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The Devastating Mistake First-Time Managers Make

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Agencies are filled with amazingly skilled people. Often the most skilled of them get promoted into managerial roles where they are called upon to not only supervise and assess, but also direct and fix.

For many of those new managers, the transition is a confusing one, a kind of no man’s land between expert to enabler. After years spent on perfecting a craft, bringing out the best in creative, tech, or content, we ask them to take on a seemingly impossible task -- bring out the best in people. Accomplishing this requires a challenging journey into facilitative management, where the former team member must set down his tools and let the rest of the team lead.

Eric was already not liking how this day was shaping up -- his recent promotion might not be quite as fun as he had thought. He arrived early to get a jump on the design work that he still owned, but had been co-opted into an early client call. Back at his desk now, his grumbling stomach had not been soothed by the few bites of his now-cold breakfast burrito, nor how his calendar looked – meetings scattered across the day, with tiny, useless breaks in-between. Just then, Josh walked over with a hopeful look on his face, “Hey Eric, can I get a few minutes of your time? It’s the launch creative. I’m just not sure what I should do next.”

Before Eric was promoted, he had built a reputation for coming up with great solutions and delivering them with passion. When the not-so-stellar Creative Director before him left, it seemed obvious that Eric was the right fit. The increased pay would make it more likely that he would stay at the agency. Everyone agreed it was the right move.

It wasn’t long before Eric realized that he was doing less of what he loved, and his meeting-filled days were even more chaotic than before. It seemed everyone wanted a piece of him. Promotions like Eric’s are often a bad move for all involved on two levels. First, they put him in a position of less overall competence, so he’s not as productive. Second, they remove his skill set from the team.

Researchers have long known that generalists make better managers, and that the act of promoting “deep specialists” to managerial roles often makes teams less productive. Not only does Eric have less time for the specialist work he excels in, but the constant management conversations and meetings thwart the focus that work demands.

“Show me what you have -- I have like three minutes,” Eric says. He looks at Josh’s work, and the next steps seem obvious enough. He quickly names the next three steps that Josh should follow, to which Josh responds, “But, doesn’t it need …” Eric and his grumbling stomach fear he will lose more time if he allows this discussion to continue, so he cuts Josh off, raising his voice slightly, “Look, what I told you is the best direction, don’t worry about the alternatives …” and ends with, “… that should get you most of the way there. Gotta run.” Josh thanks him but then slumps in his chair. He’d be demoralized if he weren’t so frustrated. He’d been psyched about the piece -- it was the sort of opportunity that used to only go to Eric. But now he just wants it over.

Eric fell into the trap of using verbal dominance in a managerial conversation. Put simply, verbal dominance is when we speak as if we know something others don’t, and that we’re factually superior in a given instance. Verbal dominance is signaled by a combination of speaking quickly, loudly, or more assertively. Research has shown that verbally dominant behavior can suppress the engagement and ownership in teams. When Eric asserted, “Don’t worry about it,” Josh took less ownership. Eric’s insistence that his approach must be followed depleted Josh’s sense of autonomy and competence, both of which are critical factors in work quality, productivity and morale. Josh became a less effective team member as a result.

As a creative, Eric was appreciated for his assertiveness; he’d nail the direction and get it done. As a manager, that same behavior makes his team less motivated and more dependent upon him, shrinking the time he has to do his own work. What’s more, commanding others to “not worry about it” requires that he, Eric, now worry about everything.

So how could Eric replay the tape and do it better?

“Hey Josh, sorry, but I only have like three minutes. What can I help you with?” Eric offers. Josh shows Eric his current work quickly and looks back at Eric. Eric says, “So what is your next step?” Josh answers with several options. Eric knows which is probably the best approach, but rather than tell Josh, he asks Josh to lead. “So which do you think is best and why?” he asks.

Josh actually picks two of the best options. Eric adds, “That sounds like a plan! And any thoughts about after that?” he adds, hinting to Josh that there is a third step needed. “I’m not sure. I’ll probably have a better idea when I get the first two done, though,” says Josh. Eric remembers it wasn’t easy to learn these steps, but he did learn them long ago, and Josh is on his way as well now. Eric closes with, “Hey, I really have to be at this meeting. I think you’re on the right track.” Josh nods his head and smiles, and as Eric leaves he says, “Cool, thanks!”

In this alternate exchange, Eric made a simple shift. He used a facilitative style, dropping his verbal dominance without diminishing his ability to provide factual superiority. As a result, Josh can learn to think like Eric, puzzling through the pieces as he builds them -- learning as he goes. Since Eric hinted that there is a third step, Josh will puzzle over it and learn as he reworks. Now it’s Josh that is worrying about the work.

The advertising business has a long history of promoting our best practitioners into management. Inside that cadre of accidental managers, verbal dominance is the lingua franca. That makes it nearly impossible for an Eric to transition from firefighter to facilitator, from authority to collaborator. Ultimately, agencies need to promote only the Erics that can actually make the leap. in the meantime, the place for everyone to focus is on acknowledging that the Joshes need facilitative management and understanding the simple facets of that need. 

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