Advice for a new manager in a weird situation
July 15, 2021 1:12 PM   Subscribe

I've recently started working as a manager of a non-profit-ish organization (I need to be vague, but think public service). It turns out that the previous manager let go due to poor conduct, to put it nicely. I've kind of inherited a mess because of this and I don't really KNOW where to begin or how to wrap my head around walking into a shit storm. This is also my first managerial position. Gulp.

The previous manager of the organization I currently work for was let go because they had, basically, been stealing funds from the organization. Making tons of personal purchases with the company credit card, not coming into work, etc. It's a fucking mess.

They had been at the organization for 10+ years, so... yeah. Everything in this place is honestly... a mess. A hot mess! There is a lot of room for growth and potential, which excites me. It's quite small (I manage 3 people now, I think at most the manager has had 5 people working under her).

I don't really know what to DO in this situation. Silly me, I thought I'd be walking into a new managerial position with everything... ready to go from the previous manager, I guess? Well, that was dumb!

The previous manager just seemed really neglectful of the organization and just let so much shit pile up. For example, there aren't even enough stationery SUPPLIES for people to use. Despite having a "healthy" sized supply budget, let's just say *other* items were ordered that aren't on the premises anymore. My first idea is to get the supply closet in check and get people the supplies they need to work!

How should I even go about doing things when the PREVIOUS manager *literally stole* from the organization? "Not stealing" is a pretty low bar, IMO. I just feel WEIRD stepping into a situation where the previous manager was so, objectively, bad.

Furthermore, the previous manager neglected the organization itself in a lot of ways. I'm trying to "empower" the staff to clean, throw things away that they don't need (previous manager never threw things away -- we had 3 bags of old crusty elastic bands in the supply room that staff told me they couldn't get rid of, yet not a box of pens??), re-arrange the back room/storage rooms how they see fit.

Even their office is a damn mess. I have 20 years of files and paperwork to sort through because the previous manager kept EVERYTHING, but nothing she kept is actually organized. It's just in stacks!!! Frankly, it's horrifying!! How the heck do you deal with an office that has 20 years of garbage?

How do you step into an organization that's a complete clusterfuck and get everything organized/running smoothly? I never thought that I'd end up in a situation like this with my first managerial gig, let me tell you! Never in my wildest dreams.

The staff is nice, but I can tell that because of the previous manager's neglect... lots of bad habits have become embedded in their staff culture. I don't want to come off too strong in the first WEEK, but things seriously have to change (not drastically IMO, but maybe to them) and I know people hate change!!! But this organization needs to start running "properly" again.

Where do I begin? And what do I need to keep in mind when replacing a manager who literally *stole* from an organization?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
1. Make a roadmap for yourself. Make lists, lots of lists.
2. However, don't overwhelm your team with the entirety of your plan, or the full extent of the mess.
3. Start by setting small weekly goals for your team. Praise them for small successes. Get to know each other. Feel good about completing tasks together. Then build from there. One step at a time.
posted by dum spiro spero at 1:23 PM on July 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

Others will have good managerial advice. I will say:

Change the space. Literally, move things / reorient the whole physical space so that it feels different. That will put everyone (the staff, you) on sync that a change is happening.
posted by many more sunsets at 1:24 PM on July 15, 2021 [8 favorites]

I would start by asking your staff - what do they need you to fix so that they can start doing their job better? Those will be things where you have your staff's support in making changes. Then go to your manager and ask them what their priorities are for your position. Take the input, add your own common sense and get a list of action items with a sense of priority based on importance and urgency. Review that list with your manager to make sure you have their support in terms of where the priorities are. Tackle some of the low-hanging fruit - like making sure the team has office supplies - that help everyone feel like positive change is happening and then down your list.
posted by metahawk at 1:24 PM on July 15, 2021 [24 favorites]

Ask the staff what they need to do their jobs. Look to your director/VP etc. for what they want you to prioritize.

Is the pile up of paperwork actually going to help you moving forward or does it need to be shredded? Can it be packed up and put into storage while you do more important things? I think you're at risk of being sidetracked trying to go through everything versus assess first and see what you need over the next 3-6 months. I wouldn't throw it all out quite yet but I wouldn't focus on getting through 20 years of stuff, stuff beyond 3-5 years is unlikely to be that helpful right?

Cleaning is not really a staff duty beyond shredding documents as necessary and maintaining order, help them make places for things and keep empowering them to get organized.
posted by lafemma at 1:25 PM on July 15, 2021 [8 favorites]

You begin, as every good manager does, by listening. You need information and you need perspective, and that takes time. Do NOT leap into action straight away. Company has survived 10 years of mismanagement, it can handle another fortnight.

Spend the next two weeks with:
- One to ones with your employees. Ask them what their day to day looks like, what they think of how the department has been run, what they think of their work and how it's going, what they need to do a good job - and what doing a good job would look like.
- Walk around a lot. Talk to everyone whose jobs intersect in any way with your team's. Get people to explain everything to you. Ask "how come?" a lot. Be curious, interested.
- start making lists of things that need to be changed. Sort by importance and urgency.

Make sure you understand the shape of the problem, before you act.

Don't panic. This problem is not one anyone can solve in a month and no reasonable company will expect that.

Clear everything with your boss.

Don't get panicked into acting too fast.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:31 PM on July 15, 2021 [15 favorites]

I highly recommend The First 90 Days as a structured guide to coming into management situations. It's quite corporate but a lot of the advice is generally applicable.
posted by crocomancer at 1:59 PM on July 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Is the organization pursuing criminal charges? I’d find that out before getting rid of anything.
posted by JenMarie at 2:02 PM on July 15, 2021 [11 favorites]

Just nthing talking to the staff first and asking them what they need. They know and can tell you. Congrats on your new job!
posted by Bella Donna at 2:13 PM on July 15, 2021

Talk to the staff. It might take them a while to trust you and be honest and re-frame their approach to work. But you must have their trust and have them on-board or else your work will be in vain.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:43 PM on July 15, 2021

One thing I would suggest is not focusing on the fact that the previous manager was stealing; that's actually not super relevant to your day to day work. People don't have office supplies: is that because the money for them was stolen? Because the manager thought people didn't need them? Because nobody got around to ordering? Doesn't matter.

When organizations are in trouble, there's often a tendency to fixate on identifying why. Often, this is very important, for example if you need to figure out where the money is going. But very often, it doesn't really matter why problems exist to solve them, at least in a very short-term tactical sense. If things are in the way, shred or store them. If there aren't supplies, get some. If you see bad habits, encourage them to change. Model that behavior yourself. Change things, ask people what they want to do, encourage them to do it, thank them when they do and then move on to the next things.

This seems overwhelming, and it is, but you know you have already removed the source of many of the problems (an incompetent thief.) Do not fixate on why; focus on taking action, and encouraging and enabling others to take action.

Also, as others have suggested, really superficial changes can go a long way toward making people feel that things are different. Just getting the unnecessary stuff out of the way, taking an afternoon to throw junk out, rearranging a room - these can be great visible signals that Things Are Changing.
posted by Tomorrowful at 2:49 PM on July 15, 2021 [3 favorites]

My thoughts are just what I learned when I was a manager, I'm sure each situation is very different. Take them for what they're worth (if anything):
- Each new day is new (yeah, I mean your priorities, goals, deadlines and to do lists need to be reconsidered each new day based on new developments, direction from management and feedback from staff). Not taking this into account is like ignoring the weather or traffic reports.
- As others have pointed out, mentor, communicate with and (carefully) empower your folks
- The buck stops with you, so keep an eye on "worst case scenarios" and have plans to deal with them, if possible
- And, of course, time management
posted by forthright at 2:50 PM on July 15, 2021

Start with the low hanging fruit of things to change. Keep a notebook (or whatever) as you progress for your thoughts about the high hanging fruit.
posted by Grok Lobster at 3:55 PM on July 15, 2021

I'd go the SCRUM way: start making a list of the changes needed, and prioritize in terms of best benefit to work ratio, i.e. least work for most impact. You will need to meet with your team for this. Let them put up a figure on how many hours they think they need, get a couple different opinions, you ask questions, not to undercut their estimates, but to understand why they gave that number.

Then every week, you assign priority based on the impact/effort ratio to the various people under you, and you can take on one of the tasks as well, subject to priority override from highers-up, but let EVERYBODY in the organization know that you are the manager, and every change should come to you, and your subordinates should not be interrupted unless there's a dire emergency, and you wills schedule them in as you see fit.

After a few weeks, the subordinates undstands you have their back, and they'll accept your leadership.
posted by kschang at 3:57 PM on July 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Part of the duties of a manager is a to set goals and priorities. If I was in your situation, I'd set the following goals:

Month 1: Remove immediate obstacles to your team doing their jobs

Month 2: Score a win towards whatever your NGO's purpose is

Month 6: Put processes in place to prevent that sort of theft and neglect from happening again.

The Month 1 goal shows the team you're here to help them. The Month 3 goal lights a fire under them - acheiveing it should require them to fix some of the bad habits they've acquired. And the Month 6 goal shows you're serious about change.

Get your team to contribute to the details of each goal. Change is hard. But it goes slightly easier if the team have some control over it, rather than it being imposed from above. What are their top three immediate obstacles? What should the "win" be for the Month 3 goal? How can we prevent the theft and negelect in the future?

Also: don't try and fix everything at once. Focus on three things at a time. That's enough to make real change without overwhelming people. Add other ideas and projects to your backlog, then when you've completed the current three projects, hold a planning session with the team to decide which projects to do next.

Finally: if you're new to being a manager, block out some time each week to build your managerial skills. Find a mentor. Do some LinkedIn Learning courses. Read blogs like Ask A Manager. Google the problems you're encountering, and see how others have handled them.
posted by davidwitteveen at 4:41 PM on July 15, 2021 [3 favorites]

I don't really know what to DO in this situation. Silly me, I thought I'd be walking into a new managerial position with everything... ready to go from the previous manager, I guess? Well, that was dumb!

If none of this stuff was disclosed to you in the interview, they did you a huge disservice. Please keep that in mind if you feel like you're struggling.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:56 PM on July 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

Everyone here is way less cynical, but it’s with a lot of management experience under my belt and a heavy heart I tell you to prepare for this: a certain percentage of employees LOVE working for a fraud, and the mess will be so ingrained, they will HATE working for someone with standards. Of that percentage, there’s sometimes one who becomes a major problem and has to go.

Not saying this will happen—might not—I’m saying it so you can prepare for the possibility and not let it deter you.
posted by kapers at 6:02 PM on July 15, 2021 [9 favorites]

Look up change management as well - you're going into a situation with set routines. Most likely the previous manager got away by being a charming and likeable person too which makes change even harder. You can't just overhaul a bad system even if it IS a bad system. You'll need buy-in from the key employees and co-operation, which takes personal relationships.

I also wouldn't focus on the theft - it's irrelevant at this point. Low-hanging fruit and easy positive changes will help a lot to start.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 11:34 PM on July 15, 2021

Coincidentally enough, I met my now-partner of 12 years at a workplace where he was brought in to replace a manager who had been embezzling, was a hoarder, and neglected his staff and department, creating mayhem and bad working habits in said staff. Here's how he solved this disaster of a problem:

1) every day, first thing, he'd spend an hour going through all of the items his predecessor never threw away and paperwork (also going back 20 years!). Got big trash bags and threw obvious trash away, started organizing and filing old paperwork and separating out currently needed paperwork.

2) Talked to the staff, gently, as a group, about how messy this all was and that he would be making some changes, please be prepared, and don't be afraid to ask me questions about WHY I am implementing changes.

2a) Met with each staff member one on one to understand what they had been doing under predecessor, what challenges they regularly face in their job (if any), and what they would like to improve or how they would like to grow (if desired).

3) Rolled out changes as things came up.

4) Eventually wrote a policies and procedures handbook with the new changes reflected and distributed them. Gave everyone a chance to read through. Had another sit-down with everyone to field questions or concerns.

Within 3 months it was a brand new world in his department.

Good luck! It feels daunting, but you can do it!
posted by nayantara at 7:12 AM on July 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

what many more sunsets said. Nothing says clean broom like a complete reshuffle of everything. Make an office plat, post it. Switch everything out, move every desk, every file cabinet and don't take any sass about it. And never let anyone get away with saying, "that's the way we always did it". You don't now!

I had good success doing this when I walked into a situation like yours. You can make it as fun or as business like as you like.
posted by james33 at 7:43 AM on July 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Month 2: Score a win towards whatever your NGO's purpose is

Month 6: Put processes in place to prevent that sort of theft and neglect from happening again.

Did you delete Month 3 by accident? I found the list very interesting.
posted by M. at 10:29 AM on July 16, 2021

I would post this q to ask a manager (linked above).
posted by lalochezia at 2:10 PM on July 16, 2021

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