How can we help new managers transition from their individual contributor mindset?

One of the most difficult transitions in the working world is going from an individual contributor to a people manager for the first time. Where once you were told what to do and were friends with your colleagues, now you’re asked to supervise those friends and you’re responsible for their success, growth and development.

Too many organizations don’t adequately prepare new managers to make this transition, promoting their employees into positions of higher responsibility and authority because they were good at their job (not usually because they were good at managing people).

Nancy and Mike Komola, the principals at FitwellHR, spent some time talking about why they think this is such a tough transition, and how we can better support new people managers.

Introducing Nancy and Mike Komola

Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, I’m your host. I’m also the Co-founder and CEO of Endurance Learning. And we are joined here by not one but two guests today – we’ll get to them in just a second. 

But before we do, I do want to say that Train Like You Listen is sponsored by Soapbox, the world’s first and only rapid authoring tool for instructor-led training. So if you need some help putting together your next training program, whether it’s in-person or virtual, you can go to www.soapboxify.com, sign up for an account, put in a little bit of information about your presentation: How long is it going to be? How many people will attend? Is it going to be in-person or virtual? And what are your learning objectives? And then it will spit out a lesson plan from its library of over 200 activities. And it does that all in a matter of minutes. So if you want to save some time and come up with some different activities for your next training program, go ahead and check out www.soapboxify.com

Here we are – we’re joined by Nancy and Mike Komola, who are the Principals and Co-founders of FitwellHR. And we’re going to be talking today about the journey from individual contributor to first-time manager, and how we can best support and prepare people making that journey. So Nancy and Mike, thank you so much for joining us today.

Nancy Komola: Thank you for having us.

Mike Komola: Oh, you’re welcome, Brian. Thank you for having us.

6-Word Biography

Brian Washburn: Well, before we get into the questions– because I know you have a wealth of knowledge – but before we go there, what I do want to do is have you introduce yourselves to the world using a six-word biography, kind of along the lines of our topic. And so when I think of our topic today, I would introduce myself using the following six-word biography when I was a first-time manager – it’s in the context of that. My six-word biography is, “I struggled to lead my team.” How would you introduce yourselves in exactly six words?

Nancy Komola: Well, Brian, I would say, “Felt the pain, here to help.”

Brian Washburn: Great. I love that. And I’m going to be very curious about how you can help. How about you, Mike? How would you introduce yourself in six words?

Mike Komola: Gosh. Good question. So what comes to my mind is, “Helping managers build connection with teams.”

Brian Washburn: And let’s get right into that because this is one of the great intractable problems of our time, right? So we have global climate change, we have all sorts of things with COVID, and we have the issue of getting individual contributors ready to take on manager roles. And so when we talk about this transition from individual contributor to manager, could you talk a little bit more about some specific ways that new managers really struggle? What are some of those things that you see when you’re working with individuals and organizations?

Ways That New Managers Struggle

Accepting a job as a first-time people manager

Mike Komola: Yeah. That’s– you’re right. That is sort of the big first question. I think what I’ve run into fairly early on in that journey is when a new manager realizes that the reasons they accepted that promotion or took that job as a first-time manager, when they realized that they were kind of the wrong reasons. That it mismatched expectations. You know, some do it for the title, some do it for money, some do it for this sense of power. But when they realize that’s not what it’s all about, then they kind of hit a wall. And that often happens early on in the new role.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. The idea of growth, the idea of “this’ll look great on LinkedIn or on my resume.” That definitely resonates. How about you, Nancy? Do you have anything to add to this idea of where do people struggle when they’re making that transition?

Being a people manager requires a different skill set.

Nancy Komola: Yeah. Two things come to my mind. And even when somebody makes the move for all the right reasons, they typically don’t know what they don’t know about becoming a people manager – that it’s a different animal and it requires a different skill set than what made them successful in their prior role. So whatever they were doing before, now they need to take on things like recruiting, engaging with others, developing others, evaluating and retaining employees. And when things get challenging, it can feel like a real gut-punch that damages their confidence. You know, they feel like, “Gosh, I was so successful in my past role. And now I’m supervising people doing the same thing. How come I’m not successful?” And it’s really hard. It’s that sink or swim moment. 

And then the other thing that comes to mind is that new managers, and even some very experienced managers, have never stopped to think about their overall approach to people management. What kind of a manager do they want to be? What’s their philosophy or north star, if you will? So they tend to get lost and revert to what they’ve seen which could be power and control, focusing only on results. Or they don’t want to do that so they try to be everybody’s best friend and be liked by all. And they just– they kind of don’t have a north star.

Brian Washburn: I think that everything that both of you just just mentioned really resonates with me. When I went from individual contributor to manager for the first time, I was coming from an environment where I was teaching GED classes with youth who had left high school. Or even starting in the world of training, right? But I was still kind of in charge of a room. And so I figured, “Well, if I can do it with, you know, some of the students that I have, or some of the participants that I’ve had, I can certainly manage people.” And it was very different, right? So that role from managing the classroom to managing people – very different. 

I’m curious from where you stand and your– you know, Fitwell HR is an organization that goes in and works with organizations on a variety of problems. And this could be one of them. What are some of the specific steps that an organization can take to help first-time people managers be more effective and successful?

Steps Organizations Can Take To Support New Managers  

Nancy Komola: Yeah, that is a great question. I would say there are three keys for me: it’s recognize, decide, and provide. Recognize that what made those people successful up to today is only a portion of what’s going to keep them successful tomorrow. Decide on a model: what kind of management and leadership does that organization want to have? We’re pretty fond of being engaged managers. It’s often referred to as “servant leadership.” And then provide these new managers with the three things that they’re going to need in order to become good people managers. They need those new skills, they need time to practice them, and they need some experienced support.

People Manager Skills

Brian Washburn: Mhm. Mike, do you have anything to add to that? What organizations can be doing in order to really help support and prepare people for that transition?

Mike Komola: Yeah, it’s building on the answer that Nancy provided. I think another thing that’s really helpful is if early on, or even at the beginning of the selection or promotion of that person, to identify or encourage them to identify someone else in the organization that they identify with as a strong leader and manager. And establish a formal or informal mentoring relationship so that that new manager has someone to talk to on those rough days or when they get a curveball. It’s just important that folks don’t feel like they’re alone. And so establishing a formal or informal contact or mentor of someone they trust and respect is a really good thing to do as well.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. That support network I think is really important. And Mike, you started by saying one of the things that can really throw a monkey wrench into things is when expectations don’t meet up with reality, right? The reasons that somebody took the role in the first place isn’t necessarily what they’re finding when they actually walk in and start to have to work with people on a day-to-day basis as a supervisor. Do you have some thoughts in terms of specific steps that the individuals, that the first-time managers, should be taking to control their own learning so they’re better prepared to lead people?

Steps New Managers Should Take To Prepare For Their New Role

New Managers should be active learners

Mike Komola: You know, I think probably the first advice that I would provide or typically do provide is encouragement to be an active learner – that it’s okay that you don’t know or you’re not going to have a ready-made solution. It’s okay, and in fact helpful, to be able to humble yourself and just not be the person with the answer all the time, or have to put that pressure on yourself to have an answer. So be an active learner, be humble, be open to learn and grow because when you are that way, you’re going to pass that on to the folks that you lead. And that’s a pretty significant gift to them as well.

Brian Washburn: When I think of, you know, kind of the transition from individual contributor to first-time manager, I think that one of– a piece of advice that was given to me after I went through a coaching session was, “Hey, we’re teaching this model. If you’re going to use it with other people, make sure that you are very transparent in saying, ‘Hey, I learned this and this is something that I haven’t done before. Would you mind if I try it here?'” 

So this idea of being humble I think is really, really helpful. And not feeling like you need to know all the answers. And also, letting people know, “Hey, you know what? I’m learning in this role. I’m doing the best I can. Can we try something new here?” I think it could be really helpful. But the idea of transparency and humbleness I think are really important. Nancy, do you have anything– any other thoughts when it comes to this?

Nancy Komola: Yeah, I definitely agree with the: be active, stay hungry, don’t ever feel like you know it all because people and workplaces are just too dynamic. And when you think you know it all, it creates stagnation and there’s always something new to learn out there. And there are some just absolutely amazing people leaders to learn from. You know, some have written books. Some you may know – they might be down the hall from you. 

You can learn a lot from people who are not very good managers.

I would say learning from others – stay really open to that because believe it or not, you can actually learn a lot from people who are not very good managers. I hope that’s not the only way people learn, but you can learn a lot that way. Just observe and when something doesn’t feel right to you take note of that and how would you handle it differently? 

And then on the flip side, Mike mentioned this earlier: have a strong mentor. Somebody who’s a go-to that you can turn to for support, who will be honest with you and help you, because you’re going to need it along the way. It’s truly a journey and having a mentor is huge.

Brian Washburn: We’ve talked about several different aspects of this, right? The individual, the organization. And Nancy, I’m kind of curious from where you sit and all the work that you’ve done with organizations and with individuals trying to be better in this area, at the end of the day, who would you say is responsible for the success of the people that go from individual contributor to manager? Is it the newly promoted person? Is it their supervisor or the department or the organization? Is it the training team, right? That’s supposed to be putting together leadership development? Who is ultimately responsible for this person’s success?

Who is Ultimately Responsible for the Success of a New Manager?

Nancy Komola: I’m going to give you a double-barreled answer on that. I think it’s absolutely a shared responsibility primarily between the organization and the individual. 

So organizationally, whether they create the training internally or not – some organizations aren’t that big, they don’t have their own department. They at least need to recognize the need and provide the training. Whether, again, internally or externally, they need to recognize the need and provide it. 

And then the individual. As we mentioned before, they need to be active in their learning. They need to be open to trying new skills, to receiving feedback, and every now and then they need to give themselves– cut themselves some slack, too.

Brian Washburn: How about you, Mike? Do you have any other thoughts in terms of ultimately who’s responsible for this person’s success?

Mike Komola: Yeah. You know, I’m one of those HR leaders who still firmly believes in the career development adage that nobody is more responsible or accountable for our own development than we are. So it is a shared responsibility, it is a shared accountability. But at the end of the day, I, the person who’s in that role, really needs to take charge and get what they need, and own their career and their development and own their own success. Because without that, all the other help outside in the world may not move the needle far enough.

Brian Washburn: Yeah, that makes sense. Now this is such a big topic that we could talk about this for a long time. Unfortunately, we are out of time here. But at the very end of this speed round, I’m going to ask you if you have some thoughts in terms of where people can go for more information or help – if they’re looking for more information or help on this. 

But before we get to that, we do have a little bit of a speed round so that our audience can get to know you a little bit better. Are you ready to answer some of these questions?

Nancy Komola: We are.

Mike Komola: Yes.

Get to Know Nancy and Mike Komola

Brian Washburn: (CHUCKLES) Excellent. So the first question now– and what I’ll do is I’ll ask Nancy first and then I’ll go to Mike. So the first question goes to you, Nancy. 

What would you prefer to be: an individual contributor or people manager?

Nancy Komola: A people manager.

Brian Washburn: How about you, Mike?

Mike Komola: Yeah, me too. Once you go there, it’s hard to go back.

Brian Washburn: This is true. Although I have some experience with people who have said, “You know what? I’ve managed people and I don’t love it. I like the idea of not having the responsibility – to be an individual contributor.” But I think that a lot of people will resonate with what you said, Mike. 

Do you prefer, Nancy, to learn in-person or through self-paced elearning?

Nancy Komola: In-person.

Brian Washburn: How about you, Mike?

Mike Komola: Definitely in-person.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. There’s something to that social contact, I think.

Mike Komola: Yep.

Brian Washburn: Do you, Nancy, like to travel for work or stay put?

Nancy Komola: Oh, this is a tough one. I’m going to go with stay put.

Brian Washburn: How about you, Mike?

Mike Komola: Happy we’re aligned there. Those days are in our past. Staying put is the answer.

Brian Washburn: Would it change if we weren’t in the age of COVID?

Mike Komola: Nope! (CHUCKLES)

Brian Washburn: Staying put. There’s a huge difference between work-travel and vacation-travel. So I think staying put is a good answer there. 

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, Nancy?

Nancy Komola: Oh, the best piece came from an internal customer of mine, a director that I was working with and he said, “Don’t let perfection get in the way of really, really good.”

Brian Washburn: How about you, Mike?

Mike Komola: Gosh. Early in my career, a wise HR leader that I had the privilege of working for looked me in the eye one day and said, “Don’t ever forget. It’s not about you.”

Brian Washburn: Yeah, those are two excellent pieces of advice that hopefully a lot of people will take to heart. 

What is a people manager book that everyone listening should be familiar with, Nancy?

Nancy Komola: I’m going to totally cheat here because there are so many good ones out there. So, Servant Leadership in Action by Ken Blanchard and Renee Broadwell. It’s a collection of essays from incredible people leaders. 

There’s a book called The Secret also by Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller that follows a first-time people manager through the struggles that they encounter and how they overcame them. 

And then a great one is Death by Meeting by Patrick Lencioni. And it’s just a great look at why meetings are so often bad and gives a framework to make them immeasurably better. And anybody who’s going to be a people manager sooner or later, they’re going to need to run meetings.

Brian Washburn: Excellent. I love all three of those suggestions. How about you, Mike? Do you have any additional books that might be helpful?

Mike Komola: I do. I’ll stick to the one that Nancy didn’t mention. I’m kind of a data geek when it comes to these things, and so the more recent book from the Gallup Organization called It’s the Manager. The published authors are Jim Clifton and Jim Harter. But It’s the Manager gives lots of real, longitudinal research on how incredibly important the role of the people manager is in the success of an organization. And in fact, you know, the statistic that jumps out is: from their findings, 70% of the variance in engagement in employees is solely and directly attributed to the role of the people manager. So it’s huge. And so I use that one as a, you know– if you doubt your value, look at the data.

Brian Washburn: And I’m going to wrap this up by asking if you have any thoughts on what people can do or what you might be able to offer people who might be interested in learning more about, “Hey, you know what? I don’t know where to start. Is there an organization that can help me or my organization out when it comes to people manager skills?” Do you have any shameless plugs for us?

Mike Komola: You know what? Larger organizations often have these resources internally, so our frame of reference tends to be the smaller employers – 25 to a couple of hundred employees. And they’re actually– it’s a bit more limited. You know, one shameless plug is: this problem, this challenge is the reason we started our firm – is to coach and teach managers – but in a smaller business setting that don’t often have those resources. We believe that small companies and employers and managers deserve the same kind of fortune 50 treatment when it comes to training and development that larger companies have. And so– I mean, on our website, we have our curriculum and our approach to things, but there are also other consulting organizations that have curriculum in this area, as well.

Brian Washburn: And if people are curious to know where to find more about FitwellHR, what’s your website?

Mike Komola: It’s www.fitwellhr.com. And also our LinkedIn page is a great way to connect with us, as well.

Brian Washburn: Excellent. So, Nancy, Mike, from FitwellHR. Thank you so much for joining us. 

And thank you everyone else for listening to another episode of Train Like You Listen, which is a weekly podcast that can be found on Apple iTunes, iHeartRadio, Spotify, wherever you find your podcasts. 

And if there is ever anything that Endurance Learning can do to help with your own training projects in general, whether it’s in-person, virtual, or elearning, please do drop us a line. You can find me brian@endurancelearning.com. Until next time, happy training everyone.

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