Listen While You Lead: 3 Unexpected Lessons for New Managers

Taking on a management role for the first time can be tricky.

While you can find all kinds of articles, surveys, and other resources about becoming a manager for the first time, no one’s going to give you a cheat sheet. You will, however, learn plenty of lessons by trusting your gut, making mistakes, and, most importantly, listening to your team.

When I first hired a team of writers, I shifted from being a team of one to managing a team of four. I stressed the importance of creating the type of team that I’ve always wanted to work on, and I loved the fact that we’d be creating this team together.

Here are three things I learned when I empowered my team — and myself as a new manager — by listening to them.

1. Put a premium on creativity

Who has time to be creative when there are decisions to make and problems to solve? Yet without creativity, we get stuck, and we spend our time focusing on the most obvious solutions.

The truth is, creativity is no longer optional. And now more than ever, managers are expected to be creative leaders who help their teams uncover unexpected ideas (or combinations of ideas) that lead to better processes, products, and customer service. And the best part?

Despite what you might initially fear, creativity won’t kill your team’s productivity.

After my new team spent a few months writing, editing, mastering their roles, and meeting deadlines, they wanted to know how to take their responsibilities to the next level. They wanted to spend time learning about other areas of the business and expanding their skills.

At first I was nervous for them to work on unrelated projects because I didn’t know how it would impact their already heavy workload, but I had to let go of my fears and trust them.

After spending time listening, learning, and brainstorming, we found activities and projects that could help us work, think, and play outside of the box:

  • Contributing to internal communications projects, like the company newsletter and company wiki

  • Leading monthly team “show and tells” where we talk about articles, videos, and podcasts related to language and writing, then looking for ways to apply it to our work

  • Playing the occasional round of Taboo or charades

My team continues to focus on their primary responsibilities, but now we get to reap the benefits of their new responsibilities.

Thumbtack support content team

The support content team at Thumbtack

The moments of thoughtful discussion and playfulness help us bond as a team. To others, it may look like a simple game of charades, but really we’re building a relaxed, comfortable, and silly space for ourselves. And that level of trust means that we can share honest feedback and valuable ideas without fear or embarrassment.

2. Appreciate the power of the written word

We’re always searching for answers and information — and searching takes time. According to a McKinsey report, we spend about 20 percent of our work hours searching for internal resources or answers to our work questions. But there’s good news to go along with that: When team members have a searchable knowledge base, that search time can be reduced by up to 35 percent.

When teams record and share knowledge:

  • It’s easier and faster to transfer knowledge from one person to another

  • Processes, guidelines, objectives, and important details aren’t lost or forgotten

  • They can deliver consistent work

  • Those resources can be used as training materials

We know that documentation has its benefits, but it can also be difficult to create or easily ignored — even for a team of writers! I realized I’d been asking my team to create help articles with clear writing and consistent formatting but had done a poor job documenting important guidelines and processes that were already in place. It was time to practice what I’d been preaching.

For a couple months, we invested time and focused on creating our team guides. In the end, we’ve saved time and effort by creating these resources. Now, instead of relying on memory, we have clear, accessible guidelines for daily reference and for training purposes.

Related: How to Write an Effective Knowledge Base Article

If your team could benefit from better process documentation, here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • List and rank your ideas. What are your biggest pain points? What checklists, reminders, or complex steps need to be documented? What are the most common questions circulating throughout your team? Once you have your list, rank each item based on importance.

  • Start small and build slowly. Focus on the items that have the most impact on your daily work. After you make some progress, you can start working on other guides and resources from your list.

  • Look for inspiration. Use ideas and tips from another internal knowledge base as a blueprint. MIT Information Systems & Technology Knowledge Base Best Practices has clear formatting guidelines. Northwestern University IT Knowledge Base Guide gives examples by showing what is “effective” versus “less effective.”

Once you have a few team guides in place, be sure to do regular maintenance to keep the information fresh and accurate.

3. Ask for feedback, even when it’s hard

Feedback gives you an opportunity to improve as a leader, and when feedback is taken seriously, you show your team that their feelings matter.

Asking for feedback is a scary thing, but the things that keep us from being an effective leader exist whether we face them or ignore them. When we ignore them, we stay stuck and keep making the same mistakes.

I was once told that I’m seen as a bit of a “task master” — handing out responsibilities without asking what kind of work truly motivates each team member. Ouch. That feedback was disappointing but completely valid. I was so worried about deadlines and upcoming projects, I forgot to check on team morale and desires.

When I asked the team for advice, they gave me a list of projects and activities they were interested in. We found ways to build those things into our regular schedule. And I let go of some of my new manager anxiety by trusting them. I’m honored that my team trusts me with their honest words and opinions.

Yes, there are times when the words can feel harsh on the surface, but those same words offer invaluable insight beyond what you know, see, and perceive. When you ask for — and then act on — feedback from your team, they know they’re heard and understood.

What’s your team telling you?

Your team members aren’t unemotional robots. They have needs, hopes, and wants. If you’re lucky, they have a desire to work hard and find fulfillment in their work. Listen to them. Watch them.

Whether it’s in their actions or their words, your team is telling you something. And it’s your job to ask, listen, and act. Pay attention, and you’ll find ways to improve your team, their work, and yourself.

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