How to Transition to Management in 4 Effective Steps

Learn how to transition to management from individual contributor in 4 effective steps you can act upon right now

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So, you want to transition to management. This guide will provide you actionable steps that you can do right now to move from individual contributor to manager in a company. Unlike many other guides you find online, here we do not talk about philosophical internet junk like “develop your management style” or “communicate openly” that leave so much space to interpretation. No, we stick to specific things you can do and that are effective in most circumstances.

Definition of Transition to Management

Before we start to discuss the “how”, do you have a clear idea about the “what”?

Transition to management is moving from an individual contributor role to a manager role, where you have direct reports.

Simply put, you are “the boss” for a bunch of people. Transition to management will require you to use different skills from the ones you are used to in your IC role.

  • Interpersonal skills to communicate your view with your team, navigate conflicts and priorities.
  • Navigating levels, as you will need to know when to oversee at a high level and when it is time to dive deeper into the details.
  • Administrative skills, such as approving time off, scheduling shift, approving expense reports, evaluating pay and bonuses, or similar tasks.
  • Summarization, to condense information you get from your team into a simpler message to relay up the chain of command.

To execute a transition to management, you will need to develop those skills, and be sure people are aware you have them. You cannot wait for the company to formally give you a management role: putting a person that is not skilled enough in a management role is too risky for most companies. Instead, prove yourself worth of managing so that the next opportunity will be yours.

This is how you transition to management.

How to Transition to Management

To Transition to Management, Be a Secretary

To be a manager, be a secretary first. This step in the transition to management is probably the gatekeeper for most: if you do this properly, everything else will come natural, and many more opportunities will come to you.

With this, I do not say you have to be a “real” secretary in the sense of the world, picking up calls, scheduling trips for managers, and so on. What I mean is that you want to be the person your manager can offload her administrative chores to, and do them in a better way that she would do herself.

Taking notes is crucial in your transition to management
Taking notes will help you in your transition to management.

The most import part here is taking and sharing meeting minutes or notes. If you become the note-taker for your boss, you will start to join important meetings and see how the company works and how decisions are taken. As you take notes, you are forced to pay attention and thus you will intake useful information. Sometimes it will be boring, and most meetings are not as consequential as you would like, but it is a good way to insert yourself into the picture.

How to start? When you participate in a meeting, take notes even if nobody asks you to, no matter how small and casual the meeting. Then, share the notes to help others. You can send an email “I took some notes during the meeting, let me share them with you”. In case the meeting involves other team, I would advise to send those unsolicited notes to your team only, and not to the wider audience of the team.

A pro tip here is to never send the notes you took as they are. After the meeting, take the time to intentionally edit them to make them more concise and effective. You don’t want to document all the back-and-forth discussions, but instead, document the following points:

  • Purpose of the meeting, why did you meet?
  • Outcome of the meeting – we took decision X, we did not decide but we will reconvene next week, etc.
  • Challenges and objections overcome – we decided X because Y is too costly, and Z has too much uncertainty. We did not talk about W, that may be worth considering.
  • Next steps or action items – who will do what after the meeting and by when each item should be complete.

Particularly regarding next steps, do not invent dates if none was agreed in the meeting. Instead, just document that there is no committed date for that action items. Over time, you will be able to speak up in the meetings and ask “can we have a date for this?”.

If you start to do this in the meetings you go and your notes are good, your boss or even other managers will want you as a note taker in more important meetings.

Track Entire Projects

As an individual contributor, you will work on projects and operations. Operations is sustained work, like responding to customer calls, making sales, producing something on the assembly line, and so on. Projects have a start and an end (they can still be long, but they are not indefinitely long), and deliver something: a new product, service, process, or way of doing things.

Depending on your role, your work mix may be more projects or more operations. In a transition to management, you want to work on projects. This is because projects have a clear deliverable and outcome, and there are people in the company interested in that, that will want to be informed about it.

Even if your role is purely operational, do not worry. You still have opportunities to work on small projects, even if formally that is not part of your role. For example, think about a customer service department that responds to customer calls all the time. No project in sight for customer service reps, but what if you realize we do not treat key customers properly because information is lost between shift and you decide to have an email handoff between shift to talk about important issues?

This is a project because you are moving from state A (do not send email at end of shift) to state B (send email at end of shift). We have a clear deliverable, which is a process improvement, and that can be reflected in the metrics of the operational team: customer reviews, duration of phone calls, and so on.

Even better, considering this goes beyond the normal responsibilities of an operational guy, you will stand out.

Now that we said how everyone – no matter the role – can work on projects, we should discuss how working on projects help you in your transition to management.

A project will typically require work from multiple people or even teams. Individual contributors work on projects all the time, but they tend to stick within their own domain or area of expertise, and report only on their small piece of the project. What I am proposing here instead, is that you take a more active role and take a look at what other people are doing as well.

You don’t want to be intrusive. Just having the habit of daily discussing “I am working on this and struggling on this item, and what about you?” can go a long way. Then, pair it with your note taking skills and send an overall project summary at the end of the week to the people working with you, containing the details on everything people are working on. People will start to consider you as the person who is most informed on the project and ask you details.

As you gain visibility and the team trusts you, you can start to discuss with the team members if it is worth escalating or taking some corrective actions when things start to go south.

Help Your Colleagues with Priorities

The transition to management may seem like an individual’s journey, but it is really something you can’t do alone. You need your team to do it. To put it another way, you will have to manage people at some point, if even your own team don’t trust you to manage them, then maybe you are not a good fit as a manager.

So, you will need to manage your team somehow, but the problem is that your team has a boss already. How can you achieve this without overstepping your own boss? My advice is simple and starts by understanding what the team expect from a manager.

People expects from managers to help them carry out their work in a way that is predictable, without obstacles, and possibly enjoyable. They expect to be heard, respected, and valued. More concretely:

  • The manager must make priorities clear
  • Managers must filter requests coming from external stakeholders and allow those requests to become commitments for team member’s work only when they are scoped, it is clear what to do, and what will be the business outcome
  • People also expect the manager will treat them fairly and the work will be balanced properly among team members
  • Teammates will also want the manager to consider them, for example if they plan for a vacation, ensure that once their holiday plan is approved they can leave without worry and somebody else will take care of what they are doing

To some extent, you can make some of those items happen even if you are not formally a manager.

Talk About Your Career Path with Your Boss

Another key step in your transition to management is to be clear about your intentions. Transition to management doesn’t happen by chance and doesn’t happen just because you want it. You have to work hard for it, be worth it, but you also need to have the support of the people around you. And, among those, your manager plays a key role.

My advice is to start talking about your ambitions with your manager only when you have proven you can handle some responsibility. It doesn’t mean you should start talking when you are ready to be a manager, but only when you have shown you are serious about this, and started to deliver some results. In other words, the transition to management is a journey: you don’t want to talk about this journey with your manager only when the journey has ended, but neither when the journey is yet to start. When you started to walk that journey by yourself and made some progress, that is the best time to talk about this.

When exploring career options with your manager, you should seek:

  • Support: the manager should believe that your journey and transition to management is the best thing for you, for the company, and for herself.
  • Feedback on how you are doing, if you are moving properly on this journey, and what you could do better.
  • Development opportunities, stretch projects, and in general possibilities to develop and prove your leadership skills.

If you have the support, the feedback and the opportunities will come automatically. Of course, enlisting the support is not always easy, but it does not have to be that way. You need to approach this by looking it from the eyes of your manager: what are they getting if they support you? It turns out, there is plenty of benefit for them if they support you: they can have someone to offload notetaking to, they can have a successor ready when it is time for their promotion, or even just be more relaxed when they are on personal time off and want to ensure everything at the office is in order.

To transition to management, be clear about your ambitions
Be clear on your ambitions and where you want to go.

Early in my career, I was not satisfied with my pay and found it not proportional to my skills and my output at work. I received some piece of advice that went like this:

Go to them and tell them you should be paid more because that would better reflect your value, and you will be able to deliver more results to the company.

That is pure nonsense. Will I become better just because I get paid more? Maybe I will be less stressed and more satisfied, but it won’t be a gamechanger. The company, and the manager, were already getting what they wanted from me, so they were not in support of a higher salary, so I had to find another way to get it. Do not approach your transition to management in the same way.

The good news is, most managers will want to support your transition to management. This is because it helps them a lot, even if you do not become a manager in the end. There are some rare cases where you may lack support. If you feel you can’t get it, and there is no reason behind it, and even talking with your manager yields no result, consider changing team, company, or even job. Don’t let your career stagnate because of a toxic environment.

How to approach your manager? Approach them informally in a 1:1 setting and just ask “I would like to develop my skills so that I can transition to a management role eventually in the future. Can you help me be better?”. And then, after a most likely yes, try to follow up with a more formal 30 minute 1:1 session, and discuss together how to go from there.

Transition to Management in Summary

Every individual contributor can do a transition to management. In this article, we saw four actionable pieces of advice. In summary (TL;DR):

  1. Start by taking notes in meetings and sharing them with your team, do that so good that people start to want your notes.
  2. Monitor the status of entire projects, and not individual deliverables, and help your colleagues if they are blocked on something.
  3. In case there is a conflict of priorities, support your colleagues in deciding what is the most important thing to do.
  4. Discuss your ambitions with your manager, get her support and her feedback.

A great way to start a transition to management right now is to build up your referent power. This will help you fill a leadership position even if formally you have no authority (yet).

Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.
Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.

Alessandro Maggio