A day in the life of a frontline manager

“I’m stuck” – I told my manager a few years ago. I recapped the problem and looked at him expectantly to solve my problem. “Sounds tough” – he said. I’m pretty sure you are going to solve this though in the next 48 hours. If a solution doesn’t come to you or you want to brainstorm options after, come back and we’ll figure it out together.” I did not need to return to his office on this issue – as indeed I sorted it out.

I’ve had tremendous managers in my career and I owe so much of my development as a manager to them. They have collectively taught me to have a bias for action, that people come first, to have confidence in myself, that most things are not an emergency and how, in the end, to step up and become my best self as a manager.

Being a frontline manager is hard work – you are often in between strategic demands and planning and tactical execution that you feel accountable for. But at the same time, it is in this role, when you get to welcome people into their professional careers (often straight out of school), onboard people to your company, and learn the critical skills of delegating and empowering while maintaining a quality bar.  

In this post, I am going to share my practices as a manager that have helped me support and onboard new employees, empower career transitioning team members as well as support senior talent.

👋 Be an ally – professionally and personally

I had a direct report whom asked me about their promotion every 3 months or so. The first time this topic came up – I felt frazzled. They had been on my team for two weeks, on our broader team for 2 months and frankly hadn’t yet really done anything to deserve a promotion yet. I respected their courage to ask though and didn’t want to brush it off. Here is what I now say in these kinds of conversations (and genuinely mean it):

“I am on your team and my number one job as your manager is to get you promoted. So I need your help. Let’s work together in the next few weeks/months to craft together the story of what your impact has been to the business and why you deserve to move to the next level. I cannot guarantee timing or whether or not it will happen right now or soon after, but what I can promise you is to represent you, fight for you and advocate based on the story we write together on what you have achieved to deserve the promotion.”

I find this frame to be a helpful reminder for me on what my job is as well as to my direct reports, because I want them to know that I am in their corner 100% of the time. I also like this approach because it holds the employee accountable to own their story and explain why they deserve a raise or a promotion.

As an ally, I also focus on ensuring my employees can do their best work – so I help find/identify mentors, support them through illnesses, offer my network to them and their families. Remembering that we are all human and not having a siloed approach of helping just with work, has allowed me to be a champion for my people.

🎭 Different strokes for different folks (and different situations)

My favorite moment as a manager is when my direct report hits out of the park with a presentation or a project and I get positive feedback on them. Different people and projects require different approaches. Here are a couple of examples:

Example 1: Get out of the way approach

Strong senior product manager started on my team – they needed to managed a complicated set of dependencies, multiple features, and a complex release. In our 1:1s, our conversations mostly focused on asking if they have any blockers, confirming approach that the employee has already chosen and discussing a more strategic, longer term investments. For this person and the work they were driving – the best thing for me to do, was to get out of the way, cheerlead and be informed so I can give the right visibility to the work.

Example 2: Teach by doing

When you have a new employee (often young in career or new to discipline), you’ll often need to roll up your sleeves and work side by side with them to get the project off the ground. So with that person, I would spend more time framing the problem together, identifying success, writing a workback plan and at times even doing a working session to create the first draft of the deliverable. When confidence is established, stay closely informed and back away from day to day execution.

Example 3: Motivate when work is not rewarding

There are times when your employees will need to do grunt work for the good of the business. It can be a repetitive task that is not inspiring or a critical business need from which there is nothing left to learn. I recommend reiterating the importance of this work, over promoting and celebrating it to leadership as well as adding small gestures to boost morale (a care package, a team event, etc.)

Net net – it’s important to not treat a senior and a junior team member the same way and to know when to step in and when to get out of the way.   

🎗Trust your team

In a corporate environment, information is currency. As managers, we by definition have more context. I have found two types of leaders – those who share just enough for you to get your immediate job done and the kind who slightly overshare. There are some serious pros to share minimal information – it’s less randomizing, you have to answer fewer questions, and there is less ambiguity in the short term.

However, I prefer the latter approach where I share more than necessary (but only as much as I can) in order to give the most context and rationale. This is hard – because oversharing requires good judgement and a lot of trust. Some guidelines around this:

1)    If you are oversharing, it should be actionable or super relevant information that provides needed additional context – the tricky part is you may not know if the context is needed right now, and hence good judgement here is requirement  

2)    Oversharing does not mean gossiping or sharing personal information that is not yours to share  

3)  Try to share with the whole team – this creates camaraderie and reduces any perception of inequity of information or favoritism. This means that the team can lean on each other to sort through ambiguity and not be left in a vacuum.

This approach is risky and needs to be handled with care, but time and time again, it has paid off for me because it means that my team knew the extra context so they could do their job better/faster and be less dependent on me. Another bonus -  this approach helps the team gel together because they can either bond over lack of information and speculation or over feeling trusted and empowered.   

💖 “Clear is kind, unclear is unkind”1

There will come a day when your team member misses the mark – and you need to hold them accountable and drive corrective action (hopefully because you’ve caught it before, but often times it will happen after something less than ideal transpires). Here is how I have handled these kinds of situations:

1)  Provide feedback as soon as possible (no longer than 24 hours later)

2)  Find something good that has happened and then dig in objectively to where something went wrong

3)  Do not add qualifiers like “but it’s ok” or “don’t worry about it”

4)  Brainstorm together next steps and walk away with concrete action plan (even if it’s to come back the next day to talk more). Brene Brown has a wonderful worksheet called “You are ready to give feedback when” here and I use it as a checklist on how and when to give feedback.   

💪 Fight your biases

Managers are under so much pressure to deliver for the business, develop your people, recruit new talent, and so much more. To get it all done, I often fall into various biases to survive. Here are my self-reminders:

1) Check in on workload to make sure you have a sense of who is available to take on more or needs to be load balanced  

2) Don’t assume who is best to take work – offer it broadly but be clear on what success looks like. You might miss out on an opportunity to grow someone who wants to step up while overburdening your “go to” person.  

3) Give people a chance – it’s possible that someone misses on a deliverable or doesn’t show up to a presentation well – troubleshoot and understand the backstory. And try to give a genuine gift of a second chance rather than concluding automatically that someone is “not a good presenter” or not “good with deadlines.”

🙏 Give yourself grace

Being a front-line manager requires you to find your confidence and empathy in ways you’ve never had to before. I have leaned a lot on Brene Brown’s writings specifically Dare to Lead as well as on mentors and peers (having a good relationship with your peer managers has been invaluable to me).  

Point being, as a manager you will give your team lots of grace. Don’t forget to be kind to yourself as well. You are awesome for all the work that you are doing and in case you need to read this - you are enough. You’ve got this.

Coda on Privilege

We end most Mind The Beet posts with a note on where we chose to spend our volunteer time and money. This week, we are highlighting Together Rising. Managers are people supporting their teams (of people) through the good and through difficult times. Together Rising identifies what is breaking the hearts of our givers as they look around their world and their community, and then connect the givers’ generosity with the people and organizations who are effectively addressing that critical need.

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Dare to Lead, Brene Brown