NEW YORK — As companies lay off workers and change the job descriptions of others, some employees are getting a big surprise: They're managing people for the first time. • For most people, becoming a manager isn't an easy task. First-timers face challenges that range from rallying co-workers, some of whom might not be happy with their new bosses, to coping with piles of additional paperwork. • Where to begin? Personnel consultants say new managers should start by meeting with their own bosses to clarify the expectations of the position. Some managers, for example, are expected to oversee other employees while also retaining their previous responsibilities. Others may simply be tasked with boosting the performance of the entire group. • Asking questions like "What do you want me to do?" and "Why did you hire me?" can go a long way in helping managers crystalize their responsibilities within an organization, said Thomas O. Davenport, a principal with human resources consultancy Towers Perrin. • A few other tips for stepping into a first-time management role with relative ease:
Shift your focus
As an employee, it's natural and important to focus on your individual performance. But as a manager, you're now responsible for helping other people do well, and that means you need to change your perspective.
Get comfortable stepping into an authoritative role, and realize that character traits that may have gotten you ahead in business before, such as a cutthroat competitiveness, could now work against you.
Many managers, out of sheer insecurity, feel the need to constantly one-up their employees, said Curt Coffman, a management consultant and co-author of First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently. That's a big mistake, though, since it can stifle employees' creativity. It can also damage managers' credibility by suggesting they feel threatened by staff members.
Instead of telling workers "don't be better than me," managers should encourage them to aspire to excellence, he said.
Get to know your people
To get their employees to succeed, new managers need to relate to staffers on an individual level. To start doing that, Coffman said it can be helpful to set up breakfast meetings, lunches or even informal barbecues with employees to understand what motivates them.
"Every manager should know ... what makes each person tick," he said. "What do they get the greatest satisfaction out of? What are those things that they've done that they felt incredibly fulfilled in?"
Of course, in a time of transition, employees may be weary of opening up to a boss or taking orders from someone new, especially if that person was formerly a colleague.
So, to rally the team, managers should look for "quick wins," or small victories that can build positive momentum early on, said Susan Ashford, a professor of management at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.
Simple changes such as getting an unpopular rule reversed or improving a much-despised expense reporting system can do wonders toward building support for a new manager, Ashford said.
Managers can then use the newfound goodwill to push through new strategies or other changes.
Constantly evaluate your progress — and priorities
First-timers can lose focus of their priorities as they struggle to cope with the onslaught of additional work. That tends to create situations where managers overstretch themselves or lose touch with their actual goals.
To stay on track, beginners need to take time every two weeks to reassess their progress, said Linda Hill, a Harvard Business School professor and the author of Becoming a Manager: How New Managers Master the Challenges of Leadership.
Her advice: "Literally step back and look at how you've spent your time, given what's really important to the organization."
University of Michigan's Ashford said some of the best advice she ever received came from a manager who told her he simply tries to accomplish three tasks a day.
It may sound small, she said, but when new mangers are facing "a million and one things" to do, deciding on the three most important goals can be highly productive.
Work to overcome self doubts
New managers often struggle to overcome another challenge: insecurity.
Peter Eickelberg, the senior investment officer at Phoenix wealth management and investment planning firm Keats, Connelly and Associates LLC, was moved into a management role last year after his boss suddenly quit.
He now oversees four people, and said it was a tough transition.
"When you're a first-time supervisor, your own self doubt gets in the way," he said. "And you think, 'Why would these people look at me as a supervisor, when until yesterday, I was on the same level as they are?"
His advice: Recognize that power doesn't come immediately, and that it takes time and plenty of late hours to get fully organized and immersed in the role.
To build credibility, new managers should spend time simply observing and taking suggestions from their employees, Harvard's Hill said.
And be prepared for the fact that employees will be judging you from day one.
"Don't be paranoid about it," Hill said, "but, yes, people are watching your every move."