Ease the Pain of Learning to Manage On-the-Job

Question: Last year I achieved a career milestone. I was promoted into being a manager for my team. Once the euphoria wore off, I was overwhelmed with how much I did not know about managing other people. I know what drives me to success but these folks all march to a different drummer. I feel like I’ve spent the last year making one mistake after another while slowly learning how to get my staff to do what I ask. Is there any way I can speed up this frustrating learning curve?

Alice Waagen says: You have just summed up what I call the pain of learning on-the-job. Sure you can learn how to be a great manager by trying this and that but the result is what we call “negative learning” or more bluntly, well that did not work, let me try this. You are so right; this is a long and painful way to learn.

Let me suggest one way to speed up your learning process. In the next few weeks, I want you to look around and find a great manager who you respect. Who do people listen to? Whose advice do they seek out? Look to see someone who treats others with respect and uses more collaboration techniques than directing and domineering. This is the person you want as a managerial mentor. But here is the kicker – do not ask them to be a mentor. Instead, ask them to join you for coffee or a quick lunch to answer a few brief questions you have about how they manage their team. Listen to what they have to say. Write it down. Thank them. Then ask if you can call on them again if you have other questions. Repeat these actions as often as necessary.

I call this process “growing a mentor.” The problem with putting the mentor word out there first is that people are reluctant to commit to a relationship before they try it out. A great manager has very little time to spare in their day. They are more than willing to help if they see that you are eager to learn and will use what they share with you. Demonstrate that in your actions, and the relationship will grow over time to be a regular support system for you.

The other reason to grow a mentor without the title is that you can exit the relationship if it is not working for you. A manager may lead others well but may not be a good communicator with you. Or they may be the overbooked kind who schedule time with you only to cancel it at the last minute. Without the title mentor on the table, you can just let the relationship drift away without hurt feelings.

Last note: once you find a good mentor resource, do your homework. Come to the meetings prepared with specific questions, not just to talk or worse gripe. Come prepared to take notes. Listen, ask clarifying and probing questions. Basically, respect their time and their generosity to share. That is your part in building the relationship.

Learning from an internal success story is, in my opinion, a short cut to learning the best ways to lead. It is on-the job-learning without the pain of continual mistakes.

Questions? Send Alice an email: alice@workforcelearning.com.