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

That’s how one first-time manager described the letdown of being promoted from individual contributor to being a formal team leader. 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.

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.

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 senior leaders — do to help these new 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.

1. Be honest about the 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.

When these new leaders attend our Maximizing Your Leadership Potential program, they’re often 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’re 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. 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. 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.

3. Create 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’ve learned from experience, and be a support system. If there’s 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 how you can maximize your new managers’ leadership potential.

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