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Simple tips for new line managers in the new age of work

1 August 2023
From one new line manager to another: here are some basic, practical tips that helped me survive my first year.

Okay, massive disclaimer: I've been a line manager for 18 months.

I am not an expert.

But I love it. I find it rewarding. And I work hard at it.

That means I'm not the most qualified human to give you advice on how to handle the most tricky conversations, or support people through every major live event or moment of work crisis.

Plus, everyone is different anyway. You're a different human talking to another different human in a different set of messy, human circumstances. No book, article, podcast or design leader can tell you (correctly) what they need from you in any given moment.

There's no cheat-sheet for being human.

So for this article, I'll try and steer clear of all that higher-thinking and writing down the things I did that helped create the space for all that learning to happen (and to continue happening).

Block out follow-up time after every catch-up, and protect it with your life

Create a 30 minute, recurring meeting in your diary after every 1-to-1 to do any follow up actions immediately. Switching from work mode to line manager mode should be - needs to be - a massive context switch. So give yourself time to do it.

Write down those notes, send over that document, arrange that chat, decompress, think.

Hold yourself to account, and be an invested, reliable role model.

"It would be nice to have the time to do that!" - more busy, more senior folk than me, I hear you. But really, this comes down how you prioritise your time and the value you see in where you're putting it.

When your responsibilities as a line manager slip into afterthought, people know it. They feel it. In reverse, people know when they feel supported, heard, empowered, encouraged and accountable.

If you're too busy for that. One of two things are happening.

  1. You're going it alone - you're taking on all the responsibilities, where you could be finding opportunities to challenge and stretch people in healthy ways.
  2. You're actually too busy - tell your line manager. Ask for support and expect it.

Give every catch-up a purpose ahead of time

Once you've established a relationship, some goals and how you'd both like to work together, make sure every catch-up has one clear goal, purpose or outcome.

You probably have 30 minutes of face-time every week or two (when I say that, I mean time devoted to line management and everything that comes with it). Maybe more, maybe less. But it still has a lot of ground to cover. Like... a lot.

In that time, you can end up in a whole bunch of realms:

  • admin - "can I book that annual leave?"
  • work - "I've got all these things on my plate"
  • personal or professional development - "this is what's important to me"
  • life - "I might need to take time away from work"

And there are realms inside those realms.

If you turn up to a catch-up without any real idea of why you're catching up, it denies the opportunity for all of that important stuff to happen.

Without preparation and a purpose, there's a risk that 1-to-1s descend into an administrative and sterile "how are you?" chats, or worse, you end talking about projects.

With just a teeny amount of prep, you're giving every meeting a chance to move you both closer to that greater goal or life aspiration. And creating structure and accountability for both of you.

Learn some theory, but you don't need to live by it

There are a lot of great training courses and theory about line management: within a companies internal training, on Medium, LinkedIn, podcasts, YouTube... you name it.

They're full of acronyms and mechanics for having difficult conversations, giving feedback, setting clear expectations and goals... I've seen and learned all my BOOSTs, COINs, OKRs and 360s. And they do help.

But nobody wants a robot for a line manager (hear that, Artificial Intelligence?)

The key to these resources is using them to build your confidence in the right areas.

First, devote some time to understanding the bits you, personally, struggle with.

I find giving constructive feedback hard - at least doing it clearly and getting straight to the point. I often stumbled through it apologetically. So structuring it in a COIN (Context, Observation, Impact, Next steps) really helps me keep things succinct, fair and objective.

Equally, know and explore your strengths. Celebrate your uniqueness and your individual style.

Because recognising when not to COIN is just as important.

Template your notes

Whether you're a spreadsheet person or a scrawl-it on-the-back-of-last-night's-takeaway-bag person, have a basic template.

A simple template is a quick and easy recipe for creating the three things (I think) every productive chat needs:

  1. purpose
  2. space for your direct report to talk
  3. actions and accountability

My template has these headings:

  • "The purpose of this catch-up is to..." - written beforehand
  • "We talked about..." - the notes you take
  • "What we agreed" - actions for each of us, in a table

It makes it easier to listen. They're easier to refer back to, keep track of and spot things in. And the actions and agreements create accountability for everyone.

Always leave space for your direct report to set the direction

"How're you getting on?"

"How are things going?"

"How are you?"

So similar. Yet so, so different.

If you hadn't guessed, I'm a structure-y, planning-y type of person. Protecting the time, planning the sessions, templating my notes all comes pretty easily to me. But knowing when to throw the plan out of the window and feel your way through a moment does not.

So there's a risk that I miss the more subtle cues: an evasive answer, a truth hiding behind a joke or a change in tone. Or worse, I jump straight into the wrong realm: admin, work, professional development... effectively silencing them and consigning their 1-to-1 to the waste-of-time bucket.

Now, I try to start every chat with an explicit "how are you?" and spend time in and around that space. Learn when to nudge, and know how to.

Creating the time for someone to tell you how they are and what they need, in their own words, is 90% of your job as a line manager.

An honest answer tells you the best way to spend the rest of your time together. So ask.

Embrace difficult conversations, but own the discomfort

So you've asked the question. And you got an honest answer. And now you feel entirely unqualified to help the human in front of you. Whoops!

Well actually, well done. You've done good. You created a space safe enough for someone to be vulnerable and honest even though they're taking a big leap into the unknown.

You've shattered the corporate illusion that we're all firing on all cylinders, all of the time. Or that OKRs and personal achievements should go on your headstone.

Same goes for you, you know.

You don't need to handle every difficult situation with confidence and ease. You don't have the same lived experience as anybody else on this planet. And you definitely don't need to pretend to.

Line management is hard, you might need to:

  • give someone some feedback about their work
  • address a conflict
  • support someone through a huge life event
  • talk about physical, emotional and mental ill health

The only thing you absolutely need, is to want the best for the other person. To listen, care, make time and to be present. To ask questions and understand.

Then you'll discover what you can do to help, and what you can't.

But getting there doesn't need to be clean and perfect. Take your time. Have a think. Ask your own line manager. Check the policy. Whatever you need.

But don't pretend to have all the answers.

Don't hide from discomfort. See power in it.

You're here, so you're okay.

Woah, that got deep there for a second. Let's think about wrapping things up.

I'd guess that the fact that you're here, or that you searched for it, means you already want to be one of the "good" managers.

But the definition a "good" line manager is so shifty. Every person and situation is different, and needs a different approach. That's why I said I'd try and stay away from all that deep stuff and stick to basic, practical tips (whoops, again).

But those three things felt right to me:

  1. purpose
  2. space
  3. action

When I think about my past managers, the superstars that stick out are the ones that made time for me, made an effort and clearly cared. They wanted the best for me even when it meant losing me as an employee.

They put me first, above the business, when they needed to. Because they knew what I brought to the team and business when I was thriving.

They didn't spend that time protecting the business from my own "me-ness".

Maybe that "want" is the only minimum requirement you need to be a "good" one.

Don't lose hold of that, and the rest will fall into place in the way it's supposed to, for you. I don't know.

I'm not an expert.

Where next?

James Cleaver © 2024