First-time managers have a lot to learn.

“Before my promotion, I was a good-to-excellent chemist. Now, I’m an OK chemist and an OK manager.”

That’s how one first-time manager described the letdown of being promoted from individual contributor to formal team leader. She is finding that the skills and attributes that made her successful before aren’t very helpful for leading others, and she isn’t sure what to do differently.

Another recently promoted manager is now responsible for direct reports who used to be his peers. Making the transition from friend to boss is proving harder than he expected.

Senior leaders and talent professionals know a frontline management role can be tough. They see new managers falter — or fail. Without an attentive boss and supportive organization, first-time managers are on their own. Some figure it out, but many don’t.

“A foundation of great leadership includes knowing yourself well, being able to read others accurately, and being flexible to different personalities and styles,” says CCL’s Maggie Sass.

How to Help New Managers Succeed

Sass oversees our Maximizing Your Leadership Potential program, which is designed specifically for first-time and first-line managers. She says organizations can boost the leadership capability of their new managers by doing 3 things:

1. Clarify the challenges of shifting from individual contributor to manager.

Being the boss of people who were your peers is often a difficult change. Leading a team; engaging, motivating, and coaching others; building relationships; and finding constructive responses to conflict are common challenges.

Many first-time managers feel alone, as if they’re the only ones to struggle with taking on a management role. They’re probably too self-conscious to admit they’re having a hard time, as if that would prove they didn’t deserve the promotion.

One way to help first-time managers not feel so alone is to tell them they’re supported, and to show it, too. Help them anticipate challenges and understand the learning curve. Help them shift away from the mindset that success is “all about me” to the new reality that success is about working with and through others. Communicate with them and give them feedback on how they’re doing. Let them know they’re doing important work and give formal recognition when they do great work.

This type of support does make a difference: Our research shows that when people feel support from their supervisors and organization, they have higher job satisfaction, higher commitment to the organization, and are less likely to want to leave their organization.

2. Provide knowledge and practical tools.

First-time managers need a clear picture of their current leadership style, strengths, and weaknesses. But they also need a variety of tools in their new leadership tool kit. Influence and communication skills are essential. Self-awareness and the ability to understand the perspectives and needs of others are part of the mix.

They may know they need to communicate or give feedback to direct reports — but what they’re doing may not be working. Trying new approaches rather than relying on what seems most obvious or easy is the only way to change and improve.

3. Create continuity in learning.

Help new managers go beyond the “a-ha moment” or one-off training. We’re always looking for ways to improve learning transfer — the ability to put what’s learned to use. In our programs, including Maximizing Your Leadership Potential, content and activities are tied to real-life needs and valuable skills. We also use processes like goal setting and action planning, follow-up coaching, online resources, and accountability partners to grow and maintain learning over time.

One of the key principles to help accelerate leader development is customization and being deliberate about providing experiences tailored to an individual’s most pressing development needs. So, address the specific challenges that first-time managers face and help them approach their assessment data in the right way to make a real impact.

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Organizations can apply strategies to help these first-time managers, such as confirming that he or she has a boss who’s capable of coaching and development, and that a mentor or coach is in place.

If there’s a cadre of willing mentors able to lead those circles, great. But even if there aren’t formal mentors at the head of each of these circles, giving time and space for these new leaders to get together and act as peer mentors to each other can go a long way in making them feel supported and valued by the organization.

Improving the caliber of leadership at the front line requires the commitment of each leader. But the organization and the boss need to light the way.

Want to learn more? Read about Maximizing Your Leadership Potential, our leadership program that develops the perspective, knowledge, and practical skills that first-time and front-line managers need to effectively lead others.

Or for virtual training, check out Frontline Leader Impact, an online program for anyone preparing to move into a first-level manager role. 

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