New year, new role – 7 tips for first-time managers in agencies

New year often equals changes and exciting new challenges. January is a time when many people in the agency world will have received a well-deserved promotion, whilst others will be moving to new roles altogether.

And for some, this may involve managing other people for the first time. 

Becoming a people leader can be an incredibly rewarding journey. At the same time, it can also be a steep learning curve. You can quickly go from being a top-notch individual contributor, to a role where much of your time is filled with dealing with the complexities of people, with their unique demands and problems. Along with your work, you’ll also have the pressure of others wanting answers from you, your feedback on their performance, and much more besides. 

In this article we’re going to dig into seven tips for first-time managers that will help you as you transition into your new role, and adapt to your new responsibilities. 

Seven tips for first-time managers:

  1. Avoid just being ‘a mate’
  2. Avoid being ‘in charge’
  3. Encourage feedback and ideas as early as possible
  4. Don’t be worried about asking for help from others
  5. Get a coach
  6. Trust given > trust earned
  7. Your words and actions REALLY matter

1. Avoid just being ‘a mate’

Too many new managers go into their new roles wanting to be liked by their employees. In fact, I’ve seen many make being ‘liked’ their number one priority.

Whilst building effective relationships is a key element of being a successful manager, being everyone’s friend should never be the primary aim. 

Your job as a manager is to coach and develop those that report to you. You are responsible for helping them achieve their professional ambitions, as well as the goals of your team and organisation. 

A manager, a core part of your role will be providing feedback, and it’s an unfortunate fact that this won’t be good all of the time. It’s very difficult to maintain a ‘friend’ relationship whilst also being responsible for telling someone else whether they are doing a good job (or not).

Whilst it’s great to get on well with your direct reports, you will find that there needs to be a clear boundary in place; this means you can put your ‘manager’ hat on, and deliver the feedback you need to.

In addition, depending on the culture of the business, you may find that people begin to treat you with an element of suspicion, stop divulging certain information to you, or exclude you from some events or conversations. It can be tricky to adapt from being ‘one of the gang’ to ‘one of them’, but this is part and parcel of the transition to leadership.

2. Avoid being ‘in charge’

In other words – try thinking like a ‘leader’, rather than a ‘manager’ from the outset.

One line of thinking I love to refer to here is from Simon Sinek, author of ‘Leaders Eat Last’ and ‘Start With Why’, who argues:

Leadership is not about being ‘in charge’, it’s about ‘taking care of those IN our charge’.

Simon Sinek

You can watch the video where he talks about this in a TED talk below:

Many new managers go into their role with a new sense of power, which if left unchecked can go to their heads where they’ll end up bullying people and creating a fear culture. 

But this is why thinking like a leader (i.e. ‘in your charge’), rather than a manager (i.e. ‘in charge’) from the outset can help you to understand what your purpose is when it comes to supporting your people.

Being a people leader does not give an excuse to ‘boss people around’ or ‘tell people what to do’. If anything, your role is one where you are first and foremost serving the needs of your people, and facilitating their success above your own. 

This above anything else can be a huge adaptation for an ambitious employee, and is an easy trap to fall into when you’ve been promoted due to your success as an individual contributor. But, once you begin to see the impact you can have on the lives of others, it all becomes incredibly rewarding and worthwhile. 

3. Encourage feedback and ideas as early as possible

As a new leader of people you want to get off on the right foot quickly. Your actions in the first few days of your new role can have a huge impact on how your team members view you, so you want it to be positive. Get it wrong, and it can be very difficult to change your reputation. 

One of the best ways to build trust early is to get your direct reports together and encourage them to give you feedback, emphasising that feedback is a two-way process.

Make a commitment with your employees; just as much as you will give them feedback, this is also something that you expect in return.

You can be vulnerable here, admitting that whilst you are excited about your new management role, you also have a lot to learn, and will appreciate their feedback at regular intervals while you are building your confidence. This openness and honesty will help to create psychological safety in your team.  

You should also look to do this with ideas on ways of working and approach to tasks. As with point two about leadership, your role is to facilitate your employee’s success, not make all of the decisions. If they feel that a particular approach is going to have the best impact, then your job is to take that seriously and oversee its implementation where appropriate. 

4. Don’t be worried about asking for help from others

Becoming a people leader can be a tricky transition. Even when you think you’re starting to crack it, you’ll come across a situation where you really don’t know what to do. It can be a lonely place, and if you’re not careful you can start to feel a lack of confidence in your abilities.

It’s important not to suffer in silence. Don’t be worried about reaching out to others in your agency with people management responsibilities.

Just as you did when you were learning your ‘hard’ skills, you need to learn and develop a whole new set of behavioural skills (which in my opinion are often far more complex!) as you find your feet.

You didn’t worry about asking questions then – why should you now?

Also try to gain feedback from your own manager. Ask them how you’re doing from a management perspective, and try to establish performance success measures early in your new role so you understand whether you are meeting expectations. 

5. Get a coach

Even experienced leaders face situations with their people where they feel really unsure what to do. There’s often no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it comes to leadership, and sometimes it can boil down to making the best of a set of bad choices. 

This is where getting a coach can be useful. As you develop as a leader and coach yourself, you’ll find yourself taking on a lot of other people’s problems, and this can sometimes weigh heavily, and lead to burnout if left unchecked. Even professional coaches are required to get coaching supervisors as part of their membership to professional bodies!

An experienced coach can help you to talk through some of the challenges you’re facing and allow you to be vulnerable in a safe and confidential way.

They’ll also encourage you to consider your options and identify the most suitable solution, before setting a plan for you to implement what you’ve agreed. This can help you feel that you’re not alone, and that you have someone to talk to in those crucial situations.

If you’re interested in exploring my leadership coaching options, visit my Leadership & Management Development page.

6. Trust given > trust earned

There’s a popular phrase that ‘trust has to be earned, not given’. However, when it comes to leadership I would argue the complete opposite is true. In fact, if you go with the ‘earn first’ approach, you’ll quickly create a culture of suspicion and blame which can be very hard to backtrack from. 

A better way to approach things is to provide your employees with your full trust from the outset.

After all, they are skilled professionals that have been employed for their expertise and experience in their roles. 

A key element of motivation is ‘autonomy’, and if your people don’t feel a sense of being in control, they’ll quickly become disengaged.

Yet, I’ve found that if you provide this freedom to your employees, you’ll see the rewards in the long-term with their loyalty, and trust in you in return.

Of course, if someone you manage does something to really break your trust, then that’s a different situation altogether, which is where this approach needs to be reconsidered. 

7. Your words and actions REALLY matter

As a leader, you are ‘on display’ to the rest of the business. In other words, what you say, and how you behave will be noticed by everyone else.

People will be looking to you for how they should be acting themselves!

This can be one of the toughest elements that new leaders need to adapt to when taking on these responsibilities for the first time. But as with the first point in this article, your mindset will quickly need to change to one where you are no longer just another member of the team, but instead someone who has a significant impact on the culture of the business. 

Quite often, this means representing the vision of your leader, or implementing decisions made by the leadership team, and this may include things that you may not completely agree with. However, it’s important that any disagreements are made behind ‘closed doors’, and not expressed publicly. Any ‘dissent’ made by someone with management responsibility is usually picked up on very quickly, and it can have a hugely negative impact on the culture of the business. 

Essentially, disagree in private, agree in public, and always consider your words and actions carefully beforehand. 

Want the latest people management insights?

Sign up to the Reflections newsletter for news, tips & trends about people management & leadership – direct to your inbox, every month.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.