4 Conversations First-time Managers Need to Have

The role of star individual contributor seldom prepares someone to effectively manage the performance of other people. These conversations should help with the transition.

Most people remember the first time they became a manager.

They were probably a high performer who got promoted into the position because of their abilities. And it probably didn't take long for them to figure out that the skills that helped them become a high achiever weren't necessarily the skills that would make them an effective leader.

Actually, the role of individual contributor seldom prepares someone to effectively manage the performance of other people. Managing requires a different skill set - and becoming a first-time manager is one of the most challenging transitions a person will face in their career.

This is because a first-time manager must deal with three new realities.

1. First, they have a different focus. They are no longer responsible for only their work; they now need to manage the work of others. Some first-time managers feel as if they have two jobs , and in some ways that's true. They still need to perform their own tasks as well as set goals and performance standards for their direct reports. This means dealing with concerns about people's work performance that, if they were an individual contributor, they could overlook.

2. Second, these managers have different relationships. Many first-time managers must not only get to know their new manager and management-level peers but also navigate a changed dynamic in which their former co-workers now report to them. Working with direct reports is much different from working with peers - especially when they are the same people.

This different dynamic shows up in many ways, including the new manager not being invited to join the group for activities after work. People who recently knew them as an equal might think twice about including them now that they are the manager. Some first-time managers who are active in social media might find themselves dropped as a friend or "unfollowed" on social media by former peers who are now direct reports.

And if any of those folks applied for the same managerial position and got turned down, there might be some very uncomfortable workplace moments ahead. These situations can be emotionally difficult for everyone involved. Managing all of the moving pieces takes special care.

3. The third reality for first-time managers is that they have a different level of impact.They now have the opportunity to influence not only staff members but also the organization as a whole. When they sense that their manager, colleagues and direct reports are all judging their performance, it can make them feel as if they are stuck in the middle and accountable to everyone. They know their success or failure in this new role is likely to affect the working atmosphere in their department, their own personal leadership journey and, ultimately, their ability to reach organizational goals.

One vital skill that can help a first-time manager navigate all of these new realities is the ability to hold meaningful conversations with direct reports, colleagues and their own leaders. Every conversation holds the possibility of being either a positive or negative turning point in the quality of a relationship.

At the end of a constructive conversation, participants have clear understanding and a positive sense of regard for each other. Conversations that end negatively not only don't provide clarity but also can degrade or damage relationships.

"Becoming a first-time manager is a defining moment in time and, if met with the right approach, can certainly change the trajectory of your career," said Kate Harmon, retail learning and development manager at Washington Trust Bank. "I believe the key is in taking your relationships a step deeper and earning trust as a respected leader."


4 Types of Conversations

The most important conversations new managers need to master fall into four categories: Goal Setting, Praising, Redirection and Wrapping Up.

1. Goal Setting Conversation

Because all good performance starts with clear goals, the Goal Setting Conversation is the most logical place for first-time managers to begin to build relationships with individuals on their staff. In this conversation, manager and direct report work side by side writing goal statements that include performance standards with both participants agreeing on what needs to be accomplished by what date. This conversation clarifies what good performance looks like, why the task needs to be performed and how it will positively affect the individual, team and organization when accomplished.

After clear goals have been created and set, it's important to give people feedback on their performance. This is where the next two types of conversations come into play.

2. Praising Conversation

The Praising Conversation takes place between manager and direct report when things are going well and moving in the right direction. It is important for the manager to praise specific behavior promptly and encourage the direct report to keep up the good work. This is especially true when someone is working on a new skill or task, as praising helps build confidence.

The Praising Conversation is not about flattery. It's a discussion that promotes trust and improves communication because it's based on facts. Saying "nice job" isn't specific enough to build rapport. But if a manager says, "Travis, thank you for getting your report to me a few days early this month as I requested. It gave me the information I needed for today's meeting. Keep up the great work," it clearly conveys appreciation and boosts Travis' morale.

"As we developed our training curriculum for leaders, we learned that the Praising Conversation is one of the more difficult concepts for new leaders to grasp, said Brian O'Neill in describing his work as the director of operational excellence at The Venetian/Palazzo hotel in Las Vegas. "We gave our leaders very specific ways to structure these short conversations, using storytelling as an overall format."
"We also emphasized the short but continuous nature of these conversations," he said. "It was a huge paradigm shift for all of our leaders to realize that coaching is not a 'referee' process. It's a long conversation with the overall goal of helping employees to grow and develop."

3. Redirecting Conversation

The Redirecting Conversation takes place when things aren't going as well as expected with a direct report. The focus of this discussion is to find out what went wrong by asking questions and listening to the answers.
Using the same example as above, let's say Travis didn't get his report in when promised. If his manager simply delivered a speech about how disappointed they were, it would erode Travis's confidence and undermine the relationship. In a Redirection Conversation, Travis's manager would begin by saying, "Travis, you didn't get that report to me in time for my meeting as I requested. Tell me what happened."

This doesn't introduce judgment or emotion into the situation but respectfully allows Travis to explain what happened. A manager who listens closely during this type of conversation might learn helpful information such as personal issues and ineffective internal processes that affected Travis' ability to finish the task.
The purpose of the Redirection Conversation is to create an opportunity for the person with a performance problem to discuss it with their manager in a nonthreatening, supportive environment.

4. Wrapping Up Conversation

The Wrapping Up Conversation happens at the completion of a task or project. It offers the opportunity for a manager to celebrate a direct report's accomplishment as well as new knowledge or skills gained during the process. It is also a good time to discuss what could be improved in the future.

With the pace of business today, it's easy for the Wrapping Up Conversation to be put off - sometimes indefinitely. However, taking time to reflect on a project provides another occasion for a manager to improve their relationship with a team member. Every conversation is crucial when developing a nurturing, trusting work environment.


4 Tactics to Ensure Effective Communication

As first-time managers start having conversations with their staff, they should pay attention to four important ways to make their discussions more effective.

1. Listen to learn.

Perhaps the most important tool is listening. Sometimes first-time managers can fall into the trap of thinking about what they are going to say next instead of really listening to the other person. In their new role, they must listen to understand and learn. It is helpful to hold the conversation in a receptive environment, to focus on being present and to listen with the intent of being influenced.

Managers should pay attention to the communication style being used by the other person and listen not only for content but also for context. This kind of listening will help the manager understand what is really important to the direct report so they can work together to overcome obstacles.

2. Inquire for insight.

Managers should use questions to gain information, generate ideas, identify obstacles and determine next steps. Asking open-ended questions helps the direct report focus on their behavior and also promotes discovery. Using "what" and "how" questions puts the focus of the conversation on the future and invites the speaker to elaborate when replying.

Avoid "why" questions, as they tend to put the focus on the past and can be perceived as a way to place blame. Skilled managers use these questioning techniques to establish a positive tone and to build trust.

"When we introduced our new coaching paradigm within the curriculum in sessions with new leaders, I would often boil down their role as coach to these two fundamentals: listen more, and when you do have to speak, do it in the form of a question, not a statement," said O'Neill. "Just those two things can radically change the perception employees have of a leader in terms of trust and support."

3. Tell your truth.

Managers must be prepared to share useful information, test assumptions and confront discrepancies. Mastering this important method helps managers focus on the conversation and keep it moving forward in a positive and transparent manner.
Confirming they have heard the other person's point of view correctly helps a manager gain clarity during a conversation. It can be as simple as saying, "This is what I've heard - do I have that right?" This communication method, sometimes referred to as summarizing, opens up the opportunity for the direct report either to go into more detail or to verify that both sides are communicating effectively.

4. Express confidence.

First-time managers should make it clear they have confidence in the direct report's abilities. It is important for every individual to feel that they are a trusted partner. When a manager acknowledges the direct report's growth and specific contributions, it empowers the person to become an even higher performer.

Considering the multiple generations and myriad cultures represented in today's workforce - along with the call for leaders to navigate through a variety of workplace challenges - it's easy to understand why effective communication is the defining skill for leaders who want to inspire high performance in others.

Facing this and other new realities is a must for first-time managers as they begin one of the most challenging and rewarding transitions of their lives.



Thought the key points are great reminders for all of us as we manage so many various tasks.

~David and Scott Miles


"Whatever you are, be a good one."

~Abraham Lincoln


Scott Blanchard, Talent Management, Feb 19, 2016

Executive Coaching