The next generation of inspired leaders is stepping up into supervisory and managerial roles more often as time goes on. Making that shift and finding a way to represent your values as a manager is tough. We asked some YGL members who have become managers relatively recently to share their experiences and offer some advice for others who want to take that path. Hopefully this helps you grow your career and prepare to be the best manager you can, if that’s the path you choose to follow.
- What is your age and agency? How long have you been in federal service? How long have you been a manager? How many people do you supervise?
Kellen Sweney: I’m 28. I work in the Houston City Health Department. I’ve been in my current position for about six months. I’m one of those oddball cases. I came to local government from the private sector, in retail, where I was a supervisor. I’ve always wanted to work for the city. I supervise 25 people.
Bryce Mendez: I’m 30. I work for the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. I’ve been here 6 years. I’ve been a manager about 8 months. I have 16 employees.
Kevin Richman: I’m 31 and I work for GSA. I’ve been in federal service for 9 years and I’ve been a manager for 3 years. I supervise 9 people. I’m also the YGL Chief Relationship Officer, so I oversee 10 people there too.
- What was the hardest thing about becoming a manager?
KS: I think the hardest part about becoming a manager was the institutional knowledge that already existed. There’s kind of this established way of doing things and to make any impact on how things are done, you need to know it. I had to “show my work” by proving that even though I didn’t have the knowledge, I had the skill set. Especially coming into government, there’s a huge amount to know about procedures and policies. I had to find to people who were willing to take a risk on me. Coming to the public sector, we are known for our rules and regulations. We laugh a little bit at it ourselves. I would run into a wall sometimes because I had this idea of what could be done and would find that “the City doesn’t do that.” I had to learn when to fold my ideas into the established way of doing things and when to take the opportunities to think outside of the box. I was hired for my perspective and sometimes I needed to push. I think knowing which battles to fight really boiled down to asking why. If there was a much larger issue I hadn’t considered yet, then I needed to be okay with what the city wanted me to do, but if it was just that we’ve done it a certain way for a long time, then I was okay pushing a little bit harder. It was all about asking questions in the beginning.
BM: All. (laughs) Specifically, adjusting my management style to a wide age range. All of my employees are older than I am, ranging from 32-59. A lot has to do with communication; when tasking staff members, some has to be in person, some I can task with new projects via email or electronic means. There’s also a difference in the amount of detail needed in assigning work. With Millennials, I need to explain what to do and why, where with the older folks they don’t need to know why, but they need a little more detail about how to accomplish the task if different from historical decision-making processes.
KR: It’s theory versus reality. You hear about various types of tough conversations – bad news, under performing, giving assignments that people may not want to do; you can practice tough conversations, you can even do scenarios to help test you, but it’s different when a real person is in front of you. You need an atmosphere where you can make mistakes and get feedback on when you’ve mis-stepped so you can have those conversations. It’s really hard to make that happen in a real work environment.
- Do you manage any Millennials? What’s your take on Millennial stereotypes now that you’re someone’s manager?
KS: A few of the people I supervise are Millennials. Some of them are well-founded. Some of the positive ones and the negative ones have roots in truth. Their sense of time can definitely can be more flexible than the Baby Boomers, but their technical skills can also be stronger because they’re raised with it. Sometimes I have people who don’t match the stereotypes too. If you have that in your head, it’s going to be easy to find people who match it.
BM: Yes, and some stereotypes are true. Like my communications strategy definitely. My Millennial employees definitely appreciate having more information about why we’re doing things, which is the stereotype, but I think that’s good because it helps people have the big picture. It helps people understand that they’re part of a grander scheme of things that are happening within the organization. I have the polar opposite too. I have the Millennials, but I also have the older career government employees.
KR: I do in YGL and at GSA I’m managing a couple of Millennials. I think stereotypes aren’t very productive to the discussion because you put people in a box before you know them. Management is hard, but it isn’t complicated. You need to understand the goal you’re trying to accomplish and then the people you’re using to get there. I need to understand what drives people and how I can work with them to get to the outcome. With younger people, if you balance the harder, less fun, short-turn around assignments with the more meaningful work, you’ll be fine. They’re really motivated by public service and the mission and so if you give them a chance to feel meaningful, you’ll get what you need. I hear about Millennials being lazy, and I haven’t seen that. Some of these stereotypes are also about people being early in their careers. Earlier generations had to figure out how to be professionals too. Everyone wants to make a difference and move forward, across industry and government. Millennials are doing the same exact thing.
There are more opportunities for Millennials than there ever have been before, which causes a manager to think differently about succession planning. People don’t stay in jobs for 10 years as much anymore. Things I wasn’t very good at, like onboarding, records management, writing policies and procedures – those have to be developed because you’ll be rotating through people. Once you accept that’s the reality as a manager, you need to find out how to get the best people. So you have to help people move forward in their careers so that they tell other great, engaged people to work there. You want a rotation of ideas and energy and being an enabler of careers is how you succeed now. I actually see Generation X’ers move jobs more often right now. That’s how everyone is now.
- What was the biggest surprise in becoming a manager?
KS: I think I was naïve about how I would be treated. I kind of expected that I would be treated the same because relationships were still the same. But there was some formality and hesitancy to share bad information that changed when my title changed.
BM: The largest surprise was learning the HR processes in the federal government. Just being an employee, you get an awareness of what the processes are. Getting into a supervisory role, you have to understand how to manage conflicts, you have to understand actual processes and forms from the Office of Personnel Management to your own agency. Having an awareness of all of those complaint resolution processes like employee relations or Equal Employer Opportunity procedures, and employee benefit entitlements, so that when an employee approaches you with a problem or question, you have an idea of where to send them and what they need to do.
KR: I think the biggest surprise is that I wasn’t as good as I thought I’d be at first. Probably my biggest success was in telling people I was new and to tell me when I was doing things which harmed the team. I had been lone wolf who was used to working alone and being able to produce results. I couldn’t do that as a manager. Even with my training, I didn’t know how to lead those tough conversations, and I didn’t know how to represent myself differently to different audiences, and how to be treated as an equal by counterparts who were 10-15 years older than me. It was hard though because I had been so successful in my earlier role and I was already a strategic thinker. It wasn’t that I could’ve read or prepared more, you have to learn by doing and take your bumps and bruises along the way.
- Are there things your old bosses did which make more sense now?
KS: I definitely understand more about discretion; not presenting the whole story to everyone right away. We don’t need to be open books, so if it doesn’t involve you or it’s not the right time, then sometimes it’s not the right time to share information. As an associate, I wanted to know everything and be involved in everything, and sometimes it wasn’t our place. On the staff, you develop a rapport with people that can become gossip, and as a manager you need to know what to discuss and with whom.
BM: Yes. The biggest one is not responding to emails. With my previous boss, I’d ask why she didn’t respond to emails for three or four weeks, but now once in a while I’ll have an employee ask me about something they sent me and I realize, crap, I’m in the same position.
KR: Yeah. One of the biggest challenges, especially in a big organization, is that if you’re someone who is strategic and already seen as a leader, is that you want to see everything going on. You don’t have line of sight to certain things and you’re told to trust the people above you and the decisions they are making. I’ve found that sometimes as a boss you really need people to accept the things that you’re telling them, trust you’re doing things in their best interest, and complete tasks with less information than they may want, but not necessarily need. Also, my boss shielded me from things that would prevent me from doing my job to my full potential. For example, my old boss protected me from criticism that was founded on me being a Millennial. Or maybe there’s disagreement among managers or leaders about the next direction and they need the space to work through that, rather than everything coming back to the employees.
You also need to know that when you’re not there, they have your back. I also learned that my old boss was a different kind of manager to different people depending on their needs. I’m not saying that as a manager you have to change who you are, but everyone is different and you need to find that middle ground with each individual to position them to succeed. She had to be a different type of boss to different people to get good work from them.
- What is the best thing about being a manager?
KS: For me it’s finding ways to elevate my team. I want them to succeed and be happy with their work. When we find ways to improve processes, we’ll all be happy and doing well. I want to be in a position to help my staff because they can’t always see the bigger picture. When I can work with them to help give them new tools or a different perspective, to me, that’s the best part of being a manager.
BM: The best thing for me is being able to give the kudos now and being able to recognize people for their hard work. As a manager, you also have a bigger picture of what’s going on within the department. So when you get recognition, formal or informal, from more senior managers in your organization and being able to pass that along to your employees, that’s the best perk of the job.
KR: The best thing is seeing a team come together and be successful. As a manager, you can’t do that yourself, you have to steer the ship. That’s true of teams and individuals. When I hear that people say they qualified for the next level because of the experiences I gave them, or how I’m different because I don’t just care about the work and not the people, that’s rewarding. When you can drive more mission wherever you are, and trickle the goals of the organization down to everyone so everyone can do their best work to benefit the American taxpayer, that’s really rewarding.
- What would your advice be to new managers? What mistake did you make that they should avoid?
KS: The biggest mistake that I made was in trying to adopt a leadership style that wasn’t my own. I tried to mimic the leadership style of the people who came before me and it had worked for them, but wasn’t me. I had to find my own style and make the role my own to be successful. That did mean taking bits and pieces from other people, but I had to be myself.
BM: My administrative advice is to create relationships with other managers, whether they’re your peers in the organization or if they’re at a different level in the hierarchy. They have a lot of experience in that role and the tips they offered really helped me manage a diverse group as well as how to be more assertive in tasking things and following up. My professional advice is you have to discipline yourself to know your subject matter. Being a supervisor is the same kind of thing. You can’t just take your mandatory training and be okay. You have to be open to trying new things, taking advice from others, including your subordinates, and looking for new information. Look for Harvard Business Review articles, books, TED Talks, and other resources which can show you situations you can learn from. Discipline yourself to learn more about managing and leadership.
K: You need to find your voice as a manager. It takes you a while to figure out how you want to work with your staff and how you want to support them. It took me a year to figure out how to do that in my own way. I had to figure out when what I would do as a person wasn’t what my team wanted and when they expected things from me which weren’t the best for me, and to find ways to adjust.
- Would you recommend to other people that they aspire to be a manager? Why?
KS: Everyone can be a leader and everyone has their own style. If you aspire to be a leader, you should go for it. It’s a different skill set, but it’s a great growth opportunity. It’s a challenge, but it’s definitely a great learning opportunity.
BM: If you aspire to be a manager, I definitely recommend it. Just know that it will be labor intensive and it won’t be everything you dream of right away. Your tasks may be at the middle management level or be smaller than you think, but it’s those experiences which will build your skill set, build your leadership network, and help you grow as a manager. Those experiences can give you the platform to be a leader of a large organization someday.
KR: I would recommend that if anyone wants to become a leader, you’ll have to learn how to manage people. Being a lower-level supervisor is a way to get your feet wet and learn how to manage people. I’d recommend people don’t rush into it. Your thoughts aren’t just your thoughts, your success isn’t just your success, and your failures aren’t just your failures. There’s a lot of paperwork and time spent. Make sure you’re not rushing into it. Don’t do it for the next grade, make sure it’s because you’re doing it for the right reasons. Your direct reports will know if you’re just doing it for the promotion and they won’t follow you. Being a manager isn’t easy. It’s not always fun. If you do it right and really put yourself into it, your heart and soul into it, you can drive a lot of change and make a real difference in people’s lives. As long as you remember that, you can have more good days than bad.