How to thrive in your first management position

Photo by Ken Teegardin.

A friend had just been promoted to his first management position and amid his delight at being selected, he saw this as his chance to fix the many problems that bedevilled the department. We both knew them; we’d spent many unproductive hours whinging about this policy or that guideline or the vacant slugs who enforced them. We both knew how to make things better, and now he had the chance.

Change is secondary to producing results

I have to admit I didn’t share his enthusiasm. Organizations develop their own inertia, which, contrary to popular opinion, is not stasis, but resistance to a change in momentum. I tried to warn him that changing things is secondary to actually managing, to doing whatever it is the department is supposed to do. He looked at me as if I were the problem, which, in a sense, I was, and pronounced that under his enlightened authority, things would be different.

Six months later, he was gone, his replacement a clone of the manager he’d replaced. From that, I embraced a single principle for the unlikely day I’d be sitting in the big chair. Here it is: Managers are expected to produce results.

Set a target, and choose an objective measure of success

Now this sounds obvious. How else would managers be judged? Budgets have to be met. Quality targets have to be achieved. Production quotas have to be filled. Schedules have to be satisfied. All of this is a manager’s job. Do it and you’ll be rewarded; mess up and you’ll be fired, regardless of how enlightened you were.

But the big question for any manager, new or seasoned, is just what those results are. What is the budget, or the schedule, or the quality target or the production quota? And it’s not enough to be casual; managers need numbers. They need numbers for two reasons. First, they need a specific target to shoot for. Second, they need an objective measure of whether they’ve succeeded.

If there are no numbers, create your own

So whenever I approach a management assignment, the first thing I do is ask for targets. If the answer includes numbers, now I can judge whether the job is achievable or is someone’s fantasy, and I can respond accordingly. If there are no numbers, if the response is something like, “Oh, we’re pretty laid back here,” then I create my own. When I’ve done so, I present my targets and ask if they’re acceptable. Typically, I get three types of answer: "Whatever," "I want you to do better than that," or "That’s way too ambitious. You’ll never make it." I may have to adjust the targets, but at the end, I have some standard against which I can be judged. After that comes the organizational revolution.

About the author

Jolyon Hallows, CMC, has more than 35 years’ experience in information technology, particularly in managing, developing and troubleshooting complex and high-visibility systems applications. Mr. Hallows is the author of two books on project management—Information Systems Project Management and The Project Management Office Toolkit. He is an instructor at numerous seminars and is active in the project management industry, both locally and internationally.

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