Steep learning curve: My first years as a manager


NB Equipe WiSEED Toulouse_1_small

Photo by Pauline de Courrèges (via WiSEED)

4 years ago, HBR wrote that “most people don’t want to be managers” ; and more recently I’ve read a number of articles about Millennials not wanting to become managers neither. Despite these studies and trend reports, I always saw a management position as a logical next step in my career, and I am happy to lead the marketing function (team and agencies) at WiSEED.

My first 2-and-a-half years as a manager haven’t always been easy, and part of it can be linked to still being a young professional. Here are some learnings that I am happy to share about managing people, sometimes older than you (even though that mustn’t always be taken into consideration), when you haven’t hit the 30y. mark. Many mistakes, many successes and a very steep learning curve.

Beware of the brief. Always challenge the brief.

When I joined the company, I was given a relatively broad brief: to set up, monitor and scale the marketing function in the most efficient way. A big part of it was the managerial one, since the existing team had mostly been working with – and reporting to – the CEO and the co-founder. The latter were great team leaders, but not marketing professionals (hence the dire need to bring a Marketing & Communication Director on board).

This brief was fascinating and challenging, which is why I joined WiSEED. But in hindsight, I was given a very “vertical” brief, in which bringing structure and prioritization – very hierarchical concepts – were the #1 priority. I haven’t challenged them very much, and frankly given my lack of experience I wouldn’t have had the tools to properly do so. But I should have.

Nevertheless, while I think we have done a great job bringing marketing and communications into WiSEED’s culture, I should have taken more time meeting with people before telling them what to do. I spent too much of my first couple of months micro-managing and setting up the right reporting tools and may have neglected to understand the aspirations of my team and colleagues. Always easy to say in retrospect, but…

Tip #1: Spend time with people you manage and work with, it will immensely complement the “brief” you were given during the hiring process

Defend a vision, it’s very powerful

I found out that having and defending a vision is one of the most important things a Director can do for a company, and for his team. A vision is an idea, a possible future, a positive outcome for your company, its products, its brand or its customer experience. A vision is always a choice made, sometimes even a risk taken, because you think it’s worthwhile being projected.

Why do I say this? Because I found out that many people are fundamentally in need of a vision, a powerful story of the future, to be driven forward. Of course, I’m saying this as Head of Marketing of an innovative company seeking to reinvent an industry – private equity, investing. Of course, we need to project a future!

But as a manager you need to depict a vision, from short- to long-term. Where will we want to be at the end of the quarter? The year? In 10 years? How does that make sense for us? Why is it relevant for us as professionals and as citizen? “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way” said John Maxwell. It’s only since being a manager that I fully grasp the importance of such a citation. The tighter you hold the wheel, the more credible you will be.

Tip #2: Your team needs and wants you to have a vision, to communicate it clearly and repeatedly, to help them deliver on it

Seek help, rely on peoples’ expertise

One of the first things we did, due to lack of internal talent on that front, was to hire a digital marketing expert with strong focus on SEO and customer acquisition. I managed the entire hiring process myself, from job description to selection and salary negotiation, and was very satisfied with the person we took on board. Success!

When that person left, we changed the job design to a slightly different role, more focused on CRM and activation. This hiring process was much more collaborative, not only with the HR person but also with the rest of my team. We conducted interviews together and had some diverging point of views about the candidates to dismiss and retain.

Our final choice was made after long discussions with HR about the best candidate. I have been very influenced by these exchanges, which led me to change my mind about the eventual hire. It was an uncomfortable thing for me, because I was delegating most of the choice to someone else. But she was right, and the fears that I had about skill overlap and integration difficulties never materialized. Another success!

Tip #3: Trust your colleagues and their respective areas of expertise, even if it has a significant impact on your team

Be humble, you don’t have the experience (yet)

The previous story is a natural transition to this point about the value of experience. Despite having been hired as the best possible candidate for the job, which gives a real boost to morale and ego, it is important to remain humble. At age 30 you don’t have the single most important thing to be a good manager: experience.

That sounds logical, and of course you don’t walk into a room bragging to know the truth and solving the company’s toughest challenges in a wizz. But in the midst of projects, deadlines and your vision, it can be difficult to take the time and listen to someone else’s wisdom. Especially when you consider it to slow you down.

Get a mentor. Seek feedback about yourself, your choices, your way of collaborating. If you like your boss, take time to talk to him face to face… same with your team members (even though the conversation won’t be the same). Ask for feedback about you as a person, about the choices you made, about the attitude you showed towards them. Even if it hurts. Don’t be afraid of conflicts. Feel free to make mistakes, it’s the best way not to repeat them.

Tip #4: At 30, you don’t have experience. Seek feedback, take initiatives, make mistakes… literally grasp for experience

Should everyone in your team be treated alike?

No. This is one of the most difficult things to learn, because it’s very likely you will only learn it by trial-and-error. You may have to disappoint or p*** someone off to find out you should have grasped the problem differently. You will find out that every team member isn’t the same (of course) and shouldn’t be treated the same (less evident).

As an inexperienced manager, the easiest thing to do is indeed to apply the same treatment to everyone. And why shouldn’t you? You don’t take any risk, you are being balanced and fair, and if you fail in your management task you won’t have any regrets because – well – you did the right thing.

While treating everyone alike (giving them the same level of autonomy, believing they share the same motivations, supposing they have a similar skill-level…) is definitely the most logical and the fairest thing to do, it isn’t always the best thing to do. And most importantly: it doesn’t mean you are being unfair to them.

Tip #5: It’s fair and logical to treat everyone alike, but it’s a beginner’s mistake. Trust your intuition

Don’t neglect your agencies!

In marketing, you work with a variety of agencies whose creativity, ideas, hard work and passion will benefit your brand and eventually impact your performance. It can be easy to treat them as mere sub-contractors who are paid to execute a job that they have been briefed to do, especially when the vendor and agency landscape is full of alternatives.

Whilst this is a fact, and a legitimate tool to challenge them (it will be much easier to replace an agency, even on a retainer, than to fire an employee), it doesn’t mean they should be treated as easily replaceable agents. Treat them like employees, motivate and challenge them like staff, be a nice client to them (as much as you would like to be a nice boss).

Consider that they, too, have other clients to work with, other accounts to serve, other projects to deliver on, more new business to go after. While the balance is definitely in your favor, you may still want to make your brand desirable to work for, and your team likeable to work with. Trust me, it will make your days easier, your meetings nicer, and the work better.

Tip #6: Agencies who work for you need attention too. Treat their people as partners, be their favorite client

Epilogue

Like any job with responsibilities, targets and exposure, the CMO job is very hard… but it’s the best challenge I could imagine right now. I am keen to grow into that role to become a good, savvy, visionary and skillful marketer managing major brands and projects. I start small and I am looking for a steep learning curve in the years to come. Like in my cycling days, I like when there’s a(n uphill) challenge ahead.

But it’s not the brands, products and projects that is hardest – you shape them the way you want without being a genius. Looking back on many months of managing a team for the first time, I reckon that it’s the human part that won’t be easy. More mistakes will be made, more successes will be celebrated, more challenges tackled. It is rather easy when you are alone – grit is enough – it is very different when you manage and lead a team.

What about your experience as a manager?

Do you even strive to become one?

Note: These are specific to my situation, my personality, my strengths and weaknesses, my perception and the context of the company that I work for. Even if you are my age and work in marketing for a start-up or a scale-up, many other contextual factors – for example you being promoted a manager in the same company – will lead to different learnings… Do share them below! 👇👇

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2 Comments

  1. Very good synthesis of you return of experience.
    As a manager of a new team, I start to identify the « motivational profile » of everyone (based on his career story, inside or outside the company) to know how to manage and motivate each one.
    A team is an addition of talents. The role of the manager is to transform this addition into a multiplication.

    Reply

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