Advice from peers: How to succeed in your first management position

By Emma Smith 20 March 2017

We spoke to global development professionals in mid-level and senior level positions to hear their advice for surviving and succeeding your first management position. Photo by: WOCinTech Chat / CC BY

Your first experience in a management position can be both exciting and daunting as you learn on the job what it means to oversee people, programs and budgets. This is particularly the case in the global development sector, where resource-strapped organizations may not have a training budget or program in place to guide early-career managers.

“It's a huge learning curve,” says Maya El Hage, an operations manager for a global development organization in Lebanon who has been in her role just over a year. “You develop skills personally and professionally, and you are exposed to a lot of different people, different ideas, different stakeholders, different organizations.”

We spoke to global development professionals in mid-level and senior level positions to hear their advice for surviving and succeeding in your first management position. Here is what they said.

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Get to know the organization

If you ended up in this position through an internal promotion, you will already be familiar with how things work within the organization. Otherwise, take some time to learn about the processes in place and the people you will manage. Look for opportunities for improvements and make suggestions, but these solutions should be shaped by the opinions of the people on your team as well.

Massimo Alone works as a country director for an Ethiopian-based organization and has years of experience working in management for international nongovernmental organizations. His advice is to “try to understand the culture of the organization.”

“There are always internal challenges,” he says, but seek to understand the “which and why,” including “resistances to new ideas, if the management is supportive of changes or not.”

Knowing the politics and personalities of your organization will help you strategize how to work with — not against — them.

It’s all about learning on the job

With everyone we spoke to, there was one consensus: While there are courses out there to prepare you for management positions, you will develop a lot of the skills needed to succeed as a manager as you go. Not everything will go perfectly the first time around, so be willing to make mistakes, realize it’s not the end of the world, and learn from them.

El Hage described how management was also about knowing the systems specific to your organization and sector. For example, she had to take a crash course in the financing, budget, spending and monitoring compliances required in her new operations management role. “It’s a skillset you acquire by practice and by being exposed to different donors,” she concluded.

People skills

According to El Hage, skills in people management is the most important thing she has learned and “the trickiest part of any managerial role.” Even those professionals who are good at budget or program management might struggle with this aspect of the role.

Building good relations and trust with your team is also important when it comes to decision-making, said Tania Bernath, who has extensive management experience of field-based evaluations and projects.

“You have to be decisive. There’s a lot of variable in this work and you don't always have access to perfect information to make decisions. You have to develop people around you that you really trust,” she said. “I think also being able to navigate the national versus international staff issues is critical too, and really respecting everybody.”

Ask for help

Reach out to other professionals in your organization or in the sector, particularly those who have been in your position. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” said Amy Mulcahy, who has worked in global development programs in several countries.

“Especially in this sector, you are not in competition ever with your peers. In our line of work we all have the exact same goal, so it’s completely accepted and encouraged to pull people in on your work, to help people out, to communicate about what you’re doing, because so much of it can overlap and you can help each other,” she added.

If you work at a smaller organization, young professional networking groups can be a great way to build this support network.

See what works and replicate it

Mulcahy also described a situation where after a reorganization, she quickly went from working under the direction of someone to leading on everything in her new region. Rather than try to do it alone, she still relied on the experience of her former supervisor and in some cases, she adopted and replicated his approach.

“There was no value in me just feeling like I was an island. I would still watch what he was doing in his region, pull on his experience, even copying programs he had and seeing what would work in my region.”

Becoming a great manager is not an innate trait or something that necessarily happens over night. Iterating as you go, being open to feedback and having confidence that you were put in a management capacity for a reason will help you navigate the early days of leadership.

No matter if you're a recent graduate looking for your first job in the field or an executive level professional looking for your next leadership challenge, Career Navigator offers articles, reports, videos and online events to help guide you on the first step, or next step, of your professional journey. Where do you want to go?

About the author

Emma Smith

Emma Smith is a reporting and communications associate at Devex, based in Barcelona. She focuses on bringing the latest career and hiring trends, tips, and insights to our global development community. Emma has a background in journalism and, in addition to writing for news publications, has worked with organizations focusing on child rights and women’s rights in sustainable development.

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