First-time Managers in Startups

First time companies, startups, have first time managers in their ranks. Now there’s a challenge. If you’re leading a startup, a first time company, how do you support your first time managers?

How do you work with them to implement the three roles - manager, leader, coach? Can you implement the three roles in a startup with a first time manager? Is a startup a place where you can have a first time manager?

The challenges for first-time managers in a company in early formation are amplified. This happens for a number of reasons. Here’s a list of the top 5 of what I believe are the most prevalent from my experience in 5 first time companies:

Everyone is new and they are all trying to figure out what they need to be doing

Structure can shift in the early years depending on what the business needs to do and how it chooses to do it, to accomplish its next goals

Roles and responsibilities can shift as initial ideas and structure shake out

Who the company is and who they want to be can shift (i.e. what’s most important changes) which leads to changes in expectations and focus

Policies, processes and procedures may exist loosely in the very beginning and firm up with time, potentially changing the work environment dramatically

So, how do you, if you are a first-time manager, cope? If you are the person who hired a first time manager into a startup, how do you support them and help them be successful remembering that 60% of first time managers fail to be successful in the first 2 years?

If we take just the first point and understand that “everyone is new and they are all trying to figure out what they need to be doing”, it means you need to be open and receptive as people figure things out and things change. Now the challenge here is that the time frame you need to be open and receptive to change can be long, longer than you thought.

You ask, “what does being receptive” mean? Well, for one, it means being open and receptive to the idea that other people have ideas about how things need to work and being flexible in your thinking when things don’t work. It means being able to continue in the face of false starts and uncertainty - many decisions will be made under these conditions.

So, while you are working on being open, how do you help your people? After all, you are managing a team for the first time and they need their leader.

First-time managers in a startup experience “middle management squeeze” more acutely than first-time managers in an existing or mature company. You need to deal with everyone above you trying to figure things out while you learn to manage and shield your people from all the uncertainty - and especially for those who don’t do well in uncertain situations!

The most important thing in this case is to know, really clarify, what your team needs to be doing and delivering, narrow this down until it feels “too” simple - then you probably have it right. Then focus your team on delivering their results and only their results. Keep as much of the uncertainty out of their regular day as possible - set up a process with your team to filter new requests and help them deny ones that don’t fit. And, when the uncertainty explodes in front of them be open, honest and ask for their help, their openness and their support to continue focusing on their results while you get answers for them - bring them in and keep them close.