Learning by doing: My first years as a manager in a tech start-up — Part IV: Self-management

Sophia Höfling
8 min readMay 26, 2020

Some years ago, when I had just started my first management position, I attended a leadership training seminar called ‘Self-Leadership Backbone’.

Despite the word ‘self’ in the title, and as a freshly baked rookie in leadership and management, I entered the seminar expecting to learn about methods and tools to lead and manage others. This is what I thought good leadership was all about: motivating and coordinating others. How wrong I was!

Peter Drucker — one of the most influential thinkers on management — said: “You cannot manage other people unless you manage yourself first.” The seminar I attended really hammered home this message. It was a 2-day deep dive into understanding yourself as a person and developing personal mastery. It taught me that the backbone of every great manager is knowing how to connect to, coach, and organize yourself.

Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

I was lucky to have this moment of enlightenment early in my career. It’s a lesson I remind myself of constantly, especially when the busyness of everyday team management takes me out of my ‘chi’. Of course, I don’t always get it right, but practice makes perfect.

In this article, I want to share exactly what that practice looks like, and give you my key takeaways from learning to manage myself while figuring out how to manage others. This is with the hope that — whether you’re a new manager, or someone using the coronavirus lockdown to reflect, learn, and grow as an individual — you’ll come away with some practical advice on how to be a better manager.

The lessons that follow come from my experience managing a 28-person team at the high-tech start-up NavVis, and from my first few months in a new management position as a Head of Product at Babbel.

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First thing’s first

From my point of view, managing oneself is similar to managing a team, and can be broken down into three areas:

  1. With your team, you specify and build strong team values to help you thrive as a group. For yourself, you need to define personal principles that guide your work and decision-making.
  2. As a team lead, you foster your team members’ personal development (you can read more about how to do this in one of my former articles). As a self-leader, you need to build a support network and system that helps you learn and grow.
  3. For your team, you define processes and routines to allow for efficient cooperation. For yourself, you need to establish similar routines for effective work.

We’ll go through each of these three areas below.

1. Define your principles

Nowadays, defining a set of team or company values, printing them on shiny posters, and putting them up on office walls is part of the standard repertoire of almost every start-up and big corporation. You do the same thing in product management and design: what product principles will help to align teamwork and guide decision-making?

But what principles guide you through your tasks? What is your North Star when it comes to managing yourself and others? If defining values and principles helps on a system-level, why shouldn’t it help on an individual level as well?

At the start of my management career I split my principles into two themes: self-care and leadership.

For my self-care principles, I tried to figure out what I needed to stay happy and engaged in my job, and where I needed to set boundaries. To help get answers I asked those around me (my partner, close friends, family) for advice. When was the last time they saw me extremely relaxed and happy? If they saw me stressed, what would they do to calm me down?

For my leadership principles, I took the 16personalities test to look more closely at who I am as a person. I then wrote down my core values and, combining these with my test results, determined the principles that I wanted to guide my leadership habits.

Your principles will act as a stable anchor when work gets stressful, difficult decisions need to be made, and you encounter new and uncertain situations. Just look at the current coronavirus situation. The leaders performing the best are those with strong principles. Their principles have given them a roadmap for how to react in a quick and decisive manner.

TIP: I also read management READMEs, and looked at fascinating leaders and managers from a range of different disciplines. Who had created a strong vision to lead by? Two of my favorites are Phil Jackson (a former NBA coach who, if you’ve caught any of Netflix’s The Last Dance, you’ll be familiar with) and Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia). Jackson places his focus on the team, not the individual. While Chouinard aims to make work fun and humane.

2. Build your personal support network

You never stop learning in management.

This is why most companies offer some form of training and, while I recommend you make full use of this, I believe skill development is as much their responsibility as yours. Company training can only take you so far. You need to proactively maintain, and seek out, good leadership habits. Here are four ways to do this…

Ask your direct reports for feedback

It’s obvious, but so often forgotten or even purposefully left out. Use your 1:1s with reports to give feedback, and get feedback. You are here to learn too, and who better to learn from than those you work with the closest?

Asking for feedback, and getting good feedback, can be difficult. From managing international teams, I learned that some people from certain cultures are uncomfortable offering feedback upwards. It’s your job to create a safe environment for them to do so.

A good way to kick things off is to say: “I wasn’t happy with how I dealt with situation X. I thought I could have handled it better if I had done Y. Were there any other times last month that I could have done something better?” This eases any awkwardness and sets a framework for how a report can give you feedback.

Reflect frequently

If feedback is one side of a coin, self-reflection is the other.

However, in the turmoil of managing a team it’s easy to forget about yourself. After my first year in management I noticed that, apart from the bi-annual feedback meetings I had with my manager, I hadn’t reflected on my personal development goals. In the rush to help others achieve theirs, I’d forgotten about my own.

From then on I made it a habit to reflect on both my team’s progress towards our goals, and my progress towards them. This is how I do that:

  • I write quarterly development goals down on a piece of paper and pin it on the wall next to my desk.
  • At the end of each month I schedule a 30-minute session with myself, out of the office, to reflect on the progress I’ve made.
  • To get the most from that session, I answer the following questions: Where did I make the biggest progress, and why? Where did I make the least progress, and why? What are the three key learnings I can take away from this month?

Discuss your concerns with external people

In an ideal world you have your manager, and someone from your HR / People department, to discuss any work-related challenges and concerns. In reality, you might have self-doubts and struggles which you don’t want to share with someone inside your company. This is where some external, objective advice comes in.

To date, my experience using an external personal leadership coach has probably been the single most important lever for my management and leadership skills. If your company does not proactively offer personal coaching, propose it to them.

As a manager, you’re in a multiplier role. Every dollar/pound/euro successfully invested in your management skills yields an exponential value for the company.

Network with managers from other companies

Exchanging ideas with management peers within your company is great. However, their techniques will always be impacted by your company’s culture and processes.

Broaden your view on leadership by speaking with managers from other companies (this is especially true if you’re a first-time manager). You will tap into an entirely new universe of problem-solving. Both the successful approaches and the failed ones.

3. Establish your routines

Good work routines are like scaffolding. They lift you while you’re working, save you time, and get you closer to your goals.

It’s important you set your self-management routines early in your job before you get caught up in the maelstrom of everyday work.

One of my simplest routines is blocking out time in my calendar so I can specifically focus on a piece of work. As a manager you spend a lot of time in meetings with others. It’s difficult to find the time to do your own work, let alone get the headspace for any strategic or planning work. And even if you do get free slots between meetings, they may come at a time which doesn’t allow you to do your best work. Or they come at 8pm when really you should be taking some time out.

Be a guardian of your own time. Add meetings with yourself to your calendar — they are as important as all the other meetings you are attending. Think about when you’re most productive and schedule your me-meetings accordingly.

Another routine I’ve adopted is to use a task management tool. It helps me define, and keep track of, what I need to do and when I need to do it by.

Of course there are thousands of software tools out there promising to be the best one. Believe me, I’ve done the research! All I would say is this: you need to find a tool that works best for you, and that you can build a routine around. This is partly why I use a simple piece of A4 paper.

Here’s how I use it:

  • Every Friday before closing the week, I create a new plan for the week to come.
  • I split the A4 page into three columns. These signify three task categories. People. Processes. Product.
  • Every single morning, I look at the page and highlight those tasks that I aim to complete on that very day in a specific color.

Now, this simple, analog system is certainly not perfect. Nor might it be the right one for you to organize your tasks. But for me it works because I’ve worked it into a routine. Find what suits you and do similar.

It’s as easy as 1, 2, 3

Bringing all of this together, I’ve found that good management is about prioritizing yourself in order to serve and support your team. Define your principles. Build your personal support network. Establish your routines.

It is much easier to get into a state of flow when you master yourself. You get the headspace you need to support and lead your team, which makes management exponentially more fun for you.

Management categories

In the next article of this series I’ll be looking at how you can build a strong culture to lead your team. Want to be the first to read it? Tap ‘Follow’ below and stay tuned!

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Sophia Höfling

Entrepreneur & product leader writing about product & leadership. Building clean tech @ReiCat. Formerly CPO & co-founder @Saiga, HoP @Babbel & HoCX @NavVis.