Like many early stage employees at a startup, prior to my current role at Kickstarter where I lead the community team, I had zero management experience. As a grad student, I’d run my own classroom for seven years, but teaching a group of students one semester at a time is radically different from growing a community team and a company for long-term success.
There are so many things I wish I’d known before plunging blindly down the management road. Here are some of the things I’ve learned on the job, challenges I’ve faced and how to approach them, and other random thoughts on managing a team that might hopefully be helpful to others facing similar situations:
1. Managing is a job unto itself.
Something that often happens within startups is that those who are best at “doing the job” are tapped to become managers of the team. It’s both a blessing and curse! You’ve been rewarded for doing a good job — hooray. Only now your job is totally different and you don’t get to do the same work that gave you satisfaction before. It’s a confusing moment as you try to navigate this brave new world. Some days you will wake up and wonder what exactly it is that you “do.” Managing occupies a mysterious layer of meta-work that, if you’d previously prided yourself on being good at doing the work itself, will make you wonder if somehow you’d made a wrong turn in life.
I am not sure that there’s a shortcut to moving past this awkward phase for new managers. But I will say that Step 1 is to accept the role. Not just agree to do the job, but really, really accept that you have become a manager. Don’t tell yourself, “Hm okay I guess I’ll lead the team while I also do all these other things.” Management is a full-time job, and does not work well as one of many jobs.
2. Your team needs a manager first, a friend second.
One of the hardest things for me to adjust to as a new manager was the deep feeling of isolation that accompanied transitioning from being one of the team to leader of the team.
Just because you’ve been given the title doesn’t mean you are magically a manager. Instead, it takes time to earn the trust and respect of your team, and it takes even longer to try and figure out how to manage a group of individuals who may also be your friends.
As a new manager, it’s essential to remember that your job isn’t to be a friend. Your job is to lead the team, and look out for the team’s best interests. Worrying about being liked by your team will make you vulnerable to making decisions that aren’t best for your team.
There’s no need to go ballistic and cut yourself off from your team entirely in an effort to define yourself as manager. Being manager simply means prioritizing leading the team over other things.
3. If you see something, say something.
This one is incredibly simple, but has been extremely helpful to me as a general guide for when to act on something. Given that your job is to lead and look out for the team, you see many things happening with the team on any given day, from the good, to the bad, to the downright ugly. When is the right time to act on something?
If you sense something going awry, do and say something about it immediately. Do not delay. Do not wait to see if the problem will correct itself. Pull aside the employee whom you sense might be frustrated and ask how you can help. Talk to the person who might have made a mistake and didn’t realize it. Do not attack, and do not make an example of mistakes. Have a conversation while the issue is fresh, and make it a regular habit.
If you never talk about things that aren’t working well, you will be all the more afraid to bring up anything negative because it will feel terrifying and monumental, instead of a regular part of the process of making things better.
By that same token, don’t forget to let someone know when they’re doing a good job. Usually the person you worry about the least — the one whose work is always consistent and who you can always depend on — is the person who needs to hear from you most.
4. When hiring, trust your instincts.
You will interview many, many people who seem like they could potentially be the right person. They’re great on paper, they did well in the interview, they said all the right things. Everyone else is ready to pull the trigger — this is the one, they’ll say. But something is still bothering you ever so slightly about the person. You can’t put your finger on it, and you feel like you’re insane for feeling any doubts.
That’s the gut feeling you absolutely need to trust. Do not allow your desire to fill a seat override the importance of hiring the right people for your team. And don’t worry that no one better will come along. There will always be innumerable people who are capable of doing the job well, but you’re looking for the person who will enrich and become a valuable part of the team. It’s a different quality, and it’s not always about “culture fit.”
Hiring is one of the most important responsibilities of a manager. Take the time to choose wisely and you (and your team) will always be happier for it.
5. If someone on your team is unhappy or under-performing, it’s your job to help find a solution.
While it may be tempting to simply wish that person was happier or feel frustration with their discontent, the fact remains that as manager, it is your responsibility to figure out what might be the cause, and help guide that employee to a solution. Employment is not a gift — it is a mutually beneficial relationship and not something that obligates either you or an employee to never feel discontented.
Finding a solution can range from helping someone move into a role that challenges them more, or if such a role does not exist, helping that person figure out what they need to do in order to advance their career outside of the their current job and company. You may literally find yourself helping someone create a path to leaving your team. It may feel strange, but looking out for the health of the individual employee as well as the rest of the team is far more important than arbitrarily forcing everyone to play their designated role.
People are dynamic. They grow and change over time, and oftentimes in ways that don’t match the same rate of growth of the company. Rather than try to force these things into alignment, start from knowing there are multiple paths to individual success, and not all have to happen within the company.
6. Admit when you’ve made mistakes.
As a new manager, you will probably (royally) fuck things up, say the wrong thing, give poor advice, let your own fear of being a bad manager lead you to make bad decisions, and so forth.
That is okay.
Your job is not to be perfect and right. It is to build a culture of trust with your team that begins with knowing when to admit you’ve made a mistake, and doing what needs to be done to correct it.
Previously: “What Do You Do With a Ph.D. in Literature?”
Cindy Au is Head of Community at Kickstarter, where she oversees the support and growth of Kickstarter’s community of creators and backers. Prior to Kickstarter, she worked as a writer (“unpaid blogger”) and teacher covering games and comics culture. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she focused on African American Literature and Civil Rights History. She currently resides in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and loves playing games and eating pie, usually at the same time.