Our 6 Must Reads for First-Time Managers to Hit the Ground Running

Our 6 Must Reads for First-Time Managers to Hit the Ground Running

Becoming a manager is like no other professional experience. It requires gaining a whole new skillset incredibly fast. This list will help you nail that transition.

Being promoted into your first management role can be a bittersweet experience. On one hand, you're likely being rewarded for outstanding performance in your area of expertise. The powers that be have watched you and decided, "Yep, that person is darn good at their job, they deserve to move up!" That's a nice feeling. On the other hand, being a manager requires a distinct set of skills that might be wholly new and different from whatever it was you were excelling at before. This can be disorienting and daunting, to say the least.

We've heard from newly-minted engineering leaders who say they suddenly find themselves rarely dipping into the codebase themselves. Product, marketing and sales leaders we've talked to say it's an adjustment to spend most of their days solving people problems rather than actually executing the work they're used to. Overnight, their calendars have become stacked with meetings, and in between, they need to be available to answer questions and troubleshoot with their teams. In short, life is very different very fast, and without proper preparation, this transition can feel like a lonely uphill climb in the dark.

That's why we put together this list. We've combed through all the pieces we've written that include advice for new and first-time managers, and assembled the 6 most important and impactful articles full of advice that we believe can equip you with the tools to lead and keep you moving up the ladder with confidence and clarity.

1. Kim Scott's Management Lessons from Three Failed Startups, Google Apple, Dropbox and Twitter

Before Kim Scott became famous for coining the management term 'Radical Candor' to help people give more and better feedback, she gave First Round a very candid look into her past — and the tactics she took away from her storied experience as a leader at some of the industry's biggest names. Her key takeaway during this time: Good managers give a damn.

That might sound obvious, but it's how you give a damn that truly matters. In this piece, Scott unpacks the components of what being a conscientious and carng manager actually requires — from deeply understanding your direct reports' perceptions of both their past and future, to avoiding what she calls 'Cruel Empathy' (i.e. not giving much-needed feedback because you're worried about hurting feelings). As she puts it:

Tough love is how you build trust the fastest.

Easier said than done. But she also provides tactics that are proven to ease the delivery of tough love and gain people's loyalty and faith. She also touches on the various meetings she made sure to establish as a manager, what she used them for, and how she made them effective tools and a good use of time. And lastly, she dives deep into how you can evaluate people's performance in a way that is fair and gives reports what they actually need to improve.

Known for boiling down big management theories into memorable frameworks, Scott offers both a matrix for how to think about giving feedback, and a matrix to categorize your reports in a way that makes surey ou providing the right support to each person. Here's a sneak peek:

Check out Scott's full advice here.

2. James Everingham's Principles of Quantum Team Management

Now Head of Engineering at Instagram, James Everingham has been a technical leader for a long time — he was Director of Engineering for Netscape's browser from 1995 to 1999 (to give you a sense). He's seen all manner of management challenges, and has used this experience to devise a new theory about how to manage teams — drawing on his interest in quantum physics (sounds complex, but once you learn it, it's easy enough to apply for any type of manager).

"It struck me that instead of approaching management like being a therapist (only with more process and politics to deal with), I could think of it from a problem-solving perspective," he says. "I started to design a management system the way I would design a machine or software system, with few dependencies, single owners, minimal decision points. Using this model, we immediately saw a jump in productivity, output, and happiness (at Netscape)."

In this piece, he explains how to set up your team like you would a machine. The key, however, is accepting how complicated and unpredictable the people in that machine can be. This is where quantum mechanics (and his term ‘quantum leadership’) comes into play. As a discipline, it makes the unpredictable understandable. Similarly, by applying these quantum principles to management, you can find solutions to your team’s seemingly unsolvable problems.

Everingham walks through how you can manage your team to accomplish things that might seem impossible or unimaginable to you now (with a pretty great Schrödinger's Cat parable thrown in), how to understand and channel the impact you have on your team's mood and productivity, and how to create incentives and accountability in a way that actually works. Definitely worth a read for new managers — not just in engineering, but in any discipline.

Read Everingham's full Quantum Leadership theory and how to apply it here.

3. Carly Guthrie on Why People Leave Your Company (and How to Keep Them)

The first time we met Carly Guthrie, we were bowled over by how much advice she had to offer on keeping employees happy, productive and inspired by their work. As the former head of people operations for Thomas Keller Restaurants (think Per Se in New York, French Laundry in the Bay) who transitioned into the tech world, Guthrie has been watching employees take and leave jobs for over 15 years. Turns out, the reasons people love and hate their work are largely the same across sectors. A big part of being a new manager is understanding these underlying causes so you retain, engage and grow the best talent on your team.

Step one to retention: Understanding why and how it fails. In this exclusive interview, Guthrie shared what she’s learned about why people quit, and what you can do after an employee’s first day to make sure they stay happy, engaged in their work, and committed to your team (and to deleting every email they are most certainly receiving from recruiters).

Reading this piece, you can learn:

  • What it really means and looks like to respect people's time, and make sure they're holistically happy in their lives so that they can bring their best selves to work.
  • How to build a team that feels like a community with purpose. You want to generate as much of a "we're all in this together" vibe as possible. Guthrie provides instructions.
  • How to forge mentorship relationships with your reports that feels organic, and is directed by your reports' interests and and growth.

There's much more in this piece that can help new leaders orient themselves around inspiring happiness, not just productivity. It's the former that will lead to long-term success. Read the rest from Guthrie here.

4. Fidji Simo, Facebook VP of Product, on How to Create Conditions for Focus and Intentional Work

Fidji Simo is a prime example of someone who has catapulted up her particular career ladder. Today, she's VP of Product for all of Facebook's video, news and advertising efforts — managing an organization of 400 PMs. When she joined the company six years ago, she was a product marketing manager. What accounts for her swift rise? Her employees will tell you it's her uncanny ability to focus.

Focus is a critical skill for any new manager to have. It's what will allow you to handle a flurry of competing and evolving priorities on top of constant and unpredictable people-related issues. Being able to focus is something you should try to nail down now. But 'focus' can feel like a nebulous term — or an ability that you're either born with or not. This isn't so, says Simo, who has very deliberately created systems and mental models to make sure she's always paying attention to what's most important at any given time.

In this piece, she shares those systems and models, including the list of questions she asks before initiating any project on her team — these queries make sure all subsequent decisions will match and feed into that project's goal:

  • What is the main problem this product is solving?
  • Who are the people we are solving this problem for?
  • What is the emotion/feeling that we want our product to create or evoke?
  • Is this particular implementation aligned with the problem we're solving for?
  • Is this the product/feature most likely to successfully solve that problem?

She also talks about how she uses incremental changes to make sure her work stays focused on a moving target — and how she uses very intentional alone-time to create clarity and intentionality in her own work. Simo blocks off between 30 and 60 minutes on her calendar every Monday morning to ensure that her actions are aligned with and supporting her intentions.

These weekly clarity meetings have a set agenda:

  • List the broader team or organization’s top priorities.
  • Check that your personal priorities for the week still align with those priorities.
  • Check for any new information or data that requires a shift in priorities.
  • Check priorities against your time allocation, meetings and commitments that week.
  • Make any adjustments to your calendar to better reflect your priorities.
  • Note any priority adjustments that impact or need to be communicated to your team.

“I also look at the big meetings that I have during the week, and for each of these meetings, I set a clear agenda of what I'm trying to achieve in that meeting, personally and for the group,” Simo says. “That way when I go from meeting to meeting during the week it's less jarring because I already know what my goals are.”

Having this clarity on upcoming meetings — literally a checklist of what she wants to walk out with — and an understanding of her personal priorities ensures that her team’s actions and priorities stay aligned.

In this piece, she also goes into depth on how she creates the ideal conditions for focus, including the actual language she uses to delegate and deprioritize work so she can hone in on what's really important, how she avoids distractions, and how she purposefully builds buffer time into her schedule.

Read all of this advice and more from Simo here.

5. This Is What Impactful Engineering Leadership Looks Like with Jessica McKellar

Five years ago, Jessica McKellar and a group of friends from MIT started stealthy chat startup Zulip. Less than two years later, it was acquired by Dropbox. And this wasn't an anomaly. They'd done it once before, selling Ksplice to Oracle just as fast. Today, she's CTO and Founder of a new stealth startup. This wild ride has given McKellar a more diverse set of management opportunities than the average engineer ever sees — she's been a team lead, a founder, a technical leader at a massive corporation, and manager of dozens at a rapidly growing global startup.

She also gave us one of the best interviews we've ever done on how engineers can make the sometimes rocky transition into management. In it, she walks through the components of how to be truly supportive to a team of people: "When you're a technical manager, your job is mostly about humans,” McKellar says. “There are two things you should always be thinking about: People's day-to-day and their year-to-year.” You should imagine every individual is traveling on both of these tracks at the same time. And as a leader, you can shape their experience on both to help them find a trajectory that meets their goals and your needs.

McKellar talks about how she's set up focused time to help people think through and be intentional about their careers, which in turn has kept them more engaged and happy in their current work. She also describes the best way to get a sense of your reports' capacity, and how as a manager, you can evaluate the way people are working to spot possible efficiencies and tweaks that can help them accomplish even more. One of these tweaks is helping people develop into local experts on particular problems or features so that they can answers others' questions while increasing their visibility in the organization. Others have to do with the environment you create for people to work in, understanding what specifically motivates each team member, and designing check-ins that will accelerate mutual understanding and make people feel safe.

But, perhaps most importantly, McKellar supplies a lot of empathy for new engineering managers who might feel out of their element. Read this story if you're feeling particularly alone in your experience. It'll help. As she says:

There's an inflection point when someone moves from engineer to manager, and it can feel very uncomfortable — like you're only in meetings and not getting anything done.

Get all of McKellar's wisdom about making the jump from engineer to manager here.

6. Dave Loftesness' 90-Day Plan for Turning Engineers into Remarkable Managers

David Loftesness, Twitter’s former Director of Engineering (and author of Scaling Teams), has been the first engineer promoted into management at a startup many times over two decades and six technology companies, including Xmarks and Geoworks. After steering his way through multiple engineer-to-manager transitions, he's now doing his part to shepherd developers into their first leadership positions. He's collected this knowledge into a 90-day plan so that others can follow his lead — learning to set their priorities, gain their footing, and assess their own performance so they can grow fast and start empowering others.

Here's a brief overview that doesn't do his plan justice:

  • Day 0: Realizing the inevitable truths you need to accept upfront (he inventories them here, including saying goodbye to coding, that your growth now requires other people's growth, and that you have to trust people in order for them to trust you, etc.).
  • Days 1-30: Owning your own education and going after what you don't know (blocking off time to study, creating a syllabus of the best books on the topic, seeking out a management mentor, making it clear you're learning too).
  • Days 31-60: Finding your own rhythm (canceling meetings when they aren't useful or necessary, calendaring defensively to hold on to uninterrupted time, and building yourself an event loop to make sure you're doing what's needed every day, month, quarter, etc.). Example below.
  • Days 61-89: Assessing yourself and deciding whether you really want to be a manager at all (determining whether your team is producing the results you want and if you're nurturing everyone's unique talents, tallying the number of evening and weekend hours you're working to see if it's sustainable, and identifying where you're adding the most value or not).
  • Day 90: Resolve to step up or step aside (accepting there's no shame in deciding that being a manager isn't for you and that it's not a step down to admit it — or, alternatively, embracing this new role, how much you have left to learn, and how you can enhance your strengths and minimize your weaknesses going forward).

Much more detail on Loftesness' plan and how to apply it in your own life and career here.

These are just six of many articles on First Round Review that contain advice relevant to new and first-time managers. Stay tuned for more from top industry leaders who very generously share their experiences with us so you don't have to make their same mistakes.

Photography by Bonnie Rae Mills.