Tips for First-Time Managers

The notion that senior managers and directors, with enviable track records of well-documented success, might need to rethink and/or fundamentally alter the way they approach leadership is a sobering reality, but a reality nonetheless.

Consider the dynamics of a similar transition, becoming a first-time manager. As you reflect on the nature of the similarity, have you ever seen:

  • A truly gifted athlete that went on to become a mediocre coach?
  • A record-breaking sales person that was an absolute nightmare as a sales manager?
  • A top-notch surgeon that wound up running a hospital into the ground?

Of course you have! It’s a recurring irony. At the base of the organization, the talent you display as an individual contributor positions you for a promotion to people management, but then can wind up at the core of your struggles once you get there.

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner were among the first to document this reality. Roughly 70 percent of the reason employees receive that first promotion rests with their comparative mastery of technical skills.

Conversely, 80 percent of the reason those employees struggle or fail when they become a manager can be tied to their limited grasp of, or experience with, human skills. This is the crux of the irony: Doing something yourself is one thing; getting somebody else to do it is something altogether different.

Tips For New Managers

So, what should those recently promoted managers do? At a minimum, we suggest the following:

Recognize Your Reality

Your peers are no longer your peers, they are your direct reports. You will be tested early and often. Frequently, the most difficult tests will come from those former peers. Prepare for those tests. Spend less time wondering if those tests will come and more time figuring out how you will respond when they do. Additionally, understand there are several different paths that can get you to the same destination. The way you did things clearly worked for you. Don’t confuse this with the notion that your way is the only way

Think Before You Do

Becoming a first-time manager is a good time to start playing chess instead of checkers. Consider the extended impact of the decisions you make. Leadership is a thoughtful endeavor. Effective leaders readily display empathy and concern during fact-finding but hold off on taking definitive action until they have enough facts to chart an effective course.

General Colin Powell put it this way: “I never make a decision without 40 percent of the available intelligence. To do so would be irresponsible. Additionally, if I have waited until I have more than 70 percent of the available intelligence, I have likely missed my opportunity.”

Take Charge of Building Trust

There is a chicken-and-egg quandary that surrounds the relationship trust has with leadership

  • Do you need to have trust before you can effectively lead?
  • Or, do you build trust by effectively leading?

In general, we believe you earn trust as a leader, and the way you do that is to thoughtfully match your approach to the needs of those you influence on a case-by-case basis.

Net-net? You earn trust by adding value and you add value by becoming a catalyst in the performance and the engagement of those you influence.


    1. What are the primary struggles/challenges you see new managers experiencing?
    2. What strategies do you find most effective in addressing those challenges?