How to work with a new manager

Since I started at Camden, I’ve got an unusual situation in that I have two managers rather than one, almost like having “professional parents”, although thankfully they don’t treat me like kids. It’s unusual, but it actually makes sense. Often policy makers can be perceived as being isolated in an ivory tower of abstract strategic frameworks that have no connection with the lived experience of frontline staff, let alone residents.

We report in hierarchically into the corporate centre and treat the organisational narrative (which we often create) like gospel, blindly believing that if only everything worked in the way our diagrams elegantly describe. I have a line manager who reports into the Chief Executive who sets the direction for the organisation and how we work and I have a manager who’s an Executive Director who prioritises the change she’d like to see and the key areas where it’s needed.

What this means is that I work on both developing strategic frameworks, partnerships and coalitions for the overall borough and working on the ground to test change with frontline staff, residents and local organisations. This helps create a constant feedback loop between the theory and practice.

Anyway, going back to my managers, it’s not quite like having two parents with their distinctive personalities and one being more paternal and the other more paternal. But I still find it really valuable to be guided, nurtured and challenged by two different people (disclaimer: I’m not suggesting they’re the only people that do that).

The support I provide them is different. One is more how I lead and develop my service and other how I can support the organisation to deliver strategic priorities, through testing, learning and scaling change in relational, open and innovative ways. Being based in two different directorates, I also get to immerse myself and have to influence two different cultures.

Whether or not you have one or two managers, what do you at the start of your relationship with them? How do you prepare? Like any relationship, I’ve found it’s important to build trust, be curious about who they are and share who you are too. Ultimately though, aren’t you there to do work for them, so shouldn’t you start with that?

I’ve made the mistake in the past to start with the practicalities — what will their responsibility be to me and vice versa, when and how should I report updates to them and what work do they need me to do. All of that is important and there’s nothing worse than ending up unclear and frustrated about who’s responsible for what, misunderstanding what you’re meant to be working on and not having regular 121s.

Maybe though, don’t jump in with a transactional way of dealing with your manager, as that’s what your relationship might end up being. With your manager not being able to sense what challenges stress you out, what opportunities would excite you and how they could help.

1. Understand their personality and style

Get to know who they are as a person, before getting to know what their responsibilities are as a manager. Everyone has a different style, some prefer being visual, others being creative, analytical, logical or interpersonal. Most are a mix. While you might have the best structured statistics, they may prefer a compelling story to really get them focused.

It’s not just about how they communicate or learn, it is also about who they are in terms of their values, what their journey has been to get to where they are now and other things they’re comfortable sharing with you to build trust. This shouldn’t just be a one way conversation, otherwise it might feel like you’re trying to be their therapist!

Share who you are, model the trust you want to build by sharing more than just what you’re working on, including things that might be difficult to share, like what you struggle with, how you cope with stress, but also exciting stuff, like what you’re passionate about and what opportunities you’d like to develop.

I’ve found sharing my journey about how I got to where I am really reminded me of how my first job in local government really shaped my outlook on what gets me up in the morning.

Initially a temporary job, I worked on a programme supporting asylum seekers who had been housed across the country. It meant influencing different organisations in different local areas to broker support — from the GP to getting a place in school, via getting a landlord to fix a bath, stepping out of my comfort zone and the office to act up as a social worker, but most importantly being prepared to advocate and go out of my way for what I believed in.

Rather than share your CV, that type of story is far more powerful and who knows, it could help the person listening share theirs.

2. Understand their motivations for the role

You’ve started to get to know them as a person. What drives them? That’s a great platform to find out what they want to do with their role. How do they want to lead the team or organisation? What style of leadership do they have? What scale of change do they want to implement? How do they want to do it? How can you support them?

They may be new to the organisation, or know it inside out. That changes things. If they already know the organisation, they will want to get your views on what needs to change, but if they’re new, they’ll first want to understand the organisational culture, how things really work, what is it that actually drives change and what blocks it, who do they need to meet and build relationships with, what do they need to see to experience the organisation.

They will need all of that as much if not more than your views, as they need to experience the culture first. So, depending on whether they’re new or not, how you support them may differ.

3. Discuss how best to support them

By this point, you’ll have got to know each other and what are their motivations and priorities for the role. How can you best support them?

This is an opportunity to review how you supported your previous manager and what could be improved. More importantly, start with your new manager’s motivations and priorities and think afresh.

Involve your team as they’ve got skin in the game in terms of supporting your manager deliver the priorities and…ideas, lessons learned and connections. Ideas that they wouldn’t have thought of before, but given the mission your boss has set you could spark new ideas. Skills that you didn’t know (and maybe even they didn’t) they had, that suddenly become important. As it’s exciting as it might be for you, they won’t have the privilege to have been part of the conversation with your manager.

Share your networks with them as that’s an extended part of who you are (i.e. innovative organisations that could help them, person that gives a very different perspective than others might, someone who you haven’t collaborated with). There’s an opportunity for your boss to influence a new organisational relationship.

What have been your experiences with new managers? How have you prepared? How did you feel before and after? What did you learn?

Share this post with people you know who are starting a new job, going to have a new boss…or going to become a new manager. It would be great to get their thoughts, feelings and any practical tips!

Head of Strategy (Communities) @camdencouncil #localgov Director @euroalter Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese