From Contributor to Manager: Essential Skills for Success

young black business professional leading a meeting

By Michelle Venturini 

The skills needed to be a high performing individual contributor are very similar to the skills needed to be an effective manager. The difference is how the skills are applied. 

New managers are often surprised that their previous communication approach falls short or that their previous time management method doesn’t accommodate the new demands on their time. 

This is because the scope and objective of the job is different. As an individual contributor you’re responsible for your own deliverables. As a manager, you have your own responsibilities, plus you’re accountable for the results of work done by your team members.  

Getting work done through others requires a new application of familiar skills. 

Communication is Key 

Managers must ensure team members, senior leaders, stakeholders, and internal and external customers have the information needed to make decisions and do their work. That sounds obvious, but it complicates your perspective.  

When you get new information in a management meeting, you must think about which team member needs it for their project. Then you must find time to relay the information and answer questions.  

Another change is that your audiences have expanded, and you need more communication tools so you can use the tool that’s right for the topic, audience, and urgency of the message.  

In the past you might have relied on email or instant messaging. As a manager, you must know when a meeting is appropriate, when email can be used, when one person needs to know, when multiple people need to know, and you need the agility to effectively use the best communication tool for the situation. 

Empathy Builds Trust 

Everyone needs empathy skills. Managers need empathy skills on steroids. Here’s why: Trust is the first and most important ingredient in your manager success recipe. If your team doesn’t trust you, they’re not going to give you their best or commit to the team’s goals.  

Empathy, when done sincerely, is the fastest way to build and sustain trust.  

Empathy isn’t:  

  • Problem solving 
  • Sharing your own experience 
  • Giving advice 

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and understand, without judgement, the impact that circumstances are having on them. It’s:  

  • “That must be awful.”  
  • “I appreciate how hard this is for you.”  
  • “It means a lot to me that you trusted me with this information.”  

When you’re a manager, you have to offer empathy to every team member, when they need it. Even when you’re busy, even when you have a deadline, even when you are tired and in need of a dose of empathy yourself.  

Finely tuned empathy skills are the difference between a good manager and a great one. 

Time Management is Crucial 

I still remember struggling with time management in my first job after college. I was used to syllabi, advanced notice of assignments, and set work schedules. Suddenly, I had unexpected requests from all sides and complete autonomy about how I met them.  

The learning curve was steep, but I eventually found something that works for me. I think everyone goes through some version of this experience. Prepare to go through it again with your first management role.  

As a manager, you manage timelines for your own deliverables, plus build in flexibility to accommodate unexpected “do you have a minute?” conversations with team members and senior leaders. And you have to stay on top of team goals. 

It’s a lot, and it can be overwhelming. Be patient with yourself and transparent with your team while you work through the transition.  

Coaching is Not What You Think 

Athletic coaches who roam the sidelines or dugout are very directive, calling in plays and pitches that they expect to be executed without question. Managers with a coaching mindset do the exact opposite.  

Instead of giving directions, they ask questions. Questions are powerful. They convey that you’re ready to listen, the other person won’t have to compete for your time, and you don’t have all the answers.  

In a coaching context, well-constructed questions lead the person being coached on a self-discovery journey. You teach them how to fish. Developing a good coaching technique takes time and practice.  

Questions should be asked with no pre-conceived expectation about the answer. Otherwise, it’s just another conversation with an employee. It’s an artform, but it’s magic when you get it right. 

Are You Ready to Delegate? 

Job enrichment is a powerful retention tool. It makes employee’s jobs more interesting, provides a learning challenge, and sets employee’s up for future opportunities.  

Here are some guidelines for effective delegation 

  1. Delegate meaningful work. Asking an employee to make 10 widgets instead of eight isn’t delegation. Asking an employee to increase widget-making efficiency by 5% is. 
  2. Only delegate if you’re willing to accept that the result will look different than it would if you were doing the work. Editing a draft until it looks and sounds like you is worse than not delegating at all.  
  3. Talk to the employee about your expectations and how they’ll be measured. Often employees say they want delegated work without understanding that new deliverables come with heightened expectations.  
  4. Make it ok to decline the work without repercussion. 

Become an effective delegator and everyone will benefit. 

Assess Your Skills 

Assessing your effectiveness in these and other key management skills is essential as you prepare to transition from individual contributor to a leadership or management role. There is a lot of overlap between individual contributor skills and manager skills, but the degree of expertise, usage, and importance of those skills is different. 

Download and use this Management Skills Assessment to identify which skills you want to prioritize and focus your development efforts. A little preparation can improve your readiness and chance of success as a new manager. 

Michelle Venturini is a CPED instructor and an independent consultant providing HR consulting services and coaching. She has more than 25 years of leadership and operations experience across all HR functions. She has earned her SPHR designation and holds an MBA from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.