Have a Heart: Learning to Lead the Way as a New Manager

From our very first job, managers are a constant presence. The good ones can often help chart our professional course. We look to them for guidance and structure, even empowerment. In fact, managers--and our relationships with them--can set the tone for our work lives in a major way and influence the managers we become ourselves.

Good management is crucial in any sector. (Some argue that “people leave managers, not companies.”) Education is no exception. How employees spend their time can directly affect students and teachers, or work on their behalf--high stakes work. Accountability, delegation, direct feedback, and power dynamics are front and center like never before.

That transition to manager in an organization is not always easy. First-time manager or not, all managers make mistakes. But as with most work, approaching management with humility, care, perseverance, and a little humor has proven to be a hallmark of the most effective leaders and managers.

At EP, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to support our Pioneers to live into things like better management. We believe that professional development helps talented people reach their full potential as education leaders and managers--which eventually turns into real, positive sector impact for underserved students. We focus specifically on supporting our Pioneers’ challenging transition from individual contributors to first-time managers because it directly ties to our vision of education as the best-lead sector.

As an organization, we also strive to lead by example, so several of our people managers at EP generously agreed to share examples from their experiences as first-time managers. Their stories offer key lessons, and are funny and heart-warming.  

Learning to Collaborate, the Awkward Way

In my first days as a manager, I was tasked with bringing together colleagues for an important meeting. I had carefully spent time drafting and creating the agenda, laying out the format we were going to use, collecting the best examples of where we I thought we should be going as an organization. In short, I was prepared. All I thought my colleagues would have to do was say, “yay” or “nay.” Needless to say, when I entered a room full of silence and a few frowns, I knew something had gone terribly wrong. One person spoke up and mentioned he didn’t agree with the format and wished he had been consulted. Others shared that they felt they weren’t engaged. It was a huge and crucial lesson in terms of collaboration and the importance of checking for understanding before asking people to buy in on things. I’ve carried that on to this day.

-- ALEJANDRO MORUA | Director, Texas 

Why Selflessness is Crucial for Managers

For some reason, during my first full-time job out of graduate school, someone decided to let me be a manager. Of three other adults. I was 23. It was my first full-time job ever, and my first time supervising others. It also turned out to be one of my true loves. I took the approach (perhaps because doing otherwise would have made me a fraud) that they were all experts in their roles, hired for a reason, and that my job was to keep out of their way and just let them do the damn thing. I quickly learned that it also meant advocating for them: for professional development, skills building, life-work balance, stretch projects, interpersonal issues. I have been building on those two core tenets ever since. Managing others can be so rewarding, but it is a lot of work and requires a lot of selflessness, empathy, and gratitude. After all, they are the ones doing all the work and making you look good!

-- BRIANNA SWARTZ | Director, Collaborative Systems

Remembering the Necessity of Compassion

In my transition to a first-time manager role, I remember the day that I had to lead our first team meeting. There I was in a conference room, slightly intimidated, with everyone looking at me to lead the team. As I stumbled through my opening, all I could remember was an article that I read in grad school that talked about compassionate leadership. The article resonated with me because I was reminded of the many compassionate leaders that I had encountered in the past. I made it a point to be extremely respectful during the meeting, making sure everyone felt like their contributions were valued. It took time to develop my confidence and competence, but I eventually realized that I love to lead teams. I learned that valuing (and respecting) the thoughts and opinions of others was a natural part of my personality and would ultimately help me to grow professionally as a manager.

-- GERALD FANION, III | Director, Tennessee

Effective Feedback Does Have a Format

I remember the first time I had to give critical feedback to one of my team members, and I was terrified and completely unprepared. I had no idea that there was actually a format for giving effective feedback: I thought that if I didn’t yell, the other person didn’t cry, and the behavior changed, then the feedback was “effective”. It wasn’t until much later that a manager of mine coached me around how to give effective feedback--I feel terrible for all the team members in between!

-- RYAN ROMANESKI | Executive Director, Regional Growth

To be sure, the best and worst moments from our work lives tend to stay with us--especially when we’re just beginning our leadership careers. The good news is that none of us has to go it alone.

Interested in getting in finding your inner manager? Learn more about Education Pioneers’ First-Time Manager Training. In this targeted training program offered in partnership with The Management Center, you’ll join a cohort of education sector professionals to focus on the foundations of effective management like delegation, goal setting, giving feedback, and much more. Space in our in-person trainings in Memphis on July 29 and Houston on August 1 is still available!

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