Compiling Leadership

15 years of building, leading, and managing; failures and successes

14 Dec 2019

First Time Manager Mistakes: Don't Be Friends First

Evolution did a horrible job preparing me to manage in a workplace. Prior to 13,000 years ago with the introduction of agricultural societies, strong management skills were almost certainly selected against. Speaking loudly and carrying an even larger stick was in. Leading with vulnerability and subtly nudging people to improve undoubtedly led to short lifespans and few offspring. Leaders often were the biggest, strongest, and best with tools. During the following 13 millennia, countless leaders have proven that leadership no longer requires loud speech and proficiency with tools and weapons.

“Yeah, humanity can naturally manage ourselves now. I won't need any special training. Even better, I'm a middle child - I embody all the necessary peacemaking traits a manager needs,” I reasoned. I then dove in head first and proceeded to make a ton of rookie mistakes because I followed my instincts. The first mistake was prioritizing friendship with my team above all else.

I didn't notice it until crunch time when my relationships became strained between what the company required from my team and what made my team happy1. Your team has a range of desires, such as personal growth and work life balance that will sometimes clash with the company's goals of predictable work and long term planning.

As a manager I focused really hard on the left side of the diagram. My assumption was if I could over index on my team's happiness, I would fulfill my Middle-Child-Destiny and have a harmonious team solving problems together while delivering value for the company. This Utopia existed for a very blissful quarter, but quickly the company saw that our team could do more and they asked me to produce that value.

Within the context of the company, this is a fantastic position to be in because the sky is the limit. From the context of my team though, not everyone wanted to get on board. It was at this point that my personal relationships with the team became strained. Suddenly, I was aligning with the company and asking my friends to work toward new goals at odds with their own. And to no surprise there was a lot of friction and I lost a lot of respect. I needed to metamorphosize into something different.

I spent the following six months changing not into a cockroach, but from a friend-first manager into a more effective manager. I'll lay out the major levers I focused on here.

1. Trust and respect come first

This should go without saying, but without mutual trust and respect a management career will be non-rewarding and short-lived. One way to create trust and respect is to go down the friend route. I mean, this is how we've been trained to generate trust and respect outside the workspace, why not inside the workspace too?

One management coach helped me understand the difference here which I paraphrase as:

The difference is building a professional understanding of each other rather than a personal one. This isn't cold or robotic, it's just a different focus.

To apply it to my own journey, this is the difference between the questions “what are your career goals and what have you done so far to get there?” and “What is your friend group like? Let's hang out outside of work so I can get to know you around them.” The former question is decidedly not a social friendship but will begin building trust and respect. The latter will do the same but in a decidedly less professional context.

2. Align expectations and allow for feedback

Kimber Lockhart described 1:1s really well and I tend to apply her thoughts to management as a whole. She specifically points out that

The ultimate goal of a 1:1 is to establish a regular cadence of meeting with each individual on your team, aligning expectations and facilitating feedback.

Appropriating this to management as a whole: Your ultimate goal is to align expectations and give feedback that helps the individual move in a direction that is beneficial for the company. As an excellent manager, you will find times where company goals align well with the individual, but the first step is to ensure the individual is helping the company.

3. Exit stage left

Once you are a manager (and not a friend) first, you won't really be a part of the group anymore socially. Having a drink or lunch with the team is perfectly okay and you should, but realize you are not just one of the group. Effectively, your role has changed and you should feel comfortable departing from the team socially.

Once you've checked these boxes, you'll be on your way to managing effectively without being friends.

Stay tuned for more from the First Time Manager Mistakes series. I will publish one of these every month.


  1. This will happen at any successful and growing company. A non-successful company can always prize employee happiness over goals because, well, they aren't hitting them anyway. A company that is not growing will often look at retention as a goal and thus can prize employee happiness and fulfillment because they constitute the company's longevity. In all other cases though the company (and by transitivity a manager) treats employees as resources out of necessity. ↩︎

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