Wharton researcher gives practical lessons for new managers

In her new book, Rachel Pacheco of the Wharton School translates academic research, data, and real-life anecdotes into practical lessons and tools for emerging managers.

side by side picture of author and book cover
Author, Rachel Pacheco, management instructor at the Wharton School and PennGSE (Image: BenBella Books, Inc.)

A guide for new managers, and especially those in fast-growing or startup organizations, the new book, “Bringing Up the Boss: Practical Lessons for New Managers,” shares skills, along with research, data, anecdotes, and how-to-exercises to help employees become expert managers.

Written by Rachel Pacheco, a management instructor at the Wharton School and the Graduate School of Education, the book effectively shortcuts years of training, mentoring, and experience required to develop a manager by focusing on the key components of what makes a manager great.

Pacheco has been part of the Wharton Management Department for the last nine years, first as a Ph.D. student, and starting in July, as a lecturer for MBAs and undergrads. Her academic research focuses on power and conflict, and she also works extensively with executives in startups. Additionally, Pacheco has been on the executive team in multiple startups, and intimately knows the problems companies face with scaling their businesses and people.

“I’ve been working with startups for the last six years and I realized that new managers were holding startups back,” she says. “These managers didn’t have the tools, time, or resources to gain the skills necessary to be successful, and as such, their direct reports were suffering, they were suffering, and ultimately the organization was suffering. As an academic, I wanted to find materials to support these new managers that were data-driven and research-backed. And as a practitioner, I wanted to find materials that were immediately useful and practical for these small and fast-growing organizations.”

The excerpt is reprinted with permission.

A number of years ago, I joined a small and growing startup as the chief people officer. During my first week of work, I had coffee with Sandy, an employee who had joined the company two years earlier when it was only five people. She was poised, knowledgeable about the business, phenomenal at the work she was hired to do . . . and totally freaking out. Sandy came on board fresh out of college, and now two years in, she was managing four new employees, some older than she. Earlier that day, she’d received her first upward performance review from her team, and the jury was in: Sandy was a terrible manager. Over oat milk lattes, Sandy read me the litany of sins she had committed as a manager—most of them unbeknownst to her.

But was this a surprise? Sandy didn’t have any work experience outside of our company, and she definitely had never managed before. Moreover, Sandy didn’t have a skilled manager managing her, so she didn’t have anyone to emulate. And our little boot-strapped startup didn’t exactly have tons and tons of money to send Sandy to a fancy management training or run a whole bunch of internal training programs. Sandy was desperately trying to keep her head above water as a manager and absolutely suffering in doing so. And even worse, Sandy’s team members were suffering as she staggered in the dark trying to manage them.

Sandy’s challenge is not unique.

Often, we are put into positions of management—especially in small and growing organizations—before we’re actually ready. Our organizations grow quickly, and we are expected to grow in our roles with just as much speed. We end up stumbling along and doing our best, but our best may make our teams miserable. In the startups and other organizations I’ve worked for over the years, I’ve seen this cycle repeated over and over again: Top performer gets promoted to manager, has no idea what to do, team members become unhappy and leave, and the new manager becomes unhappy and feels terrible about themselves and their job. Repeat cycle.

Being a manager is a huge responsibility. For better or worse, we play outsized roles in how our teams experience their days and their jobs. We have the power to help someone grow, develop, and thrive; we also have the power to overburden, confuse, and wreak havoc. Many of us have personally had the experience of a terrible boss. And many of us have left jobs—jobs that otherwise were fulfilling—because we’ve had a manager who was not just awful but also unbearable.

For the last fifteen years in my coaching, advising, and teaching, I’ve collected stories, experiences, and challenges that new managers face. In particular, I’ve focused on new managers in small and growing organizations who don’t have the resources of a large company. These organizations may not be able to train their managers, send their employees to courses or hire fancy business-school graduates (not that a diploma from a business school means you’re a great manager—trust me). From these stories and challenges, I’ve developed a set of tools and best practices to help make the new manager’s job a little easier.

But in this endeavor, I’ve learned (unsurprisingly!) that folks outside of the business world also suffer from a whole bunch of bad bosses and often have access to even fewer tools to build their management muscles. While this book started as a love letter to new managers in startups, I’ve also included stories from lawyers, doctors, college administrators, government workers, and—my favorite—spouses—about the management challenges that pop up in their unique settings.

Excerpted from Rachel Pacheco’s “Bringing Up the Boss: Practical Lessons for New Managers” (BenBella Books; August 2021).