The Book
I Always Recommend to First-Time Managers

Congratulations! In recognition of your excellent performance, your passion for the job, and your professional aspirations, you’ve just been promoted to team leader.

I’ve been there myself and I know all too well the cocktail of emotions that you feel right now: pride in your accomplishment, excitement at this chance to prove yourself in a new arena, and nervousness about how well your former peers will accept your leadership.

In this post, I will share with you the book that helped me the most when I was at this stage in my professional career, in the hope that it will be helpful to you as well. I’ll also share how I put the book into practice, and how this practice continues to shape the way I manage today.

The Book

The book is “First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently” by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman.

In this book, the authors summarize their findings from interviews with over 80,000 managers from over 400 companies.

The authors had set out to find common patterns or behaviors that are true of all great managers, regardless of their industry.

While the book itself is filled with insights that would be useful to any manager, there was one section in particular that proved invaluable to me as a first-time manager.

The 12 Questions

The part of the book that really struck me was the section that explained how the best managers are those that build a work environment where the employees can answer ‘Yes’ to 12 questions.

Here are the questions, listed in order of priority:

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does my supervisor or someone at work seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission / purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
  12. In this last year, have I had the opportunity at work to learn and grow?

I knew immediately from reading the questions that there was no way the team that I was to lead would answer “Yes” to all 12 questions.

Putting Insight to Work

Eager to put this insight to work, I talked to our head of HR and asked that they administer an anonymous survey for my team.

However, instead of using the questions as is, I asked her to transform each question into a statement. For example, instead of asking “Do I know what is expected of me at work?” we changed the wording to “I know what is expected of me at work.

Each respondent was then asked to rate whether they Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, or Strongly Disagree with the statement. The use of a four-point scale was deliberate; I wanted survey respondents to choose a side. By removing a neutral option, respondents couldn’t play it safe or straddle the fence by picking an answer that’s in the middle.

Unsurprisingly, the initial survey responses were not encouraging. However, the less-than-stellar results actually made me happy because they meant there was ample room for me to make a difference. The results of this initial survey were also useful as a baseline measurement.

Getting into the Habit: A Mental Shift

For the next 12 months, I had the list of 12 statements plainly visible on my desk. The list served as a constant, in-my-face reminder of how I should behave. Every time I sent an email or talked with someone on my team, I tried to turn that interaction into an opportunity to make one or more of these 12 statements a reality for that person.

I have to confess: the first couple of months were mentally exhausting. I had literally spent years focused only on myself: on unblocking my dependencies, producing my deliverables, and hitting my deadlines. I hadn’t realized until then just how much of a luxury it was to be thinking only about my own work.

I had to consciously make the effort to break a pattern of behavior that had served me well for years, to shift my mental model to one where I was focused on helping other people succeed. There were many times when I was tempted to just step in and do the work for one or two individuals, but I knew I couldn’t do that if they were to grow into their role. I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I didn’t step back from ‘doing’ and focused on ‘enabling’ my team.

We repeated the survey one year later, and it was very gratifying to see a significant improvement in my team’s ratings for the 12 statements. I had focused more on the top six statements as they were of higher priority, and the survey results reflected that focus. The new survey results also helped me identify the areas that needed more attention.

By that point, I knew I was on the right track and that I should continue the new pattern of behavior that was clearly making a difference. The months I’d spent trying to live up to the 12 statements had allowed me to break my old work style and created a new mental framework that I carry to this day.

Closing Thoughts

If you’re a first-time manager, you’ll no doubt have gotten the same advice that I received back then: to take the emphasis away from myself and instead focus on helping the team succeed.

While that’s great advice, it is far too general a statement. It doesn’t give you enough guideposts on which to anchor your leadership style.

In contrast, the 12 statements are very specific. You can gauge for yourself whether or not your actions are helping to make one or more of those 12 statements a reality. Best of all, the statements are specific enough that you can measure the effect of your behavior to see what’s working and what needs to be improved further.

When you use the 12 statements as a frame of reference, you are prompted to set clear expectations, remove your team’s roadblocks, match the right people to the right job, recognize good work, listen to your team, work on individual development plans, organize team-building events, and more. The statements are universally applicable because they focus on outcomes rather than tasks, thus leaving you free to find the best way to achieve the desired results.

If you found this post helpful, you may want to read a summary of the book at TheManager.org.

Finally, if you have a favorite book for first-time managers, I hope you’ll take the time share it.

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Always curious about Business, Tech & Startups, Leadership & Management, Writing & Editing, Life. You can reach me through DMs on Twitter at @mdy

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