7 Simple Survival Rules for First-Time Managers

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Karla Hesterberg
Karla Hesterberg



Marketing agencies across the U.S. are in the midst of a revenue boom. In 2015, agency revenue increased 6.5% to a record $46.8 billion. This means more hiring, more promotions, and more new leaders trying to find their footing in the challenging agency landscape.

Taking on a new position of power can be a massive adrenaline rush, but the excitement can sometimes get overshadowed by feelings of inadequacy and panic. Did the agency make a hiring mistake? Can you actually handle this new responsibility?

Just know that you're far from alone.

Being exposed as incompetent is actually the number one fear of executives worldwide.

Especially in the early stages of your new position, it can seem like an endless battle to push through those uncomfortable feelings. These seven survival tips can help you build your confidence and succeed early as a new leader.

7 Rules to Help New Managers Succeed

1) Don't get hung up on your own perceptions of how you're doing.

This is not to say that you should be recklessly unconcerned with your own performance, but you shouldn't be obsessed with it. In fact, falling too hard into what psychologists call a performance mindset often means getting stuck in a cycle of feeling inadequate and limited by your own failures.

When you magnify your shortcomings and allow them to cripple your confidence, you forget that you're capable of improvement. And when that happens, you actually stop trying to get better.

Instead of letting your own performance dominate your thoughts and drive you completely crazy, why not put your energy into actually learning the ropes of your new gig? What you see as shortcomings and fixed flaws are actually just opportunities to get better, as cheesy as that might sound at first.

This all just requires a simple mindset change: View each challenging task as a chance to improve on a skill, rather than something that might set you up to fail.

2) Check your ego at the door.

When a promotion suddenly places you above colleagues who were your peers, things can understandably get a little awkward. You want to prove that you deserve your newfound position of influence, but it's important to remember that your new title doesn't automatically come with instant leadership qualities and respect.

The best thing you can do is approach your new role with a humble attitude, a learning mindset, and an open mind. You were promoted because your company's higher-ups saw potential in you, but that doesn't mean you know everything or that everyone below you somehow knows less. In fact, the best leaders understand that they aren't always the smartest person in the room.

Keeping your ego under control will help people respect you more, and it will take off some of the pressure you put on yourself to always perform optimally. It's not your job to always have the correct answer or the perfect foolproof plan; it's your job to bring out the best in those around you.

3) Give yourself a frank self-evaluation.

Before you can begin to truly thrive in your new role, you need to take stock of where your leadership skills currently stand. Most people think they have a better understanding of their own abilities than they actually do, and this can be a big problem for new leaders. In self-evaluations, people tend to "overestimate what they can accomplish and overvalue what they've already accomplished."

So how can you overcome this unconscious bias and take a good hard look at your skill level? Start by asking yourself what aspects of your new role seem the most unnatural to you. Avoid passing judgement on yourself. Identifying where you feel insecure or less confident is an effective way to get a better understanding of the boundaries of your comfort zone and where you need to improve.

4) Approach everything like a beginner.

Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki famously wrote, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few."

If you approach your new role with the assumption that you're already an expert, you unconsciously close yourself off to new learning opportunities. You're letting your established beliefs derail any chance to absorb new information that could make you much better at your job, just because you feel threatened.

Having the mindset of a beginner in a new leadership position is especially important as it allows you to remain eager, open, and receptive to new information. Being a successful leader hinges on being able to put your preconceived notions aside in the face of facts or people who challenge assumed information.

5) Figure out what type of leader you want to be.

As a new leader, you might feel like you suffer from a lack of clear direction. You have a list of responsibilities that need to be fulfilled, but no one is standing over your shoulder telling you exactly how you're supposed to do it. This can be a scary realization, but it's useful to keep in mind that you're not the first person to go through this, and you can leverage the experiences of others who came before you.

Identify a leader at your agency whom you admire, and ask yourself what qualities make them such an enviable leader. Consider asking them to coffee or lunch to pick their brain and discuss the challenges they overcame early on in their tenure.

Having a mentor can be a valuable asset as you begin to navigate your new role. Their experience can help quell your early jitters and remind you that you aren't alone in the obstacles you face.

Just remember that at the end of the day, a mentor is a general role model, not an exact version of who you need to become to be successful. Use their advice to develop your own leadership style as you progress and learn what works and what doesn't.

6) Understand that the big picture isn't just about you -- it's about your team.

It's easy to forget in the midst of your own transition that your new team is undergoing a transition as well: They're getting used to a new leader who they may not be very familiar with.

Don't try to force your authority. Give your new team the opportunity to get to know you and adapt without pressure. If possible, set up one-on-one meetings with your team members as soon as possible to learn more about their individual responsibilities, their concerns for the future, and what they need from you to be successful.

Plan a group lunch or outing to get to know the team as a whole, and take the time to formally introduce yourself. Share the typical information about your background and experience, but avoid reading off a laundry list of accomplishments. This can make you seem inaccessible.

Instead, show some vulnerability: Discuss the areas where you think you can learn more from your new team. They'll see you as someone who is willing to take feedback and learn for the benefit of the company.

7) Lean into the discomfort.

Maybe leadership job descriptions should all tack on this bullet point: "Must be comfortable being uncomfortable." By the very nature of their position, leaders are dropped into uncomfortable situations on a daily basis. Whether it's giving tough feedback, making cutbacks, or standing by unpopular decisions, get used to it -- it's now part of your profession.

But being uncomfortable is, well ... really uncomfortable. We're wired to shy away from situations that make us feel overwhelmingly awkward or disliked. Part of growing into a leadership role is learning to manage discomfort and do what's needed for the agency -- even when you'd rather hide under your desk.

To strengthen your tolerance for discomfort, try rehearsing or writing down conversations you know have the potential to get awkward. And remember that having uncomfortable conversations is a lot like jumping into a pool of freezing water: If you keep standing on the edge, you'll build up the jump in your head and only psych yourself out. Sometimes, you just need to take the plunge.

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