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02 Oct. 2015 | Comments (0)

When you transition from team member to manager, you aren’t just moving to a higher league; you’re playing in an entirely new game. How do you avoid mistakes? By embracing your rookie status.

My research team and I did an extensive study of how inexperienced professionals perform relative to their experienced counterparts. We found that people in “rookie mode” — new to something important and hard — are surprisingly strong performers in terms of both innovation and speed. Why is this? Because they listen, seek guidance, experiment, and eagerly receive feedback.

Unfortunately, our research also showed that this rookie advantage doesn’t hold true with new managers. Most are ineffective, if not disastrous, in their first six months in the role. They tend to make two big mistakes. First, they keep doing what got them promoted – getting stuff done. They haven’t realized that their new role is to enable others to do the work, not to do it themselves. Second, they tend to try too hard at being leaders. Feeling pressure to justify their newfound authority, they make decisions too quickly and too emphatically and look to play the hero. They play too big, causing their teams to play small.

The best way for new managers to avoid these mistakes is, ironically, to accept, and even advertise, that they are rookies. Instead of pretending to know, they should assume the role of the learner. Here are four ways to do that:

List the things you don’t know. Write down everything you think you need to understand better to succeed in your new role. Shane Atchison, CEO of Possible, a creative agency, calls his list “7 Things I Don’t Know.” As he explains in this post, “Every so often, I sit down and write it out. This is easily the most important part of my toolkit because it forces me to get out of my own bubble and take a critical look at what’s going on around me.” The most important shift a new manager can make is from an assumption of knowing to an attitude of inquiry. 

Confess your limitations. Let people know you’re a rookie and learning. Cliff Bean, a former lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, was one of those “golden types” who was admired by all his fellow officers. When he assumed a new role as a cryptologic resource coordinator as part of an aircraft carrier strike group staff, he started one of his first meetings by announcing, “Hi. My name is Cliff, and I don’t know what I’m doing.” The sigh of relief in the room was audible. This proactive confession prompted other officers to admit that they felt like they had been faking expertise they didn’t actually yet have.

Ask questions. While your value used to come from having all the answers, your new value will come from asking the right questions and letting your team find the answers.  Rookies naturally pick other people’s brains in their quest to scramble up a new learning curve. As a rookie manager, avoid asking stupid questions that lack intelligence and common sense. But do ask the naïve questions that cut to the core, reveal problems, and prompt your team to think differently and find fresh solutions.

Do less; challenge more. If you want the people on your team to step up and do more, you have to be willing to do less: less talking, less responding, less convincing and less rescuing of others who need to struggle and learn for themselves. Instead of contributing big ideas, offer big challenges that require your team to develop big ideas.

As a new leader, you’ll only get so far by drawing on what you know — especially when the world around you is changing fast. Don’t rely on what got you there. Don’t act in the ways you think leaders should. Embrace your rookie status, and you’ll keep your entire team at the top of their game.


This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 10/02/2015.

View our complete listing of Leadership Development blogs.

  • About the Author:Liz Wiseman

    Liz Wiseman

    Liz Wiseman is president of The Wiseman Group, a management research and development center in Silicon Valley and author of Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. You can connect wit…

    Full Bio | More from Liz Wiseman


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