‘The First-Time Manager’ Book Review

25 September

The book I will be reviewing today is ‘The First-Time Manager’ by Loren B. Belker, Gary S. Topchik, and Jim McCormick. Below, I’ll share some useful advice it offers to the first-time managers and I will also emphasize advice that is not so useful.

So let’s go.

I came across this book accidentally. It is advertised as a classic that has helped thousands of rookie managers and the fact that it has been in print for almost 40 years since its first edition in 1981, made me want to check it out.

The book was written originally by Loren B. Belker and then posthumously it was revised by Gary S. Topchik and Jim McCormick. What I read was the seventh edition and it’s hard to tell how much of the original book content remained, although some places will give away the age of the original text.

The book is divided into six parts and 43 chapters. The chapters are quite unequal in size, some of them just 2 pages long, the longest are about 20 pages.

Even from the number of chapters, one can tell that ‘The First-Time Manager’ tries to cover too much ground. Why am I saying this? Let’s imagine a new manager who has just started in a new role. Does she really have the capacity to process that many topics and keep track of them all? I don’t think so.

Consequently, some important topics are covered too briefly. You won’t have a fair treatment of such a broad and important subject as emotional intelligence in a mere 4 pages.

On the upside, there is a lot of good advice scattered here and there on a diverse range of topics. Even though I am not a new manager, I have found a few ideas that were quite useful for me and which I hadn’t found anywhere else.

With all the chapters the book has, it’s impossible to summarize it. So instead, let me list some of its best advice for new managers:

1. “You are going to be judged by how well your team functions—the results your team delivers—so the people who now work for you are the most important people in your business life.”

2. Be aware that different people may have different feelings about you being promoted or hired as a manager.

3. Be careful with using your formal power and authority. “View the authority of the new position as you would a limited inventory.”

4. Your job, primarily, is not to direct, but to enable.

5. Make sure “that your people are properly challenged, that they’re appropriately recognized, that they’re rewarded when they perform well, and that they receive accurate and timely feedback on their performance.”

6. Begin distancing yourself from the details of all the tasks and concentrate on the broader picture

7. “[R]esist the temptation to make your old job your occupational hobby, simply because it is familiar and comfortable.”

8. “Just because you’re a manager doesn’t mean you’re equipped to handle every problem that comes your way… If you try to handle a situation beyond your professional competence, you run the risk of making the situation worse.” For example, relating to personal issues, like substance abuse.

9. You don’t need to know everything that the people on your team know. “You must know what needs to be done, not exactly how it’s done.”

10. “[N]ot only do you have to be prepared to embrace change and be a champion of it, but also to accept and support changes that you may disagree with. It is best to admit that you do not like the change (as your staff may already know this), but state that you will actively support it and expect your staff to support it as well.”

11. “Former employees are part of a company’s public. Can you handle it [firing people] in such a way that you don’t deplete your company’s storehouse of civic goodwill?”

12. “The best managers spend time finding out what motivates their employees, blend those motivations with the needs of the organization, then create an environment in which their employees can be successful.”

13. “There should never be any surprises at performance appraisal time. If you have done your job of communicating throughout the year and have continually told your employees how they are doing, you will never get a surprised response.”

14. “Getting information out clearly and effectively will reduce the opportunities for the grapevine to distribute inaccurate information about your operation.”

15. “Being a successful delegator requires you to accept and value the fact that the person taking on the task will do it differently than you will. But trust her judgment to select a course that will work and is likely different from the one you would choose.”

And there is much more good advice on managing up, running meetings, delegation, etc.

Having said that, there are some things about which you should be wary. With some I disagree, others I consider downright bad advice. Here are the most glaring examples:

1. The book suggests that management training “gives trainees the opportunity to see whether they will be comfortable leading others.” I disagree with that because training will highlight the difficulties of this career path but it won’t help you experience the benefits.
A much better way to determine if it is comfortable is to find a way to try it. For example, you can lead a small initiative while you are still an individual contributor. Another way is to find people in a leadership position and talk to them about their experiences.

2. “Sometime during the first sixty days in your new management position, you should plan on having a personal conversation with each of the people in your area of responsibility.
Don’t do this the first week or so. Give your people a chance to get used to the idea that you’re there.”
I don’t see anything wrong with talking to people in your first week. Putting off these conversations for a month or two won’t get you any benefits. Actually, one of your primary tasks in your new role is to build relationships with all the stakeholders.

3. The authors suggest that if a candidate is asking about how many vacation days they will have or which social activities the company sponsors, it is “a tip-off of an undesirable attitude.”
But these are quite important and natural things for a candidate to ask. If you want to check the candidate’s attitude there are better ways to do it rather than to assume that such a question is “a tip-off.”

4. The book presents the following approach for performance reviews:
“‘Do you think you’re getting close to the standards we’ve established for experienced employees?’ If the answer is yes, you could ask, ‘Do you believe you’re performing at the same level as an experienced employee?’ If the answer is again yes, then the employee may be out of touch with reality. The point is to continue asking questions of this type until you get the kind of response that will lead you into a discussion of the quality of the work.”
I don’t recommend such an approach. It’s not a game to shoot questions until you find the right one that gives you the answer you want to hear. It’s good to ask them what they think about their performance (because their view can be quite different from yours). But it’s also ok to be respectfully candid and tell them directly what you think, of course, providing the evidence which supports your view. Otherwise, you will show your people that you ask questions only to manipulate them into giving you the answers you are looking for.

5. “Titles don’t cost a company anything, so you ought to be liberal in using them as long as you maintain equity within the organization.”
I’d say that although there is certain flexibility it’s better to aim for equity within the industry. It’s not fair to people because they may discover that their current title is a fluke. For example, when they start looking for a job and discover their real level is far below what’s expected by other companies.

6. “If you want to put something into the grapevine as a test, first identify who you are going to use to access the network. Ask yourself, ‘Who in the organization would I tell if I wanted my information to be distributed as soon as possible?’ The answer to your question will lead you to one of the ‘head grapes.’ Entrusting him with information will guarantee it gets into the grapevine—and likely as soon as you walk away from his workstation.”
Not much to say about it. Just don’t do it! Ever!

To summarise, I would recommend this book to read once you have some experience. This book can be a good supplement when you are more confident in your approach and style as a manager and leader because you need to sift through the advice of different merit and use your judgment about what you will or will not accept. I for one was baffled at some advice (maybe it has to do with the age of the text) and amazed by the succinct and crisp phrasing of other advice.

I would give the book 3.5 stars out of 5.


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