In order for first-time managers to buck the 50-60% failure rate and transition themselves into successful leaders, those who have been there and learned what works need to empower, mentor and guide them.
By Bridget McCrea
Brandy Rinkel doesn’t think of herself as a boss. Rather, the assistant chief of operations for Wilbert Precast and manager of the firm’s Yakima branch prefers to be seen as a teammate, even if it means having to roll up her sleeves and take out the trash, sweep the floor or just lend a sympathetic ear to an employee who is struggling with a personal challenge.
“I never ask someone to do a job that I wouldn’t do,” said Rinkel, who heads a 42-person team that includes office and plant employees. “However, if I need to flex that muscle and say to someone, ‘Yes, I’m the boss and this is how things are going to be,’ then I can. But I don’t typically take that route unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
Rinkel, who is currently in the 2018 Leadership NPCA cohort, said she started her management career by overseeing just a handful of workers in the quality control department. When the Wilbert Precast management team was reorganized, she was promoted to manager of one of the firm’s branch locations. And with that, Rinkel found herself as a first-time manager of a sizable team. Because she had already been working with members of that team for several years, and had good working relationships with all of them, the transition went smoothly. That was, until it came time to learn how to tackle human resources duties like hiring, firing and promoting workers.
“No one really teaches you that kind of stuff,” said Rinkel, who worked closely with Wilbert Precast’s Spokane branch, where much of its HR operations are based. She recalls making a few, “Hey, I’m lost and I need help,” phone calls to the HR staff in Spokane. “They were extremely helpful as I learned the ropes.”
Looking back, Rinkel attributes much of her early management success to her willingness to ask questions and admit when she didn’t know how to do something, and to the willingness of those she called to help her out.
“I really relied heavily on my coworkers and team members to help me get through those early stages,” she said. “I also had to ask for patience and grace from my team members, all of whom were wonderful through the learning process.”
Rinkel’s participation in Leadership NPCA has also helped her become a more confident, strong leader. She feels she’s getting a lot of great tips and tricks, and helpful feedback from the group leader and her peers, some of whom are just as new as she is, but some of whom have been managing people for years.
Where’s the training?
As employees, we’re taught to focus on accomplishing the tasks that are put in front of us. Leaders, on the other hand, must center their efforts on helping others complete their assignments in the most efficient and effective possible manner. This major mindset shift is just one of many obstacles that drives 50-60% of first-time managers back to being employees rather than leaders within one year of assuming their new roles.1 Even worse, some of those unfit or unable to lead others remain in their leadership positions, adversely affecting those who now report to them and driving good talent away. Whether it’s due to a lack of management training, the inability to effectively manage others, incompatible skillsets, or any other number of issues, these failure rates are both relevant and real in today’s workforce.
Many of those failures can be attributed to a lack of training. According to CareerBuilder.com, for example, 58% of managers never receive any management training.
“Digest that for a second,” David Sturt writes in 10 Shocking Workplace Stats You Need To Know. “Most managers in the workforce were promoted because they were good at what they did, and not necessarily good at making the people around them better. This statistic obviously unveils a harsh reality.
“We have a bunch of leaders who aren’t trained on how to lead.”
At Norwalk Concrete Industries in Norwalk, Ohio, Jason Cross is an example of a successful manager who has worked his way up through the company over a 12-year period.
“I’m a high-effort guy, so I did my job to the best of my ability and, as a result, opportunities have come my way over the years,” he said.
When one of those new opportunities involved management, Cross grabbed it by the horns. It didn’t take long for him to realize there was a clear difference between working hard and leading. For example, he learned quickly that his team members were both his greatest asset and his greatest responsibility. And as a hard worker who knows how to do most tasks in the plant on his own, Cross realized that doing things himself isn’t a good management model when you’re leading a team of 50 people.
“Early on, I had a smaller team and actually was able to jump in and make things happen as needed, but now I’m just spread too thin,” said Cross, who credits his strong faith in God, numerous NPCA classes, his bosses and participation in Leadership NPCA as factors that have success as a manager. “I live by Colossians 3:23 (Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart…), and I take every relevant NPCA class that I can take.”
Communicate like a boss
Knowing that a lack of qualified labor is one of the biggest issues that manufacturers are grappling with right now, and that good managers are in high demand, Liz Uram, author of Communicate Like a Boss: Every Day Leadership Skills That Produce Real Results, suggested precasters sharpen their pencils or risk having their new supervisors fall prey to the high failure rate statistic.
Precasters that are looking to hire outside managers to oversee their production teams, for example, should start by listing out the specific tasks and responsibilities that the candidate will be handling (such as hiring and firing employees and creating schedules). This is a simple, yet important step, because in a lot of cases, people don’t actually know what they’re responsible for at work, Uram said.
The list will also help the interviewer ask job-specific questions that can be used with internal and external candidates, both of which should be vetted for experience, skillsets and potential leadership qualities. Use specific questions like, “How would you go about onboarding a helped boost his new employee?” and “What steps would you take to boost employee morale in the plant?”
Pay especially close attention to how the management candidates feel about giving feedback and/or disciplining other employees, she said, and talk to them about what steps they would take to mitigate HR challenges such as an employee who repeatedly misses shifts or one who consistently falls short of expectations.
“It all begins with getting an understanding of what the new manager will be doing on a day-to-day basis, and making sure clear expectations are set right from day one,” Uram said.
Precasters should also consider pairing up a seasoned manager with a new supervisor in a mentoring-type relationship. In many cases, the two individuals can learn from one another. A younger, first-time manager, for instance, may be able to share his or her tech-savvy knowledge with a veteran manager who can give valuable insights into the tried-and-tested supervisory strategies.
You can’t do it all
Lisa Sansom, a leadership and organizational development coach and consultant at LVS Consulting in Denver, works often with first-time managers, helping them grow into their new roles. She said one of the biggest hurdles new managers have is delegation – a particularly difficult mindset to adopt when the new manager is a go-getter and doer. After all, that’s probably why he or she was promoted in the first place. As Cross recognized early in his new management role, telling others what to do instead of doing it yourself isn’t always easy.
“A lot of new managers just try to do everything themselves, and wind up picking up the slack for others versus training and supporting their team members’ efforts,” said Sansom, who tells managers to break out of this mold by recognizing that they just can’t do it all. “The best managers delegate. They also hold people accountable, talk to them about their performance and have those difficult conversations when needed.”
For precasters, Sansom said a good way to get started down the right path is identifying potential leaders early in their careers, and then giving them stretch assignments (like a project or task given to employees which is beyond their current knowledge or skills level) and mentoring them to determine whether there’s a fit.
“Don’t just promote people and send them onto training,” Sansom said. “It’s relatively easy to find a training program and spend a few thousand dollars to send someone to it, but that is just short-term intervention. And unless there’s some sort of support back in the workplace, like a mentoring program, you’re not really going to see any return from your investment.”
For first-time managers, Rinkel said it’s important to remember that any instant gratification you once got from completing your daily task will wane once you move into your new leadership role.
“Now, your team will be completing everything, so your personal wins will be smaller,” she said. “If your team doesn’t get its job done, then you don’t get your job done and no one wins.”
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.