Not long ago, I worked with a client who was stepping into management for the first time. Terry, a highly regarded marketing associate in a pharmaceutical firm, had just been asked to lead a marketing team. In this new role, she was responsible for directing a group of bright, but inexperienced marketing professionals (most of whom had been her peers) in producing plans and promotions for a small portfolio of globally sold drugs. This required pulling together market data, financial trends, and competitive information – and then working with medical and regulatory professionals, ad agencies, product managers, and country staff to shape the final plans.
Terry herself had been very good at coordinating these efforts on her own, but many of her team members struggled to get the right information at the right times, to extract the most important highlights, and to engage people from different groups. They just weren’t putting together a high-quality product. Not wanting to disappoint her boss and miss marketing deadlines, Terry jumped into the breach and started doing much of the work herself, taking over whenever a team member ran into problems, running interference with other functions, and correcting and rewriting plans.
At the same time, of course, Terry also had to meet her new responsibilities, which included filing status reports, assessing existing marketing programs, and devising team budgets while attending now-required staff meetings, department meetings, global conference calls, and so on. Soon she was routinely working 15-hour days and coming in on weekends – but still not producing the quality work that was expected. She knew that this was not sustainable, but she couldn’t find the time to figure out what else to do.
Unfortunately, this scenario is not uncommon for first-time managers, with failure rates reported to be as high as 50% in the first year. While some of this may be attributable to poor selection or inadequate training and mentoring, some of it is under the control of managers themselves. One of the most common stumbling blocks for new managers is failing to set the right boundaries in their new job. Here, I’m referring to boundaries as the guardrails that determine what the new manager should and should not do, how much time to spend on the job, and how success will be measured. These lines tend to get blurry as new leaders clamber to justify their promotion, often over-performing to produce great results. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se. But problems arise when there’s no ongoing dialogue with team members, peers, and bosses about the definition of “success” and “results”– and who is responsible for what. Without clear boundaries, novice managers can become quickly overwhelmed by an unmanageable workload.
In Terry’s case, she felt personally accountable for making sure that everything her team produced was perfect, which meant she often jumped in to do things herself. This bad habit communicated to others that they were less accountable. As a result, her team wasn’t learning how to produce high quality work on their own, other departments weren’t collaborating efficiently (they would sporadically send information in whatever form suited them), and her boss had no role in helping her improve the process. Everything was on Terry.
Eventually, with the help of a coach, Terry learned that she had to establish boundaries by clarifying her role with all stakeholders.
To start, she made sure her team knew that they were responsible for producing high quality plans, but that she would give them the tools, training, and coaching necessary to make them happen. In other words, her job was not to cover for them or step in whenever they weren’t sure what to do; her job was to help them be successful on their own. To do this, Terry drew on her own experience as a star marketer. She created models of what good plans looked like and what key elements they contained, and shared these with her team. She set up sessions to go over different aspects of the planning process – such as analyzing market data and managing compliance – and facilitated discussions between team members and company experts. Terry also scheduled frequent one-on-one reviews with each of her employees, so she could give real-time feedback about how they might improve.
For most new managers, making this transition to training and coaching isn’t easy. It seems faster to do everything yourself – but we’ve seen how destructive that impulse can be. New managers like Terry can get stuck doing their subordinates’ jobs and keep their teams from developing the skills they need to succeed.
Terry also learned to set boundaries with her new peers – the other department leaders. She met with these managers to develop a set of service level agreements for how their functions would work together. This way, any information her team needed from finance, sales, or any other department would arrive on time and in the specified format. Eventually, this allowed her team to better manage their workflow, and it became easier for her to help out when miscommunications occurred.
Finally, Terry sat down with her boss to define her role more clearly and determine what success meant for her. A common mistake for first-time managers is assuming that every objective is important and needs to be completed as soon as possible. Without being clear on how her priorities had to change in her new role, Terry fell into this trap; she tried to do everything. When she finally worked with her boss to distinguish between new and old priorities, she was able to clearly see what was expected of her as a manager.
Initiating these boundary discussions, and raising them again when need be, is an essential part of learning how to manage. It requires courage at first (especially if you’re trying to justify your promotion to your manager), but without it, you’re trapped into taking on far more than is realistic, which will limit your own success and that of your team. Setting boundaries effectively gives you a way of multiplying your impact through others, which is, after all, the fundamental role of a manager. It’s also a lot more fun than working 15-hour days. Just ask Terry.
Ron Ashkenas' blog post on Harvard Business Review. Join the discussion.