9 questions to ask before promoting a first-time manager

9 questions to ask before promoting a first-time manager
Written by: Karl Sakas
Evaluating management potential for internal promotions

Considering promoting an employee to become a first-time manager? Read this article first!

Are you thinking about promoting one of your employees to become a manager at your agency? Be sure to read this article before you move forward!

Many of my clients ask for help as they consider promoting a long-time employee to become a first-time manager.

I understand the choice—they know the employee, the employee knows the company, and there’s a strong culture fit. In general, “promotion-from-within” is a good strategy.

The problem is, managing people is tough—it’s hard to tell if someone will be a good manager when they’ve never managed others before. Just because someone’s good at their job doesn’t mean they’ll be good at managing others in that job.

Wait, what is a “manager”?

For purposes of this article, I’ll assume you’re promoting someone to an “official” manager—they’ll have the power to hire and fire (even if you ask them to consult with you first), they can assign work to people without clearing it with you first, and they can discipline their subordinates without requiring your signoff.

It’s not quite the same being a project manager—PMs assign work, but typically can’t fire people, and people on a PM’s team report to someone else for long-term purposes.

Let’s look at how to make better decisions as you assess management potential.

First-time managers: 9 questions to assess management potential before promotion

I know you’re in a hurry. To improve your—and their—chances of success, pause and ask yourself these questions before you move forward. You may know some of the answers already—but if you don’t, dig deeper before you promote them.

1) Do they actually want to be a manager?

You don’t want a “reluctant manager”—they need to want the job. As people move from Technician to Manager, their job shifts from doing the work to coordinating others.

There are often no tangible results each day. This can be draining if people aren’t focused on the long-term impacts of their work as managers.

Ask them why they want to be a manager. Does their answer make sense? Ask about their role models as managers—both positive and negative. What do they seem to have learned from past managers?

2) Do they know what they’re getting into?

Management is ultimately rewarding, but has a lot of headaches along the way. Does your prospective manager understand both the challenges and rewards of the job? Are they asking you good questions?

Agency owner Ross Johnston described leadership using an analogy of the circus parade. Sometimes you’re out in front, leading the parade and cheering people along. But other times, you’re following behind the parade, scooping up the manure.

Have you created a job description? I know you want to save time by skipping the step, but you’ll get better results if you define the job you need them to do. There are always “other duties as assigned,” but that shouldn’t be their entire job description.

Consider encouraging (or assigning) them to read my second book: Made to Lead: A Pocket Guide to Managing Marketing & Creative Teams. Some of my clients will have people write a “book report” about what they learned. Sometimes, the employee decides they don’t want to become a manager after all—and that’s OK! Better to know now rather later.

3) Are they willing to change their relationship with coworkers?

Becoming a manager often means giving up some of their previous friendships at work. This is especially true if a coworker goes from peer to subordinate—that’s difficult for both of them.

If two coworkers go to lunch together every day, that’s OK. If a manager and one of his/her employees goes to lunch together every day—without other employees—it raises concerns of favoritism.

And if managers are close friends with employees who report to them, it’s hard to deliver bad news. No one wants to fire a friend—but when it comes to a pattern of poor performance that’s not improving, managers have to put the company first.

When your agency’s small, fraternization may not be an issue because everyone’s in one big room. But as you grow and add management layers, people have to make changes.

Not everyone wants to make this leap—be sure your prospective manager knows what to expect.

4) Are they good at coaching others?

A coach is someone who helps others reach their full potential. A good manager finds ways to help his/her employees improve. Part of this includes recognizing that what works for the manager may not work for the employee.

Coaching is about finding the right approach for each person—rather than assuming there’s one “right” solution to every problem.

Haven’t seen them coach others? Look at how they explain things to colleagues or to you. Are they clear about it? If someone’s not familiar with the topic, do they give enough context without deluging you in details?

5) Are they willing to deliver constructive feedback?

Part of being a good manager includes sharing constructive feedback and other difficult-to-hear news. If they’re a people-pleaser, they may not make a good manager without a strong sense of self-awareness.

How do they deliver bad news to you today? It’s important that they try to solve problems before bringing them to you—but if they hide or downplay bad news, that’s not a good sign.

6) Are they good at delegating?

How are they at delegating to others? Good management requires delegation, with a focus on results and long-term outcomes.

As in project management, managers need to think about assigning work to the “cheapest competent [available] person.” That means if one of their employees can do something, the manager should probably be delegating instead of doing it themselves.

If you haven’t seen them formally delegate before, think about what they do when they’re overloaded. Do they ask for help or try to do it all themselves?

7) Do they have emotional intelligence (EQ)?

Good managers understand how their employees are feeling—including what employees may not be saying out loud. Remember, your employees have choices.

When employees have problems outside of work and their manager isn’t supporting them—or doesn’t even notice there’s a problem—you risk developing an employee retention problem.

Managers can improve emotional intelligence (EQ) over time, but it takes work if it’s not a natural strength.

8) Can they balance Warmth & Competence?

Management requires a particular balancing act between good results and good morale. You can use the Warmth & Competence model to evaluate their fit.

Competence is about results—are they focused on getting the job done? Warmth is about making people feel valued, instead of feeling like cog in a machine.

Where do they fit? The ideal is High Warmth and High Competence.

If people skew too much one way or the other as managers—and lack self-awareness about it—you’ll be frustrated. In my experience, they’ll either push people too hard or they won’t hold people accountable.

9) Are they committed to professional development as a manager?

Management is definitely a “learn by doing” kind of job. But it’s easier when you learn key shortcuts and avoid common mistakes—and you can do that through professional development.

You can use their current approach as a proxy—are they committed to professional development now, or do they just show up?

Ask them to read my article, on how to be a good manager. What’s their reaction? Are they sharing good insights and asking good questions? Or do they seem to miss the point?

Applying this at your agency

The specifics of assessing management potential will depend on your agency and the employee in question—everyone has a unique combination of experience and temperament. But consider the value of taking it slow.

Don’t move too fast

As you seek to make yourself “needed but not necessary,” you may want to shift certain day-to-day management responsibilities to others on your team. Promoting people to become managers helps make that happen—but don’t be too hasty.

If you promote the wrong person to become a manager, you’ll make things worse, because you’ll keep getting sucked into managing everyone they’re supposed to be managing plus the managers themselves.

Never hire a first-time manager externally

If you need to hire externally, don’t hire someone unless they’ve managed others before. It’s too much of a risk—they don’t know your culture and you can’t get reliable answers about their track record elsewhere.

Your agency is too important for someone to treat it as their management “training wheels.” Any external management hires need prior management experience.

Run into a problem you’re not sure how to handle? Contact me for help.

Question: What questions do you ask to assess management potential?

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