What happens if you become a director without being a manager first?

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I’ve written before about managing at different levels: the skills you need to hone, what changes, what you start doing and what you stop doing. But recently I was asked: what happens if you skip the introductory level of being a line manager?

Of course, “manager” and “director” titles mean different things at different companies. In this newsletter, I compare what you learn in a small-to-medium-sized team to what happens when you’re a more senior manager (managing managers and multiple teams, or being responsible for a large swath of an organization)—and what you miss out on if you skip right to that senior level.

I’ve coached only a handful of folks through a job change like this, so it’s important to note that my perspective is based on a small sample size. But here are the themes I’ve seen:

  1. People who skip right to senior management work have to very quickly build up a thicker skin, and scale up their support network.
  2. People who skip being a line manager have to spend a lot more time up front figuring out what their default approach to leadership looks like, what it’s useful for, and when it won’t work—so they know when to try something else.

Below, I dive into these skill sets: why they’re important, what you miss out on by skipping line management experience, and how you can catch up. No matter where you are in your leadership journey, I hope this perspective is helpful!

Stay strong out there,

Weathering new-to-you storms

When you enter into your first management role, you have a rough sense of what’s in store: routine performance reviews, maybe some hiring, probably something about aligning work to business goals and creating a strategy for your team.

But the tough parts of management aren’t always the things you’d expect. The pain can be sneaky: things you didn’t realize you’d be faced with, decisions where nobody wins, or critical moments when you can’t get all the information you need.

One big benefit to being a line manager first (before becoming more senior manager with additional strategic/leadership responsibilities) is that you begin to build your crew of support, which helps you weather organizational storms and gray areas. There are so many “firsts” that are awful and surprising and really hurt (and you don’t know what they are yet!).

Do yourself a favor and:

  1. Start to build out your Voltron crew of support. Establish new peer relationships, ask them questions, and offer to support them, too.
  2. Prioritize finding people who are extremely good at giving feedback. Ask them early to proactively give you feedback based on the work they see you do.
  3. Figure out—and document—all the things you typically need when you have to make a tough call. Do you always need a gut-check from a peer? Maybe you need to earmark an hour before the workday starts to get centered? What kinds of information/data/context do you typically need in order to feel solid?
  4. Identify healthy coping and processing mechanisms for the hard times. Therapy’s great. I found powerlifting to be extremely helpful, too.

People who skip an experience step (like being a manager of a small team first) need to REALLY QUICKLY ramp up the thickness of their skin for these new kinds of challenges and pain. There’s rarely “right” or clean answers and decisions. We all need something different to help us survive these moments; figure out what you personally need.

(By the way, my video course and book both provide exercises and templates for surviving these tough situations!)

Identify your default leadership style, so you know when you need to switch it up.

When you start out as a line manager, you begin to hone your approach to management. Each time you experience something new—having a difficult performance conversation, undoing some awful miscommunication, disagreeing with a leadership decision—you get one step closer to figuring out your leadership values and what you’re personally optimizing for.

If you skip the line manager step, you may have missed out on this slow, organic process. Never fear, you’ve got options!

What are you optimizing for?

I spend a lot of time exploring this in Resilient Management, so if you’re curious to dive deep or find more exercises, check out the book :)

The short version is: we are each optimizing for different things in our leadership roles. I might optimize for helping my teammates grow; you might be optimizing for creating transparency, making users’ lives measurably better, giving your teammates a ton of autonomy, etc.

None of these approaches are bad or good—they’re just different, have varying tradeoffs, and demonstrate how our individual values lead to optimizing for certain qualities, processes, or approaches over others.

I created this fill-in-the-blanks worksheet to help you brainstorm what you might be optimizing for in your leadership role. Once you’ve got a draft going, it’s important to identify when this approach to leadership is really useful, versus when you need to switch things up.

Switching up your approach

As your responsibility increases, and as you’re faced with more gray areas and new experiences, it’s important to know how to adapt your leadership approach based on what the context is, the people involved, the amount of urgency, etc. There are situations where your default instincts won’t cut it: people react poorly, your actions have an adverse impact, people lose trust in you, etc.

A lot of people get practice switching up their approach and managing outside their comfort zone when they’re leading a medium-sized team or multiple teams. So you might not have had an opportunity to practice yet!

Check out this blog post about learning when to switch up your approach. You’ll find coaching questions and tips for how to practice managing outside of your comfort zone—which is a lot of fun to do with the folks you’ve begun adding to your Voltron crew of support.

Gather lots of data. Watch how other leaders adapt their own approach, given the situation. See which leadership styles you might want to experiment with (or at least gain more experience doing—more on that here). The more practice and data you have about the skills and tools available to you as you lead, the more successful you’ll be in a senior management position.

(If you want to watch me practice managing outside my comfort zone, check out my Setting Expectations video course!)

Lara Hogan

Author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry.