Pavel Nakonechnyy

Lessons for first-time managers: Skills and Knowledge areas to break into management

Published (updated: ) in Leadership and Soft Skills.

It’s natural to seek career progression into management or in-depth specialization. Today I’d like to discuss what companies are looking for in leaders to give you an overall understanding of the skills, responsibilities, and everyday tasks of middle managers.

Being a head of a team, you maintain a complete and specific function within the organization – whether it’s a working codebase, a service pipeline, or website mockups.

You need to build a machine that repeatedly produces the outputs you owe the company. You can’t do things differently every time based upon the latest cool framework and then personally convince or charm the executive team. You need to build a consistent process that will be executed by a self-sustaining team.

Don’t make a mistake by thinking in terms of your own work, but think about a machine that allows you to scale beyond yourself to be a leader. Skills building such a machine requires:

  • Process Management. You need to design a proper, optimized process that you can integrate with other teams’ processes, and that you’ll be able to monitor and control. It will include a portion of Risk Management, as you’ll introduce some checks, artifacts, and documentation requirements.
  • Project Management. Even if there is a dedicated PMO for extra huge projects, often your team will participate in a project that can’t be developed with usual processes. This project can be too big, or technologically complex, or there is no suitable process for this unique situation. In such cases, you won’t be able to hide behind the wall of impenetrable processes you’ve designed over the years and you’ll have to take actions to work with the unknown.
  • Knowledge Management. Your employees will leave the organization and you’ll have to replace them. Employees must be replaceable and you can’t simply rely on tribal knowledge. Proper documentation, processes, and procedures allow you to teach new colleagues fast.
  • Technology knowledge. Be it JIRA, MS Teams, or Sharepoint you need to use various systems to optimize your team’s work. You can rely on what’s used by others in the organization, but you won’t be able to delegate much of the team’s paperwork to IT products if no one in the team knows how to set up proper processes there.

  • Leadership. Simply put, to hire people you need to know people. Your team will need clear goals, strategy, and business metrics to show high performance and act semi-independently from you.
  • Organization Management. There’s always an informal structure and division of labor within your team even if you work with 2 reports. Managing and formalizing such structure, simplifying org charts, and distributing work transparently are the manager’s responsibilities.

Being a leader means never saying “That’s Not My Problem”. When you’re a leader you don’t get to say that there was nothing you could do. Did the project rely on another team who screwed up? Sorry, you still need to figure out how to get it done.

Giving up says “someone else needs to fix it.” When you’re a VP or more senior, there is no one else. You’re at a level where there are very few people with the skills and experience to fix the problem at hand, and all of them are going to be busy too.

Giving up inspires learned helplessness in your team and others around you.

Bad executives give up. Good executives know that the cavalry is not coming – you are the cavalry. Being a leader means working with people you dislike, disrespect, or dislike. Your partners are no longer interchangeable. Your team will mimic your behavior towards other leaders, don’t start the cycle.

One final piece of advice: always be professional. Even if you don’t know something or someone gets you mad, you have to be calm and professional, suggesting ways out of the situation for yourself, your team, the project, and the organization. 

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