How to get started in management (even if you have no experience)

“How can I ever get experience if no one will take a chance on me so I can gain some experience?” This is a dilemma that many face when trying to move into a management role. I asked this question more than once early in my career and revisited it recently with a colleague who was grappling with the same issue. Managers are entrusted with responsibility for an organisation’s people and resources. Those appointing new managers want to be confident they are placing the organisation’s resources in capable hands. Prior experience is still the most accurate predictor of whether someone will be successful in a role, so building a track record is crucial. There are ways however that you can start building management experience even if it’s not your current job.

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Landing your first role as a team leader or manager is not the kind of outcome that will happen on a whim. But if moving into a management role is one of your goals, there are a number of things you can do now to increase your chances of success when opportunity knocks. In the short-term you may not see financial rewards for this effort, but in the longer-term it will pay off. If nothing else you’ll learn new skills and demonstrate that you’re prepared to take the initiative — something that employers value in every role.

This is far from an exhaustive list, but here’s some ideas that may help you get started in moving toward a management role:

Prepare

Plan

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Find out what’s required. Obtain position descriptions for roles that you aspire to. Look at advertised roles in other firms as well as roles in your current organisation. These will provide insights about the skills and experience employers want so you can craft a plan to develop in these areas.

Discuss your management aspirations with your supervisor. Your own manager is in a great position to help you build the experience you need. Tell them about your aspirations to lead others. You need to be in the driver’s seat of your career. If your supervisor doesn’t know where you want to go they will find it tough to help you. (I’m assuming you have at least a reasonable working relationship with your boss. If you’re not on good terms, this might not be the best place to start.)

Be open to feedback. Ask for feedback on both your strengths and areas that you may need to work on to succeed as a manager. Approach feedback as an opportunity to increase your awareness and improve, rather than as criticism. Talk to your supervisor and others you interact with regularly to gather a range of perspectives.

Build a development plan. Management roles will require you to perform a much broader range of tasks than you’ve probably encountered in other roles. While the requirements of individual roles vary, skills in areas such as finance and budget management, human resource management, recruitment and selection, process performance management, project management, implementing change, and strategic planning may be required. Well-run performance management processes will provide an opportunity to discuss training and development for future roles. Use these occasions to map out development activities which will help establish your management capabilities.

Learn as much as you can

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Attend formal training. There are countless opportunities to learn more about management — from books and blog articles right through to university studies in management. Many larger organisations run internal leadership development programs which you might be able to attend. Learn whatever you can and look for opportunities to integrate these techniques into your work.

Find a mentor. Having someone who’s already travelled the road you are taking can really help you negotiate difficulties and provide a sounding board for choices you’ll need to make along the way. Larger organisations may have formal mentoring programs, but don’t limit yourself to these. Check out this article for further ideas.

Observe managers in action. You can learn much from the example of others. Watch how they conduct meetings, communicate, address issues and deal with people. Not all the examples you see will be positive, but sometimes you can learn as much from a badly managed situation as you can from a well managed one. You’ll see many different approaches from different people. Take notes about situations where you see both positive and negative examples and use these to shape your own approach.

Ask questions. Ask other managers questions about techniques you see them use that you think could be useful. Most people will be happy to share their expertise or point you toward other resources.

Draw on your past experience

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Perhaps you’re dismissing relevant past experience. Management skills are generally transferrable to different contexts. Have you ever supervised other staff in a part-time job? Have you held a leadership role in a church, community or sporting group? Obviously the closer the situation is to what’s required in the role the better placed you are. All these past experiences can strengthen your case so don’t forget to draw on them.

Build real experience

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Step up. Take on responsibilities that go beyond you existing role. Demonstrate a willingness to assume greater levels of responsibility and to do more than is required and new opportunities are sure to follow. The simplest selection processes I’ve been involved with were ones where someone else in the team has already demonstrated they can do the job. This provides a high level of confidence in appointing them to the role.

Fill in for your boss. Actually managing others is one of the best ways to build experience. There’s nothing like walking a mile in someone else’s shoes to see the world from their perspective. Perhaps you can take on at least some of your boss’s duties while she’s on holidays. If your manager is unavailable when an issue arises work towards resolving the issue rather than simply referring it on when she gets back.

Assist your supervisor with specific tasks. You might not be ready to prepare your team’s budget or write the next strategic plan, but you might be able to assist your supervisor by working on specific management tasks. For example, perhaps you can work with him on preparing cost estimates for a new project. Even if it’s not perfect, this will save some work for your supervisor while building your experience.

Look outside of your team and your organisation. Don’t limit yourself to management roles in your current workgroup or company. Your background and experience may be just what another organisation needs.

Solve a problem. All teams have some process that is causing grief but hasn’t yet made it to the top of the priority list. Think about some options for resolving an issue and write up a proposal outlining potential solutions. It doesn’t even need to be a huge issue. Resolving a problem that that only burns a minute or two each time it occurs can bring big savings if it happens hundreds of times each month.

Use the experience of colleagues to get input about areas you aren’t familiar with. Even if your proposal is incomplete, it will provide a head start for further development, increase your capability and demonstrate initiative.

Lead a project. Projects were the main vehicle I used to build experience in planning, budgeting, understanding stakeholder needs, and in managing people, resources and risk. It started out very small. At first I was a one-man-band handling both the planning and implementation work. With each successful outcome came more responsibility. Before long I had one or two others on the team and built skills in managing other staff.

Once confined to the construction and IT industries, the project approach to work is now widespread in all kinds of businesses. Do a good job with something small and larger, more interesting (and more daunting) opportunities will follow.

Remember to discuss project management opportunities with your supervisor. If your proposal from the previous tip is well received, you may be able to put forward a case to lead the implementation.

Winning your first management appointment can be tough and the path is different for everyone. I hope your journey will be a little smoother by applying some of these ideas.

Question: what other methods have you used to build up your experience in managing teams?

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