“Before my promotion, I was a good-to-excellent chemist. Now, I am an okay chemist and an okay manager.”

That’s how one first-time manager described the let-down of being promoted from individual contributor to being a formal team leader. The skills and attributes that made her successful before aren’t all that helpful for leading others, and she just 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.

Both these scenarios are predictable challenges for first-time and front-line managers. Far too often, the leader and the organization take for granted just how difficult that transition is. And the numbers prove it: 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. No wonder 50% of managers in organizations are ineffective.

What can organizations — and more senior leaders — do to help these leaders and strengthen the leadership pipeline? We suggest 3 key things, based on our research, time training first-time managers in the classroom, and first-hand experience.

One of the most important things is to be honest about the challenges. Many first-time managers feel alone, as if they are the only ones to struggle with taking on a management role. They are probably too self-conscious to admit they are having a hard time, as if that would prove they didn’t deserve the promotion.

When these new leaders attend our Maximizing Your Leadership Potential program, many are surprised — and relieved — to hear that their peers face many of the same issues and have many of the same problems.

One way to help first-time managers not feel so alone is to tell them they are supported, and 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. Ensure they are heard when they have problems or suggestions. Communicate with them and give them feedback on how they are doing. Let them know they are 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.


Another way to set new leaders up for success is to tailor development to specific needs. When you do provide training — in house or with external partners — be sure the content is relevant to them,  and not just in the generic way that everyone can improve their ability to communicate or learn a new skill. We suggest that one of the key principles to help accelerate leader development is customization, or being deliberate about providing experiences tailored to address the individuals’ most pressing development needs, or to help them meet the role demands they are facing or will soon face.

Consider creating learning networks for first-time managers. Professors Wendy Murphy and Kathy Kram call these “mentoring circles” where 1-3 mentors are teamed with 4-8 mentees. First-time managers would be able to share stories of success or failure, talk about what they have learned from experience, and be a support system. If there is a cadre of willing mentors able to lead those circles, great. 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.

One last point: These front-line and first-time managers are your largest population of leaders, and they lead a majority of people in organizations. Don’t set them up for failure.

Learn more about these suggestions and other factors to consider in our white paper Understanding the Leadership Challenges of First-Time Managers: Strengthening Your Leadership Pipeline.

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