suite of mentoring, coaching, training, and on-call support available for managers and leaders, we’ve got you covered! For more information, visit our site or contact us for more information about how we help leaders and managers grow.


5 things I really wish I would have known when I first became a manager

A long, long time ago, I was an Organizational Behavior Management (OBM) program director for a wonderful company in Southern California. The company had transplanted me all the way from Calgary, Canada to do this and was highly invested in making sure the program was successful. So, they gave me an assistant. I will call her Jessica (not her real name). Now, I hadn’t asked for an assistant, and I was not allowed a vote on who got the job, but they were very well-intentioned, so I tried to make the best of it.  I’ve learned a lot through the years about managing people, leadership, communication and accountability, but the all the seeds of what I needed to know could be found in the mistakes I made with Jessica.

1)      Define the need for a new employee

In my situation, not only did I not have job description for Jessica, I really didn’t even have a perceived need. My boss wanted me to be able to be able to implement the project faster, and his executive assistant’s daughter needed a job, so he saw a match. I don’t recommend this approach (to put it lightly). Instead, do what a client of mine does when told a new employee is needed. Write down what the new employee’s duties will be, why we need an additional body to do them, and how it will impact sales or profitability to have this person on board.

2)      Make sure you are clear on your mission and vision, so you can direct your employees

I had no idea what I was supposed to do with Jessica, so I spent the first month just talking about the OBM projects and training her in OBM theory. I knew the company wanted to expand the OBM project, but they weren’t clear on when or how and I was too green to know that I needed to pin them down on this to ensure top down support. I didn’t know how Jessica fit into the big picture because I didn’t know the big picture. Needless to say, she was less than inspired.

3)      Don’t assume an understanding of common sense or basic policies

This actually goes both ways. If you’ve never managed before, it’s better to assume there are policies or laws you don’t know about (because you never had to know) and take steps to educate yourself. If your company doesn’t have an HR person, take advantage of Google or insist they hire a reputable HR Consultant (shameless plug). On the other hand, never assume your employees will do something just because it seems obvious to you – especially if this is their first job. It quickly became obvious to me that I needed to define things with Jessica such as a shift start time means you need to be at work at that time, that you shouldn’t take personal calls at work, and no, this doesn’t mean leaving the building or hiding in the stairwell to take your calls, it means don’t discuss your weekend on my dime.

4)      Flex your level of oversight depending on your employee’s skillset

In other words, don’t be afraid to micromanage at first. You can always scale back, but a lot of damage can be done by an untrained or unmotivated employee and people don’t always know what they don’t know. I found this out when Jessica sorted a year’s worth of data for me in Excel. Well, actually she just sorted one column. Then saved. Then realized she’d screwed up and tried to fix it. Then saved some more. I was able to find an older version of my data but lost about 3 months worth of work. She thought she knew how to sort. Now, I risk insulting my employees’ intelligence by watching them perform some tasks for the first time before leaving them to their freedom.

5)      Don’t be a jerk

Most people have an uncertain relationship with their bosses. When someone has a significant amount of control over your livelihood, the relationship is not one of equals and there is some fear involved. A good manager works hard to build good will with employees but a reasonably accurate rule of thumb is that it takes one emotional blow up to erase months of positive interactions. Keep your temper, and keep unkind comments to yourself. Even if they lose 3 months’ worth of data. If your employees get the idea that you think they are dumb, or untrustworthy you will not get their best work and a productive relationship.

There is much more, but when you’re a first time manager, these are really important factors to consider to make sure you are running your enterprise efficiently and effectively, and your employees will be happier too.  Because this is such a broad topic, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the critical things new managers need to do.