Starting a new manager relationship

Starting a new management relationship can be a turbulent time on both sides, and we want to do our best to minimise disruption as much as possible. In this post I'll talk through some steps to help smooth over the process.

Whether through someone joining a company and meeting their manager for the first time, or moving manager for other reasons, this period can be full of mixed emotions. Central to making this partnership a success are the non-trivial elements of building trust and a relationship, and establishing an effective working pattern.

Having just started a new role myself, I’m taking on new managees and decided to share a document with my colleagues that brings together some of the most effective discussion points that I’ve used in the past. In case it’s useful either to future-me or others, here’s my approach to starting new relationships.

Please note that the following is basically a compilation of the great work from Lara Hogan (here and here), and my former colleagues Sam Jones, James Bedford, Matt Burrows, Oswaldo Hernandez, and Alan Wright, who’ve all shared their brilliant approaches and questions over the years, or worked with me extensively on handovers. I’ve added in some of my own points, but the main credit goes to them!

My process

When starting a new relationship, I like to follow a process of:

👋🏻 Initial hello and quick backgrounds ➡ 🤝 1:1:1 handover ➡ 🍵 Getting to know you better 1:1 ➡ 📜 Working agreement ➡ 🚀 Follow ups

🤝 Handovers

I prefer to do handovers using a 1:1:1 session format, which is basically a meeting with three people in it. This way everyone gets a chance to discuss key topics together, with both past and future managers chipping in thoughts as well as the person themselves. It may feel slightly weird, and a bit like “parents evening”, but try to mitigate this by the managee doing a lot of the talking rather than just listening to people talk about them. There may be points where it feels a bit awkward though, and it’s worth talking about this and making any adjustments needed.

It’ll also be important to recognise that there is also potential for weird power dynamics, and a desire to “impress” a future manager. Likewise, if the previous relationship had broken down, there could be potential for conflict. To try to mitigate these things, make sure you talk through the goals of the session and ground rules at the start!

Over time I’ve moved away from running through the agenda on the day, and I now aim to share the questions in advance in a document everyone can reference. Not everyone is great at thinking on the spot, and this also allows people to add in additional links or talking points if they wish. Here’s what I share:

The story of the managee since they came to the company

Ask the managee to talk through things like the following, with input from the outgoing manager.

  • where they came here from
  • why they came here
  • when did they start
  • which teams have they worked in
  • what major projects have they worked on, and how they’ve found them
  • what framework level are they’re on
  • anything else to tell a good story!

Have you had a long term career chat?

What are the person’s career aspirations and how was their manager supporting them with that?

What are their strengths, and what are they working on improving?

Include recent feedback and any themes

What goals have been set?

Focus both on any core expectations that have been set with the person, as well as stretch goals. It’s also useful to talk through the process you use to typically set goals, and how the person feels they get most value out of them.

What did the managee like about your management style and 1:1s?

Talk through both practical preferences (e.g. prefers walking 1:1s over sitting in an office - moot right now, but hey!), and more general likes and dislikes in a managerial relationship. It’s also a good opportunity to ask whether they’d like to do anything differently going forward, or try anything new.

What will the old manager commit to doing as an ongoing sponsor?

Depending on the model of management that your business is using, people may change managers across different time periods. Even if a line management relationship is ending it doesn’t have to be the end of the person’s involvement. At this point I’d try to encourage the outgoing manager to commit to being a sponsor for their old report, and visualise how this would work.

Booking in new 1:1s

The practical stuff! What are their preferences for this going forward (frequency, duration, days, times etc)? Who’s responsible for booking them in as an action?

Is there anything else I should know, or you’d like to talk about in this group?

And finally, the old catch-all.

📜 Early 1:1 - working agreement

As a follow up from the handover, I’d recommend dedicating one or two early 1:1s to set up a “working agreement” between manager and managee. This is intended to be a way to get to know each person a bit better, and to agree how to approach the manager/managee relationship.

This shouldn’t necessarily be the first 1:1, as it’s better with some level of trust, safety, and existing relationship.

Both manager and managee should again have the questions shared in advance, and both should talk through their own answers in the 1:1. There’s quite a lot here, and you don’t have to talk through as if it’s a script; just use what you both feel is most important to discuss.

It can be great to take shared notes, and for that document to be stored somewhere both people can refer to in the future.

Happiness and energy levels

  • What makes you happy, in and out of work?
  • What makes you grumpy?
  • What does being stressed look like for you? How do you like to handle stress and how can I help in those scenarios?
  • What parts of your job do you really enjoy?
  • What parts of your job do you find hard?
  • Are there any signs that I should watch out for when you may be in a bad place?
  • What are you most proud of achieving over the last year?
  • If there was one thing you could change about this/your last company, what would it be?

For the manager:

  • Why did you get into Engineering Management?
  • What’s your management style?

Expectations

  • What do you want/expect from your manager?
  • What does the manager want/expect from the managee?

Practical stuff

  • What do we both need to do to have really valuable 1:1s?
  • How do you like to get feedback?

Our relationship

  • How’s best to get to know you/build trust?
  • What hasn’t worked so well in a manager/managee relationship in the past? (for both to answer)
  • If we’re going to end up having friction/not working well together, how do you think this could play out?
  • What would be the biggest mistake that I could make?

Celebrations

  • Do you enjoy public or private celebrations and thanks?
  • What’s your favourite way to treat yourself?

🚀 Potential follow-ups

After you’ve established the basics, it’s time to move onto building the relationship and understanding even further. Some good topics to move on to can include:

  • Talking through, or helping to develop a big picture career vision
  • Helping someone to understand their strengths and weaknesses
  • Setting goals (both longer and shorter term)
  • Talking through motivational factors and core needs
  • Discussing whether the person tends to focus on supercharging their strengths, rounding out weaknesses, or a balance of both
  • Reflecting on the past year, or the person’s career so far, and what they can learn from it

These are all big topics in their own right, so perhaps more to come on those in time! For now, I hope that this is useful to others… or just to future me!

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash