Wi12 Education: Best Practices for First-Time Managers

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    The Winter Institute session “Best Practices for First-Time Managers,” held on Sunday, January 29, featured Lani Basa, owner and CEO of The Business Women’s Circle in Minneapolis, and Cindy Dach, co-owner of Changing Hands Bookstore, which has locations in Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona. The session was moderated by Mary Magers of Magers & Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis.

    Basa, whose work with The Business Women’s Circle was preceded by more than 20 years in strategic development, leadership coaching, and professional development with Target, provided a handout that summarized key challenges and best practices for booksellers entering managerial roles, as well as a variety of recommended reading on leadership and management.

    One of the first challenges a new manager will face is the need to change their mindset, said Basa, as becoming a manager means becoming a decision-maker, developing initiatives for change, and training and inspiring others. “The biggest thing in becoming a new manager is getting ready for that shift, because you’re going from that individual contributor to managing others’ contributions. That is really different,” she said.

    “Get into a growth mindset. At the beginning, you feel useless and you’re not sure where to go or how to act. Get used to learning every day,” she added, encouraging booksellers to recognize and appreciate their victories, ask plenty of questions, and read.

    If nothing else, fake it until you make it, Basa said. “Even if you don’t feel calm and confident inside, if you can look calm and confident, after a certain time that becomes authentic.”

    Basa told booksellers to think about how well they know themselves as they enter the managerial role. “A key piece to being a great manager is understanding your strengths, your weaknesses, what it is that you want to contribute to the store as a manager, and what your personal values are and how they align with the store’s,” she said.

    Once a bookseller is in the managerial role, their manager or the store owner must be viewed as their partner, not their adversary. “You want to work with them in that new role. You want to be able to see the world through their eyes if you can, to better understand what they are trying to achieve, what goals they’re going after, because you’re a big part of making those things happen,” said Basa.

    Schedule a time to have a conversation with your manager, she said, and plan to ask them a series of questions that can help lay the groundwork for a positive working relationship. Some topics to cover are the best ways to communicate with them, their key strengths and weaknesses, and their top priorities.

    New managers should also make a point to get to know each person on their team, including their strengths, what they plan to bring to the table, what work they enjoy doing, and what is important to them.

    “One of the most important things I used to do as a manager in a new area was trying to find out what they expected of me,” added Basa. The first thing Basa would make clear is that she couldn’t read minds, so she encouraged staff to come to her with questions or concerns. “You can’t help solve an issue or a problem or a concern if you don’t know what it is,” she said. “I was always upfront with my team members about that.”

    Dach, who came to Changing Hands as an event manager and later became the marketing director, said communication difficulties among the store employees and departments proved to be a continual problem for the store. “We kept hitting this ceiling of success and profitability because there was this lack of communication,” she said.

    When Dach took on the role of general manager, she sent a survey to the store’s other managers that asked questions about why each had accepted the job they were in and whether they were prepared for the positions. “It was really insightful,” she said. “I don’t know why I didn’t do that a long time ago.”

    Managers at bookstores are often given very little training as to how to be an effective manager, said Dach. While Changing Hands has a Wordpress training manual for booksellers that has successfully reduced training time, Dach is currently working on an operations manual for managers that addresses how to manage irritable customers, transients, shoplifting, and gossip.

    “Nothing bonds people faster and quicker than negative gossip, because it’s empowering, it feels devious,” said Dach. Talk with booksellers about how destructive that can be, she suggested, and consider not allowing negative people to continue working at the store.

    Basa noted that hiring people who align with the store’s values can ensure they will more easily fit into the culture of the store and that being transparent is critical. For example, she said, if managers go offsite for a meeting, let the staff know what was talked about or else it could start up negative gossip. “Whenever you have that negativity, address it right away. Eventually, it goes away because they’ll learn there’s no tolerance for it,” Basa said.

    When booksellers become managers, it can affect their relationship with their peers, said Dach. It’s important to be clear about why a person was chosen to be a manager, but also to provide critiques and praise to all employees.

    In contrast to the mantra of “critique privately, praise publicly,” Dach said to be sure to provide private praise as well, because in larger groups sometimes the praise does not sink in. “Just praising people has changed the culture of our store,” she said.

    Changing Hands has implemented a 30-, 60-, and 90-day “check-in” schedule that provides both the employee and the employer with a forum to have a conversation. “These check-ins take a long time, but they propel our store forward,” said Dach.

    Employees are provided with a clear description of the responsibilities they need to successfully take on in order to remain employees. If they are not meeting expectations, employees will often opt out of their job when their review time comes up.

    To address potential burnout, staff are encouraged to write down everything they do on time management grids to identify what they can get off their plate. Included are categories for interruptions and phone calls, said Dach, because those can take up a surprising amount of time. The grids help employees figure out how to better plan and structure their day.

    “The biggest thing when there’s burnout is to talk about it,” said Basa. A constructive conversation can help booksellers identify what they like doing and what they’re good at, and perhaps certain responsibilities can be traded among staff.

    Above all, managers need to be sure they are taking care of themselves, said Basa. “If you don’t have the time to recharge and refresh, you can’t help others do the same.”