How should you manage your interns/young first-jobbers? What about staff older than you? How to delegate work fairly? How to avoid micro-managing while mentoring/grooming your team? Learn from the battle stories of other first-time bosses.
DO spend time getting to know and train your intern/first-jobber
This doesn’t just mean understanding the skillsets that your intern/first-jobber can bring to the table, but also knowing his or her gaps and career development goals.
Many managers make the mistake of taking interns as cheap and ‘renewable’ labour every internship season. For an inexperienced first-time boss grappling with an increased workload, mentoring an intern may be far down your to-do list. “I observed that my boss would assign an intern to any available full-time staff to teach the ropes and just get the work done. There was very little effort to properly train and mentor interns,” recounts Grace Lee, who worked in communication.
“I decided to invest time and effort in helping my interns better understand their job scope, correcting their own mistakes (instead of just redoing their work) and entrusting them with increased responsibilities as they improved.” When Grace was promoted to manager and had to expand her team, she immediately reached out to two interns that she trained. One left her current job to join her, performing well from the get-go. The other was pursuing higher education but became a trusted freelancer with their company.
Grace’s experience with first-jobbers also yielded similar good results. Like her boss, she pairs them up with more senior colleagues. She lays out her expectations to both staff, not just for accountability but to allow the senior staff to feel ownership and pride for guiding a new colleague. “This builds leadership skills, which I take note of during performance appraisal,” says Grace. She also schedules regular check-ins with her first-jobbers and/or mentors during their first year, instead of waiting till performance appraisal time. This makes the first-jobbers feel supported and has increased bonding and loyalty to the team and company.
DON’T fall prey to the awful stereotypes that plague many older employees
Some nervous new managers assume that the senior workers are too full of themselves to take orders from a younger boss. Others claim that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, particularly in in this Zoom-ified post-COVID world where some older workers may not be as quick to embrace technology.
Firstly, the good news: studies have consistently shown that older workers tend to display better work attitude, show more loyalty to their companies and often benefit their organisations by bringing with them a wide network of connections. Recognise these smile points and leverage their experience.
If your older staff is having trouble keeping up with technological advancements necessary to help him/her perform the job, take time to explain this and offer training sessions to help him/her level up. This could be just-in-time training in small bites, rather than making an already anxious older staff sign up for yet another long training course.
During the Circuit Breaker in April 2020, first-time HR manager Mark Wong noticed that his older admin staff were stressed about working from home and particularly nervous about using new tools like MS Teams and Zoom. One simple but effective solution he implemented was to put together FAQs and easy-to-understand resources that they could refer to repeatedly, while using more familiar apps like WhatsApp video calls to guide them. By showing empathy, Mark was able to win his team’s trust and cooperation.
Above all, be open and mindful that every staff member’s needs and situation will be different. Keep things professional but be respectful when managing older staff. Be flexible and show you value them by being prepared to work WITH them.
DO delegate work fairly, regardless of your staff’s aptitude
When you have built up a rapport with a team member whom you know can deliver the goods, it is easy to keep loading him or her with more. For the inexperienced first manager who may have benefitted from such an arrangement from his/her boss previously, you may naively think that you are “paying it forward” by grooming a new star.
However, you could be blind to the potential and capabilities of other team members, who may grow more and more resentful. As a manager, you should be grooming all team members and not just the one you like best. Do an honest stock-take of your team members’ strengths and gaps. Identify and match relevant projects that can help them gain experience, even if they don’t have the capability right now. It may be easier to let one great guy do the whole thing but by leveraging on the collective strength of more team members, you help everyone to grow together. This builds better team spirit.
A word of caution: when you keep depending on one star performer, you could wear him or her out. “When I was a new manager, I really liked my creative and bubbly staff member and let her lead a few projects,” confesses Patricia Tan, a Public Relations manager. “I wanted to groom her but the stress got too much for her. Close to the deadline, I had to re-delegate two projects to another team member whom I knew was dependable but always felt was less creative. I was pleasantly surprised that she did a good job!”
The first girl eventually quit. It was only when Patricia’s dependable second choice later voiced out her unhappiness at not being given the same opportunities earlier, that Patricia realized she could have lost both staff. “It taught me a lesson that being fair in delegating work and opportunities is key to being a successful manager.”
DON’T micro-manage while mentoring/grooming your team
You may think you are pre-empting possible problems by wanting to be CC-ed in all email. However, “micromanaging dents your team’s morale by establishing a tone of mistrust—and it limits your team’s capacity to grow,” says Muriel Maignan Wilkins, co-author of Own the Room.
As a leader (even a first-time one), your role is to develop, strategise and communicate a vision for your team, and work with them to get there. You should not be hitting all the targets on your own. Start by identifying team members’ capabilities and match them to the right tasks. Set clear goals for your team members about WHAT should be done, not HOW they should do it. Give them a chance to prove their skills and not that they can follow minute instructions.
Some team members may need a little more hand-holding at first. Take time to consult your team on how they’d prefer to be managed but be clear that you want to avoid micro-managing. State when and how often you want to be updated, and keep communication channels open so they can come to you anytime for assistance.
Weaning yourself off micro-management could make first-time managers feel anxious at first, but it is well worth the effort. Otherwise, you could be setting yourself up for an unsustainable workload. “When I led my first project, I tried doing everything on my own, from cold-calling partners to answering all their queries and even minute details like checking their logo’s resolution. I did not leverage my team’s experience and skills,” says SL Goh, a marketing manager, who was gently chided by her boss for now delegating enough.
When they had to do a second round, SL took a backseat and this allowed the team to work more independently and foster greater ownership. “We still hit our targets, through a different way.” Embrace some ambiguity, as long as it doesn’t jeopardise the end result. You might be pleasantly surprised that your staff can find creative new solutions!
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