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Four Common Challenges of a First-Time Manager

New Manager

9 April, 2021

Leo Torres, Engineering Manager at Carta, outlines four common challenges he encountered as a first-time manager.

Problem

When my former manager left the company, I remained the most senior person on the team. Then, as always, hiring an EM externally was anything but easy, and being the most senior one, I stepped in during the interim period. I started to do one-on-ones, and as I was trying to help my teammates, I gradually started to communicate with management and lateral teams, asking for their support and guidance. I somewhat put myself in that role without much understanding what were the things I should pay attention to or deal with first.
 

Actions taken

Importance of soft skills

I was surprised that my technical competencies were not of much use in my new role. Surely, they were important, but being a manager requires a different set of skills. Most engineers lack adequate opportunities to develop their soft skills, and my situation was no different. Only by stepping into the manager role was I able to start practicing and honing some of my soft skills.
 

Cross-team collaboration

When I was an IC, I was only focused on the task at hand, without worrying how my work would impact other teams. I barely knew what they were doing and how my work was impacting theirs. Furthermore, I had to learn to communicate with other teams, ensure alignment and encourage collaboration. It took me some time to understand how to advocate for my team’s interest, how to discuss priorities, and become more vocal in demanding visibility and recognition.
 

Hard conversations

I am naturally not a person that finds hard conversations pleasant, but what made my acquiring of the skill even more difficult was a lack of guidelines. I had to learn it on the fly, and though I read some books and articles, nothing could replace the firsthand interaction with people. As it turned out, delivering negative feedback is never easy, no matter how much you practice it. However, my practice involved other people. You have to learn how to deal with people, have them accept it as a gift, and help them overcome being defensive and argumentative.
 

Conducting performance reviews

I was initially quite perplexed with finding a way to gather accurate information on people’s performance. Before I started to track what they were doing meticulously, I was often left to my own guessing. Also, I was torn between supporting team members to be autonomous and figuring out how to keep track of all their activities.
 

Lessons learned

  • Soft skills are people skills, and managing a team equals managing people. To be a successful manager, you should excel in your soft skills. I was initially unprepared and thus was not able to help my team as much as I wanted.
  • When you need to deliver negative feedback, don’t prolong it. Frequently, managers wait for too long and use performance review cycles to do it. People should be given an opportunity to course-correct, and on-the-spot feedback could help them with that.
  • From the start, keep track of the team’s progress. Any accessible document like GoogleDoc would do, as long as you supplement it with more detailed insights of their performance.

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