Switching to the management role in customer success: 5 things to consider
Those who have worked as a customer success manager for a while may consider a position in CS leadership as a logical continuation of their careers. They may feel that the experience and expertise they gained as individual contributors would help them lead team members efficiently by leveraging their deep understanding of the role and ability to handle complicated cases. While this is very true, those aspiring for a leadership role often have incorrect expectations. In some cases, these new types of challenges are met with enthusiasm, with individuals starting their path in the new role successfully. In other cases, however, misaligned expectations lead to frustration and to question “why did I want to switch to that role in the first place?”. In this article, I’ll try to highlight some of the challenges one can expect from switching to a leadership role in customer success, with the hope that they can help individuals aspiring to be leaders in CS to make a more measured decision.
A vertical career path is not for everyone
The first aspect that is critical to highlight is that the management path is not for everyone. I’m not talking about one’s ability to perform well in the role — it’s important to understand that it’s a completely different job. The fact that the person was highly satisfied with their work as a specialist doesn’t guarantee that a management position would bring the same. The skills and expertise that made the employee a superstar in their customer-facing role may suddenly become partially irrelevant, since being an effective manager and leader requires a whole new set of skills. Of course, the vast customer-facing experience can be handy when the manager is dealing with escalations and helping their team members in handling complicated customer scenarios. However, many other types of challenges would fall on the manager’s plate that would require completely different skills.
For those still interested in taking on the challenge of becoming a manager, it might be a good idea to apply for a team lead role if there’s one present. The definitions of team lead may vary from one company to another. At Wrike, the difference between a team lead and a manager is that the team lead continues to be an individual contributor while managing a small or mid-size team, while a manager doesn’t have a book of business and is fully dedicated to serving their team. Becoming a team lead is a great way to step into both worlds and get all the information needed to make a decision about whether the management path is for them, or whether they would prefer to continue as an individual contributor and have a successful horizontal career.
You will operate in a much more ambiguous environment
One of the critical aspects of being a manager is that your team members would come to you with questions expecting to get answers. That’s the beauty of the role of an individual contributor: you know your targets, KPIs, operational objectives, and, most importantly, you know the person to approach should any questions arise. Lack of clarity is something managers have to deal with on a daily basis. Obviously, those who’re just getting started in the role would have the opportunity to seek guidance from their more experienced colleagues. But eventually, they will have to learn where to look for answers to complicated questions, how to make decisions based on incomplete data, and more. Initially, success in this area comes from following common practices (for example, shared by the managers’ predecessor or the executive team), but later on, he or she would accumulate sufficient experience to make educated guesses. I’ll be straightforward here: initially, this experience may feel uncomfortable. But for those confident that the management role is the right choice for them, operating in an ambiguous environment could become more natural over time.
You’re responsible for team results
While it may seem obvious that one’s result as a manager is a cumulative result of all their team members, not everyone aspiring to move to a management role fully acknowledges what that really means. As an individual contributor, you have a clear picture of your target and you’re (hopefully) provided with all the tools and resources needed to get there. While in every role there may be factors that are out of one’s control and that may have a positive or negative impact on end results, the employee usually has a relatively high level of control over their work. The manager, on the other hand, needs to serve the team in a way that everyone’s targets are achievable, and that everyone has the necessary resources to hit them. Since multiple people are involved in achieving the overall team target, the number of potential risks is multiplied. It means that, no matter how hard the managers work to do their job well, the impact of these risks may outweigh the positives and the end result would still be disappointing. That said, you as a manager would need to grow hard skin and demonstrate a more pragmatic approach to problem-solving.
Work prioritization becomes a major challenge
Balancing multiple priorities is something managers need to do on a daily basis. It may require some time to accept that it’s physically impossible to finish all the work all the time. Choosing the right things to focus your effort on is a critical skill for managers. A great piece of advice I got from one of the amazing executives here at Wrike was that it’s all about choosing which balls you’re willing to drop. The more I work in the leadership role, the more I understand the importance of this approach. You basically need to make a decision, not on which items are most important, but on the contrary — which items can be deprioritized. Unfortunately, it is not always an easy choice to make, so it becomes about choosing the lesser of two evils. I personally ask myself this question when brainstorming on how the work should be prioritized: “Does this activity have the potential to make a positive impact on all, or at least several team members at once?”. If the answer is yes, it is probably something worth prioritizing, since the potential wins would be visible. Otherwise, I may choose to engage in a different activity.
Less praise, more hard work
Simon Sinek in his book “Leaders Eat Last” clearly communicates the principle that highlighting the results and achievements of team members should always be prioritized over any managerial work’s highlights. While the reason for that is very clear, this change may be unexpected for those transitioning to a management role. Good managers always remember to praise the work of their team members, but if one is used to being a contributor, they may be used to a certain level of praise. So, shortly after becoming a manager, one may notice that their workload has increased exponentially but they only rarely get shoutouts for the results. And at the same time, it would be expected for them to always remember to praise the work of their team members.
While many of the aspects of the management role may come unexpectedly at first, it’s important to highlight that the work can be very rewarding, especially for those who aspire to achieve amazing results on the scale.