How to rapidly improve your management skills
It can be overwhelming when you start as a new manager, or when you're an existing manager who is asked to take on more responsibility.
The success criteria for your role suddenly change, and in many ways, you're responsible for defining them. Even if you were good at what you did previously, you basically have to transition into a completely new role.
It's common when you hit a state change like this to seek out resources like books and advisors. The problem is that these resources often increase the feeling of being overwhelmed. The Effective Executive has dozens of precepts that you have to follow to succeed as a leader. High Output Management has multiple new frameworks that you'll need to implement to succeed. Radical Candor asks you to reshape how you approach giving feedback. And on and on as you read more management books.
Even advisors can't always help you cut through the feeling of having to complete dozens of items on a checklist to succeed. Every advisor has a slightly different management philosophy honed over years. Thus, advisors often forget how hard it is to be a new manager, and add dozens more items to your list.
Not to say that these resources are bad. On the contrary, they're essential to succeeding as a manager. The key is to figure out how to prioritize the skills you need to develop to succeed as a manager and tackle them in small chunks.
As a solo technical founder, I've faced this problem multiple times as Dataquest has grown from just me to 30+ people. And I haven't always succeeded.
Through my failures (and my successes), I've identified a framework for how to rapidly and effectively build management skills. In this post, I'll share how you can stop feeling overwhelmed and start improving.
Step 1: Put yourself in a situation where you need to grow your management skills
I firmly believe that it's impossible to learn management skills in a vacuum. You need a context in which you're able to continuously practice what you're learning and get feedback.
This means that if you're on the management track, but aren't yet a manager, you should find a way to start taking some management responsibility. Can you take over 1:1s with some of your managers reports? Is there a way for you to lead some of the strategy and planning of your team?
Part of this is also tailoring the resources you seek out to your level as a manager. For example, if you're a completely new manager, The Making of a Manager is a good book to read, but The Effective Executive probably isn't. Similarly, finding advisors who have led or are leading small teams will be more productive than reaching out to Fortune 500 CEOs. Look for resources that are "just ahead" of where you are.
Step 2: Gather data
As a new manager, or an existing manager stretching your skills, you're going to make mistakes. A lot of mistakes. And that's okay. We often think of management as a "you have it or you don't" skill, but the truth is that management skills are built over years. Being a successful programmer, designer, or marketer doesn't mean that you're going to be a successful manager right off the bat.
As you make these mistakes, it's important to gather data on what you're doing correctly, and what you're not. This is the only way to identify areas to improve. Remember that being a successful manager is about the long-term and short-term output of your team. The only way to judge how effective you are at this is to ask your reports, and the person you report to.
There are three main ways to gather feedback:
- Structured surveys, like 360s
- "Just-in-time" feedback
I highly recommend doing periodic 360s to check in on your performance. I recommend doing both anonymous and non-anonymous surveys. They will both give you different signals, and the anonymous surveys might uncover trust issues on your team.
At Dataquest, we use 15Five to do 4 annual 360 surveys. The specific tool is less important than making sure that you do them on a regular cadence, and genuinely reflect and internalize the feedback with an open mind.
We also do 1-2 annual anonymous 360 surveys. We do this though a coaching platform that we use, Torch, but there are many other ways to do these. Torch breaks down the anonymous feedback along skill axes, which helps you prioritize what to improve:
This anonymous feedback can help identify blind spots, and helps people feel more safe to give feedback. This is especially useful when you haven't yet built trust with your team.
1:1s are a great place to solicit and get more context on feedback. I recommend asking a consistent set of questions to people on your team weekly, and then using them to create a 1:1 agenda. We also use 15Five for this at Dataquest.
In the weekly set of questions, I specifically ask for critical feedback:
Asking more freeform questions about your performance and building understanding during 1:1s is also very valuable.
This is very hard to do if you don't have bidirectional trust with your team, so I don't recommend doing it if you're new to management. But asking for feedback during a meeting, or just after a meeting, can be a great way to get actionable feedback. The context is still fresh in everyone's mind, and you can quickly get to the heart of concerns.
Step 3: Prioritize
If you're like me, at this point, you'll have a long list of things to work on. It may seem like all of these concerns are urgent, and that you need to work on them immediately. Resist that impulse. Similarly to a team that is overloaded with too many priorities, if you try to improve everything at the same time, you won't make any progress.
At this stage, I recommend narrowing your focus down to 1-2 key areas. For example, my goals for the last 3 months were to improve my facilitation, and how well I listened and internalized feedback.
It can be extremely hard to prioritize, but luckily, you have the data that will help you do so. What themes come up over and over in your feedback? What would make the biggest impact on the team?
If you have advisors in place, they can be extremely helpful with this question. Using your team as a sounding board can also be very productive (if you have the right level of trust, of course).
Step 4: Find the right resources
I categorize resources into three groups: advisors, books, and coaches. They're all useful in different ways, and I'll walk through how you can maximize the effectiveness of each.
Advisors are people who have managed before. Getting their perspective can be extremely important in identifying your strengths and weaknesses as a leader, and narrowing down your focus areas.
Advisors can also be very helpful for walking through tactical problems that you're having in management, and brainstorming how you can improve.
Advisors are most useful for perfecting the craft of management - how you should structure your time, how you should relate to your team, and so on. The downside of advisors is that they often lack specific context on your team.
One commonly overlooked source of advisors is others within your company. It's not uncommon for your peers or direct reports to have more expertise in a specific area than you. Seeking them out and asking for advice can be a fast way to improve, since they already have built-in context.
Management books can be extremely useful, if you fit them to your goals, and not the other way around. For example, if you've identified giving feedback as a focus area, then reading Radical Candor might be helpful for you.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, reading management books can be overwhelming, and it's the process of fitting the books to your goals that makes them more manageable.
Leadership coaches can be extremely valuable to growing your management skills. This is because management is about how you relate to others. In order to be able to relate to others, you also have to understand how to relate to yourself.
Coaching and therapy are closely related. I've found that a therapist helps you explore the landscape of your mind and your emotions, and increase your awareness. A coach helps you operationalize this awareness, by helping you relate to the outside world (your reports and your manager) more effectively. Coaches also help you dig underneath the surface, and discover what is causing your strengths and weaknesses in management. It may seem very fuzzy, but I've found it extremely effective.
For me, most of the barriers to being an effective manager weren't external factors - they were all about my mindset and awareness. Additionally, you'll often need to coach your team members and help them improve their skills. Being able to learn the frameworks of coaching can be invaluable in this.
If you have the time and money, I highly recommend getting a coach and a therapist.
Step 5: Test
At this point, you understand your focus areas, and you've gathered a bunch of ideas on how to address them from your resources.
Once you've done that, it's a matter of experimenting, and seeing what works for you. It's very similar to a product development process - not every feature is going to work, but it's through experimentation and measurement that you find the right course.
I recommend trying to keep the feedback loop here as tight as possible. If you try a new way to run a meeting, ask for feedback as soon as possible. If you try a different way of structuring your 1:1s, ask how it went at the end.
If an experiment is working, try consulting your resources to see how you can double down on it. If it isn't consider dropping it and moving on to the next idea.
Progress won't come instantly, but if you try these experiments for a few months, you'll be amazed at how far you'll go.
Step 6: Keep improving
As you try your experiments, you should be constantly gathering data. Eventually, you'll hit a point where you feel like you've improved your focus areas enough. Once you hit this point, it's time to move on to new focus areas. Go back to the gather data step, pick 2 new focus areas, and continue from there.
The fun and the pain of management is that you're never done improving. There will always be new challenges - new team members, new ways of working, and new responsibilities. It's only by continuously improving that you can stay ahead of these and keep succeeding.
Becoming a better manager
I hope that this framework helps you become a better manager. I personally have found them extremely valuable. If you have any questions or comments, please reach out to me on Twitter @vikparuchuri.