Career Skills

New to Management? (Part I)

By Susan de la Vergne

The Lure of Leadership

What lures people into management? More clout? More responsibility? More money? More influence? More prestige?

Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. All of the above to varying degrees, depending on the individual being lured.

Can you get more money, influence and prestige without going into management? Sometimes. That’s good news because management isn’t for everyone. Just because someone is faster, smarter and more creative in the trenches of product design and development does not mean he or she is a good communicator, able to delegate, capable of thinking strategically, and good at navigating politics.

There are companies who’ve realized that rewarding star technical performers by moving them into management isn’t always a good idea. They know that the skills and abilities that make top techies top performers aren’t the same as those needed in leadership. To ensure their key performers reap management benefits (such as money and clout), these perceptive companies have set up technical tracks so that individual contributors don’t have to take on leadership responsibilities in order to advance. But many companies haven’t figured that out.

So if your professional goals include expanding your influence, making more money, and taking on more responsibility, your next move may be into management. But if you’re not sure you want to go there, or you’re already there and not entirely sure what you’re doing there, here are a few suggestions to help ease the transition from individual contributor to leadership.


1. Perspective Shift: Initiative

As an individual contributor, you asked your management to clear roadblocks, provide training and add more people to the work effort. You asked for more time, more money and sometimes miracles. As a manager, you’ll still be looking for those things but with greater responsibility for clearing the roadblocks, arranging the training and resolving the disagreements. You’re not just elevating concerns. You’re fixing them, and that’s definitely a shift in perspective. Managers don’t just ask for the things they need; they figure out where and how to get them, and they make it happen.

For example, let’s say you disagree with another team about the priority of a shared work responsibility. They’re dragging their heels while your team waits impatiently for them to engage. As a manager, it’s your job to resolve the disagreement, not to simply identify that there is a disagreement. If you wait for someone else to tiebreak, you may be waiting a long time.

Or let’s say you need more money on a project that’s over budget. As a manager, it’s your job to figure out how to cut expenses elsewhere to make up the difference, or to convince a client to cough up additional funds. As an individual contributor, you might just whine about not having enough money to finish the work. As a manager, you take steps to find savings or additional funding.

2. Know your team.

As a manager, your job is to develop your team, to make sure they’re growing professionally through the work they do, and through training and other kinds of professional development. As an individual contributor, you were interested in those things for yourself; as a manager, your team becomes your priority. You may not be able to accomplish this for everyone, but don’t lose sight of it.

This means knowing the people on your team as people. What matters to them? What are their professional goals? What do they do when they’re not at work? Not to be nosy, just to be connected.


Whenever you move into a supervisory role over a new team–whether you’re hired in as a manager or you take over an existing team–make time to talk one-on-one with every individual on your team early on. I can’t tell you how important this is.

I was once hired by a company to take on a director role leading a team of almost 100 people. I had six direct reports. I met with them first, but in the course of the first couple of months, I met one-on-one with everyone, usually in 30-minute meetings. Some of the benefits of having done that: I acclimated to the work environment more quickly; it was a friendlier place to be because of the connections I had had with each person on the team; team members who felt the need to escalate something to me weren’t shy about doing so; we established at least a base level of communication and (I like to think) trust.

You may think it’s time-consuming to meet with every team member, especially if you have a large team, but believe me, it’s really a time-saver. Not to mention it’s a respectful and honorable thing to do.

3. Give clear direction.

The first time I ever had to delegate a responsibility (years ago), I was uneasy about it. She knew more about her job than I did, and I was about to have her do a task that I wasn’t able to do myself. It was a strange feeling. I found myself apologizing as I made the assignment, and before long I was talking in stupid generalities. “Let’s be successful!” and other useless phrases.

Insecurity can make new managers back away from giving direction. Engineers in particular, who are used to being the ones with the expertise, may feel they have to know every facet and nuance of the work to be done before they can delegate it. So they may wait until they master their understanding of the assignment before delegating. That enables them to micromanage the work (almost always a bad idea). It’s also a momentum killer.

It’s possible to understand the breadth, depth and quality requirements of a work assignment well enough to delegate even when it’s outside your area of expertise. One technique to get you there is to ask the people who are the experts. Ask enough questions to firm up a shared understanding between you, as delegator, and the team members who will execute the task.

Be clear. Never use murky words to describe the results you want, words like “success” and “effective” and (my own personal pet peeve) “issue.” Please promise me that, as a manager, you’ll eliminate those muddy words from your lexicon. Be specific, not vague, general or politically correct. An “issue” is a problem, disagreement, argument, surprise. Call it what it is. Don’t send your team off to “resolve an issue” and “find success.” Send them off to find the answer to an unexpected service interruption within a specified time range.

4. Protect your team from politics and ambiguity.

By and large, engineers hate ambiguity. One of the things that makes them good at their jobs is that they like certainty: There’s one right answer, and I’m going to find it if it takes all night!  But a lot of what managers deal with isn’t straightforward. For example, project priorities don’t align with strategic plans. Or training, once a #1 priority, is abruptly cancelled without explanation. Or a project dashboard reports “green” across the board, but everyone knows the project is late and over budget. Those kinds of things. Many engineers hate those kinds of contradictions because it’s confidence in certainty and correctness that makes engineers good at their jobs. Cloudiness and uncertainty are the opposite of that.

Managers often have to deal with inconsistencies and incongruity. It’s part and parcel of the job, and it becomes more so the higher in management you go. But it’s a good idea not to bring that to the table at every team meeting. It’ll just make your team squeamish, and it can foster discontent. I’m not suggesting you conceal complications–not at all!–just that you don’t lay on your team all the unpredictability and uncertainty you face in your job.

5. Deliver unwelcome news when you have to.

Oh look, we’re out of time. Stay tuned for part 2 of “New to Management?” where we’ll explore how to communicate bad news to the team as a whole and in one-on-one conversations with your team members, your peers and your management.

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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