What new managers wish they’d known

By Dawn Wotapka

When Dalton Sweaney, CPA, became a manager five years ago, he admits to feeling nervous, anxious, and intimidated. But he quickly realized that the role suited him: "It blended two things I'm hard-wired for — solving problems and building relationships," recalled Sweaney,

Executive career coach Irene McConnell, however, had a bumpier start. McConnell, managing director of Arielle Executive, a global search and career advisory practice that works with CFOs and top accounting firms, feared losing respect and was too lenient. Missed deadlines resulted. "Having responsibility doesn't mean I can't be a little firm with my team," she recalled learning. "I learned how to say 'no.'"

When it comes time to transition into leadership, there is often no instruction manual. Instead, you learn as you go. Here are some tips for new managers to keep in mind:

Do your research. A key priority is to understand where your position fits in the broader business by networking in and outside of your department. If possible, talk to the person whose role you are filling. "The more you understand and research your role, the more you'll figure out how your team contributes to the company," said Elisabeth Duncan, vice president of human resources at Evive, a Chicago-based technology company that uses data to personalize messaging that increases employee engagement and benefits utilization. "You can make informed decisions and develop intelligent strategies."


Balance change. As you dig in, think about what works — and what doesn't. "Don't be afraid to change some of the old traditions," Duncan advised. Sweaney said he quickly pushed for more remote work. "That decision was somewhat of a spark plug for what our firm has always been about — family first," he said.

However, don't rush to alter everything at once, said Jessica Iennarella, CPA/CFF, a controller with the State Bar of Arizona who manages four people. "Hold off on making proclamations about how things are going to be done from now on," she said. "If you try to change too much the second you get in the door, it gets challenging to backtrack from that later."

Get to know your team. It is critical to build a bond with the people who work for you, Duncan advised. Meet with each of your direct reports to understand their job challenges and career goals. Ask what they like about their job, what they dislike, and what they'd change immediately. "Let each person explain their position in their own way," she advised. "This will help you understand their needs, evaluate workloads, and prepare performance and expectations."

Be sure to treat team members as individuals. Learn about their children, partners, and family situations. Acknowledge birthdays, anniversaries, and other special events, she said. "Employees want to feel heard, not just professionally, but personally as well," Duncan said.

Remember to customize your leadership approach based on what you learn about how each person communicates and responds. "Having a relationship lens in how you're approaching each team member is important," said Sweaney. "There's no cookie-cutter approach that works for everyone.

Listen and show compassion. From your first day, work to share important information when appropriate and set up individual one-on-one meetings so employees can raise concerns. "Consider either making time for team meetings or having an open-door policy for your employees to discuss any organizational or policy changes," Duncan said.

Sweaney's team knows that they can approach him any time his office door is open. "If you're paying your team to work and they're stuck, that's just not productive," he said. "We've never bought into the-partners'-time-is-so-valuable-that-you-don't-bother-them model."

You want to be compassionate with your employees but avoid being too friendly, which could make it harder to point out when someone isn't meeting performance objectives, Iennarella said. "I see this a lot, especially with new managers," she said. However, some people go "too far the other way, and they don't want to know anything," Iennarella said. "You make your employees feel disposable and that's not great, either."

Avoid gossip. It is crucial to avoid gossiping about managers, partners, clients, and/or co-workers, Iennarella said. "One of the things I see happening with managers is they want to commiserate with somebody who's on their team," she said. "I have fairly well-formed opinions, but I try very hard to keep them to myself."

It is particularly important to avoid idle chatter about upper management and the company overall. As a leader, "it's your job to put a smile on your face, show your support, foster an environment of trust, encourage teamwork, and align your team," said Duncan.

Delegate effectively. If you catch yourself wanting to do your old and new jobs, practice delegating. When done appropriately, this lets you focus on your job while helping others develop and grow, Duncan said. "Someone helped you develop the accounting skills and gain the experience for your new role, and now it's time to help employees take their skills to the next level," she said.

Assign tasks based on employee strengths and weaknesses. When Iennarella delegates, she tells the employee what she wants them to do and asks them to repeat the assignment back to her. This helps identify gaps in understanding and generates follow-up questions. "They'll come back with questions that they wouldn't have thought of until they started the process," she said.

Don't micromanage. The next objective is to balance checking in on progress without micromanaging. "There's a fine line between empowering people and walking away and not supervising enough," Iennarella said. "There's this tight middle space where you're keeping an eye on things, but you're not big brothering them to death."

Or, as Sweaney, who now manages four people, put it: "Avoid being overbearing. If you're not trusting your team to get the work done, you're not hiring the right people."

As you change roles, remember that no one is a perfect manager from day one, McConnell said. Keep at it, and you'll see progress. "Although I made my fair share of mistakes when I first became a manager, my team now sees me as an excellent leader and respects my position," she said.

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Georgia. To comment on this article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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