5 Leadership Lessons for New Managers

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Learning leadership skills is like learning any other skill set. It takes a wanton urge to become a good leader — even a great leader — and a constant drive to become a better leader each day.

Unlike schooling or classes, however, leadership development isn’t shoved down your throat. You have to recognize certain situations and how your handling of them can propel you to greatness. These scenarios define your leadership style, decision-making abilities, and self-awareness. You only need to learn how to use the to your advantage.

If you’re a new manager in a startup or small business, you can’t become the best leader possible without identifying important leadership lessons and capitalizing on what they teach. Look for these lessons to boost your skills, help you build different perspectives, and ultimately, become more visible, transparent, and exceptional in your leadership role.

5 Leadership Lessons Every Manager Should Learn

A stationery pad with lesson learned written on it

At some point, every manager has the chance to improve their leadership adroitness, whether through mentorships, real-life situations, supplemental materials, or various perspectives. Everyone learns at different paces, but leadership lessons every manager should know should be a priority. As you read these lessons, think about how you can apply them to everyday situations to get the most out of them.

Keep in mind that these are just some of the leadership lessons you should grasp. Others may present themselves along the way; a watchful eye is always important for opportunities to become a better manager and leader.

1. Learn How To Say No

If you’ve been a manager for any length of time, you’ll assuredly experience struggles with what is often called “time management.” But it would better be called “how-the-hell-does-anyone-get-all-this-stuff-done-and-why-am-I-working-on-weekends-again management.”

At this point, if you’ve ever sought any advice on how to handle all your commitments, you may have been told to get better at saying no to things.

On one hand, this is excellent advice. Most managers’ responsibilities are bloated, and there is probably stuff that we can delegate or deprioritize. But actually, saying no to others can be easier said than done (otherwise, we’d have done it already).

Fortunately, we have four tips on how to say no at work (all of which we agree with):

  1. Have a clear focus: This is where it all starts. You have to be clear on the most important things you should be working on to confidently assess what you shouldn’t be. If you want additional clarity on this, this is where “managing up” can be useful. Ask your own boss what the most important thing they need to see from your team and check you’re aligned. By doing so, when someone asks for your time, you can a) assess whether it aligns with your priorities and b) if it doesn’t, give a clear reason for your no.
  1. Block out time in advance: One of the contradictions of management is that you were probably given the job because you’re good at juggling multiple balls and context-switching between tasks. However, in order to do the job well, you also need to carve out chunks of time where you can reflect and focus. Depending on your company culture, saying no is easier if you can point to a full calendar. Make sure to block off focus time as necessary, just as you would for a business meeting.
  1. Ask when it’s due: The person asking you something will always cross their fingers that you can do the task quickly, but that kind of response might not be necessary at all. Always ask, “When do you need this?” You might be amazed to find out that a supposedly urgent ask only really needs to be done by next Friday. You can breathe a little easier and say, “Not this week, but I can get it to you before that deadline.”
  1. Redirect the request: It’s nice to say yes to people, but redirecting someone’s request to another colleague who’s better qualified to handle it also gets the work done. If you’re delegating the task to someone on your team to give them a new professional opportunity, all the better.

2. Understand Your Role as Manager

A manager's job is not to manage people. This may seem contradictory, but it’s a very valuable observation and a core leadership lesson for managers.

Successful managers don’t try to control individuals directly. People hate that style of management. What we actually manage are not people but processes, projects, time, resources, and information to create the right working environment for our teams to excel.

The key challenge at the heart of managing teams:

  1. Your team is full of bright, curious people who you’ve hired to work independently and make important decisions about their work.
  2. Without the right details, direction, and coordination, these individuals will make the wrong decisions.
  1. These individuals typically hate it when they’re given too much detail and direction.

Therefore, the most important things a manager can do include:

  • Try to understand their part of the plan.
  • Help people under them understand their part of the plan.
  • Push people to understand how their decisions impact the group.

Managing people often doesn’t mean managing them, but managing the environment around them. A lot of the time, this starts with context.

3. Praise Your Team More

A manager praising a team member in front of other applauding employees

Research suggests that many managers hold back from praising our coworkers as much as we should. The power of a small compliment is immense, but a difficult leadership lesson for managers. We’re less forthcoming than we could be because we’re worried about others perceiving the comment as clumsy, patronizing, or fawning.

Vanessa Bohns, a professor of social psychology at Cornell University, has been doing research on how people give and receive compliments.

“Across numerous experiments, the researchers found that the participants significantly under-estimated how happy the other person would be to hear the praise, and significantly over-estimated how cringe-worthy they would find the encounter.”

Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago, and Xuan Zhao, a psychologist at Stanford University, have found similar dynamics in their research.

They found that worries over whether the compliment was delivered well or if an individual was offering it too often were unfounded.

“They just care about how nice or kind the compliment is.”

So next time you feel like praising someone on your team, just do it. Chances are you’re overthinking the process and underestimating how happy they’ll be to hear it.

Praise Your Team in Private As Well

You may have been told to “praise in public and criticize in private” when giving feedback.  This isn’t bad advice, it’s just not the whole story.

To quickly recap, the reason for this advice is:

  • Praise in public: When someone does something well, talk about it publicly because most people like recognition for their work and others on the team can also learn from the success.
  • Criticize in private: When someone underperforms, discuss it privately to minimize the chances of them getting embarrassed and defensive rather than listening to what you have to say.

Note that some people hate being praised in public and find it deeply awkward. If you don’t know this about each of your team members, talk to them about how they like to receive recognition for good work in your next one-on-one.

When you credit someone in public, you often don’t have the opportunity to explain in depth why their performance was so impressive. If it’s in a team meeting, there are other things to discuss, and/or it can also feel excessive to focus on one person for too long. It’s general, which provides team members with recognition for their work but doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity to build on it.

This is why we’d encourage you to also praise in private. Here you can get into the details of someone’s impact, and what you can do in the future to build on that strength. This ensures your team members get the most out of the learning opportunity.

This leadership lesson is particularly important for high-performers, where you’ll spend far more time honing their strengths rather than discussing their weaknesses.

4. Give Better Advice

Could I ask for your advice on something?

You probably get asked this question reasonably often by members of your team. You might even think you’re quite good at giving it. We thought we were, too.

That’s until we read a recent piece called “Against Advice” by Agnes Callard, columnist and Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. For her, good advice is a myth.  It’s based on the idea that you can offer guidance without a foundational awareness of someone’s strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, and position in life.

“It would be really nice if information that could transform someone’s values was able to be handed over as cheaply as driving instructions. In such a world, people could be of profound assistance to one another with little investment in one another’s lives. The myth of advice is the possibility that we can transform one another with the most glancing contact…real assistance requires contact.”

For Callard, we should be aiming for either coaching — which is informed by this awareness — or simply instructions — where we offer task-specific guidance. That might sound a bit like playing with semantics, but we think her basic point is right and very relevant to your experience as a manager.

When a team member asks you for help, do you know enough about them and their circumstances to genuinely coach them to improve? Or do you only know enough to give them some quick “advice?”

If the answer is the latter, then the next time you’re asked for advice — before you jump into solving the problem — pause to consider whether you know enough about the person to offer meaningful help. If not, you may wish to ask a few questions of your own first before responding to theirs.

5. Ask the Important Questions

Asking the right questions

If you’re interested in technology strategy, you might already know Kevin Kwok. He’s a former investor at Greylock Partners and writes deep dives on various products at kwokchain.com (don’t worry, the domain is a joke and was bought for him by a friend).

His most recent post examined how Figma and Canva — two digital design startups — are taking on Adobe. If that sounds interesting, then read the article in full, but we’re here for one paragraph at the very end where he discusses aligning employees on the purpose of a company or product.

As companies grow, two things are true:

  1. It becomes more challenging to ensure that everyone has the same, coherent understanding of your business's most important parts.
  2. It’s easy to underestimate this as a manager (particularly as a senior manager/board member) because you may have access to a more holistic view than the rest of your team/company.

It’s why managers often find themselves repeating the same stories about company purpose, strategic objectives, or key product features to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Kwok has a useful tip that goes beyond that:

“One exercise I’ve often found useful for CEOs to do with their co-founders and team is to ask an important question about the company—and see how much everyone’s answers differ. People are always shocked at how much they differ from even their co-founder. It’s natural to have differences and that doesn’t even mean either person is wrong. But these unexpected differences in how to think about the company are the underlying faultlines that make it difficult to synchronize as a company…”

Next time, rather than repeating key points to your team, ask everyone what they think the answer to a fundamental question is.

  • How do we retain customers?
  • What’s the most important thing we’re working on?
  • What do you think is the biggest risk to the team right now?

If you think people will be shy about open debate, you can always collect the answers privately over email or Slack. You may find the answers illuminating as to how aligned your team really is—even after all those times you’ve repeated yourself.

Learn Leadership Lessons With Guidance

Great leadership is molded out of intuition, ingenuity, and inspiration. But even the most aspiring effective leader may not have the mentors or source of inspiration to facilitate a move from mediocre manager to full-blow business leader.

And that’s perfectly OK.

You can’t learn everything you need to know about leadership simply from listening to a podcast or watching the full video of a TED Talk. Heck, even onsite leadership lessons may go by the wayside if you’re unable to pinpoint a learning experience.

Even the best managers and leaders need help occasionally. Unicorn Labs aims to provide that help. Using proven leadership development principles, we aim to transform managers into future leaders who build trust, confidence, and performance — all while reducing burnout or apathy in their teams.

Schedule a meeting with us today to find out how Unicorn Labs can take your startup managers to new heights.

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