HR RESOURCES: Understanding the Leadership Challenges of First-Time Managers

A professional getting promoted into his or her first formal leadership position in an organization is one of the biggest and most difficult transitions for any leader. Far too often, the leader and the organization don’t recognize just how difficult that transition is.

According to a recent CareerBuilder survey:

  • 20% of first-time managers are doing a poor job according to their subordinates,
  • 26% of first-time managers felt they were not ready to lead others to begin with, and
  • Almost 60% said they never received any training when they transitioned into their first leadership role.

Is it any wonder that approximately 50% of managers in organizations are deemed to be ineffective?

Their ineffectiveness may be the result of not realizing what they are getting themselves into when it comes to leading others, not being supported in their new leadership role, and not being given the opportunity for training and development early enough in their careers as leaders.

Think of the time and money that has to be spent on replacing these ineffective leaders—not to mention dealing with the low morale and disengagement of employees working under these ineffective leaders.

This inevitably hurts your leadership pipeline and may eventually hurt your organization’s mission.

First-time managers have as much right for leadership development as others, but their voices, time and time again, go unheard. They want to do well but so often are struggling at making the transition from individual contributor or professional who does the work and does it well, to a leader who must continue to do the work and more importantly, leads others doing their work.

So what can you do to help?

Understand the struggles first-time managers have and help them overcome the challenges relevant to their new leadership role.

For example, consider a first-time manager who now manages former peers, and who, in some instances, are friends inside and outside the workplace. How can they gain respect and authority while balancing the relationship they had before?

Organizations should encourage their first-time managers to:

  • Be Clear
  • Be Fair
  • Be Aware
  • Be Proactive

Be Clear: Yes, first-time managers can still be friends with the former coworkers who are now subordinates. But it’s possible that first-time managers may lose friends too, and they need to be aware of that. The first-time managers and former coworker-turned-subordinate each has to know, understand, and realize that the working relationship has changed. First-time managers should therefore set clear expectations around the work and what is expected for all direct reports. Transparency makes life easier. If there are certain boundaries that need to be set for first-time managers and their direct reports, make sure first-time managers get them out in the open with the individual.

Be Fair: Once there is clarity around expectations, first-time managers have to be fair in their actions. Their friends have to know who is boss and that no preferential treatment will be given when it comes to bonuses, raises, promotions, support, and resources. And the other direct reports who may not have as close of a relationship have to know that as well. Leave the personal biases behind. First-time managers should be fair in the way they give out rewards, time, and resources. If their friends deserve it, and it’s documented, great. If they don’t and they still get rewarded, that’s when gossip, perceptions of unfairness, and all sorts of trouble will start. 

Be Aware: Help first-time managers recognize that when they are the boss, people’s eyes are always on them, whether they know it or not. People are always looking at their actions—what they are doing, and what they are not doing. Because first-time managers know their friends more than other direct reports, they may be inadvertently giving them more time, more energy, and more support than others. 

Be Proactive: As soon as first-time managers are promoted, make sure they get on the calendar of each of their direct reports to have an individual meeting that is all about the direct report. During that meeting, first-time managers should find out what motivates each of their direct reports, what each likes about his or her work, how each likes to be led and whatever other questions or concerns each direct report has. Ensure that there is time for first-time managers during those one-to-one meetings to also talk about their own personal vision for the group and how each direct report can be a helpful part of that vision.

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