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Jeff Schmitt: From the Bottom Up

Excelling as a First-Time Manager

It was only a matter of time. Year after year, you beat your numbers and earned the highest marks on evaluations. Your manager sang your praises; your clients considered you one of their own. You sacrificed health and happiness to prove you deserved it. Eventually your time rolled around and they put you in charge. And now that you've made it, only one question remains: What do I do now?

Stepping into management can be an overwhelming transition. Forget all your past accomplishments: You're starting from scratch and the learning curve is steep. You'll deal with individuals from different cultures, generations, personalities, and ambitions, some of whom are more entrenched, experienced, and talented than you. And all those dirty jobs you took for granted—hiring, training, coaching, appraisals, discipline, and layoffs—are your responsibility.

Worst of all, you're no longer one of them; you're the eyes-and-ears of "The Man," if not the man himself. Now you're all alone.

And that means you have a target on your back. Sure, your reports have a stake in your success. But they also have their agendas. Despite your best intentions and efforts, you're bound to disappoint them at times. No, you'll have to accept that not everyone will like you. They'll whisper behind your back, blaming you for things you can't control. They're always watching you, evaluating you against their own strengths, sniping over every weak moment or error. Regardless, these same people will make or break you.

Weaknesses Exposed

Leadership has a funny way of exposing weaknesses. If you lacked self-awareness before, you'll quickly recognize your limitations and misconceptions. Suddenly you're pushed and pulled from all directions. Every interaction is magnified. And all those frailties you've consciously hidden—your temper, tendency to procrastinate, or inability to follow through—will eventually come front and center as the pressure boils over.

As with any job, many of us enter leadership with high hopes. We expect to raise the bar for everyone else (or at minimum, not undo the great work of our predecessor). We imagine ourselves building teams and markets, making a difference and someday crossing the stage to the applause of our peers. But then the people, politics, and roadblocks often wear us down. And with every tepid review you give, the guilt will gnaw at you: Is their performance actually a reflection on me?

Too often, we press and claw to the destination, all too satisfied when we get there. In reality, that's when the real work begins. To keep your promotion from morphing into a death sentence, you must come in with your eyes open and a plan. Please read our 20 Tips for First-Time Managers.

Jeff Schmitt is an online columnist for Bloomberg Businessweek. He has spent 17 years in sales, marketing, project management, training, legal compliance, and recruiting. You can reach him via e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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