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On the Job: New managers face tough task during difficult times

Published January 9, 2009 12:07 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Being a first-time manager is always a bit stressful, but those entering the management ranks these days may believe they could not have garnered their new position at a worse time as they face a recession, layoffs, cutbacks and a stressed and disillusioned work force.

"It is definitely a tough time to be a new manager," says Drew McLellan, CEO of McLellan Marketing Group in Des Moines, Iowa. "You're going into the job already struggling with how you're going to rally your team to do the job, but now must connect with them emotionally because of what we're all going through."

Glenn Phillips, CEO of Forte Inc. in Pelham, Ala., echoes those sentiments, but adds that new managers should also realize they are being "handed a golden opportunity" because those who manage well in these tough times can really boost their career.

"There's no doubt there's a lot of primal fear out there," Phillips says. "But if you set goals and go for it, you can do it."

Both Phillips and McLellan agree that new managers -- before setting any agenda for their staff -- should first listen to employees and spend time asking questions about what each person does, the challenges they face and what each employee needs to get the job done.

Next -- and perhaps the most challenging given the current business climate -- is to establish trust with workers.

"You don't have to be candid, but you do have to be truthful," Phillips says. "Don't make up crap. You can be reserved in what you say, because there are some things you can't talk about, but be honest in what you do say."

McLellan adds that honesty from a manager is especially important when much of the future remains uncertain for many companies. "If employees think you're not being truthful with them, they may think you're sharing only some of the bad news, and there is more to come. That will scare them into trying to find another job and you may lose top performers."

Tom Egelhoff, a small-business consultant with SmallTownMarketing.com in Bozeman, Mont., says that new managers must also look for ways to motivate workers during these tough times.

"You have parties when people leave or retire -- why not have one when they join your company? It's a lot better than dragging them around to meet everyone one by one. It's a way for them to get to know everyone, and makes them feel welcome and part of the team," he says.

Egelhoff says he also isn't a fan of employee-of-the-month rewards, because it only recognizes one employee at a time. Instead, he favors recognizing each employee for good performance every six months, and sending a letter to the employee's spouse to say how much the worker's performance is appreciated.

"New managers have to realize that employees aren't there to make the new manager successful. The employee has his or her own reasons for being there, and you've got to find a way to connect with them and keep them there. Good, trained employees are hard to replace," he says.

Some other suggestions from these experienced managers include:

Admitting mistakes » "When you mess up, pull the staff together and admit it. Then say: 'This is how we're going to fix it.' Make sure you tell your boss about the mistake, and say how you and your team learned from it and are moving forward," McLellan says. "Show everyone how you're taking a disadvantage and turning it into an advantage for the team."

Educate yourself » Phillips says if you're in a big company, you can ask your boss who is in a "parallel (management) position" that you can network with to learn better how to do the job. If you're with a small employer, community business events offer a golden opportunity to meet experienced managers who are often very willing to be mentors. "I also read a lot of management and leadership books," Phillips says. "I'm constantly learning."

Connect with your team » New managers may believe they should distance themselves from their workers in order to remain professional. To some extent that is true, but more seasoned managers say that really taking the time to listen to employees -- what they like, don't like, their worries, their aspirations -- can make employees happier, and pay off with better job performances.

Anita Bruzzese can be reached c/o Business Editor, Gannett News Service, 7950 Jones Branch Drive, McLean, Va 22107.