First Time Supervisors and Managers:
The Guide for Making the Transition to Leadership
The transition from peer to leader is one of, if not the biggest, career moves. While it's exciting, it can also be daunting. To help ease those feelings and prepare you for the transition, the following guide contains the common mistakes first-time supervisors and managers make, the hard truths about leadership, and finally, the key leadership behaviors and skills that one needs to be successful.
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The challenges you will inevitably face as a first-time manager or supervisor are very well-known and documented - just do a quick Google search on the topic. It’s unfortunate then that so many making the transition from peer to leader are thrown into the deep end and left to sink or swim in their newfound role. As you can imagine, this makes an already daunting transition that much more difficult; not just for you as the leader, but for those you are now leading as well.
Being a manager or supervisor is not an elevated version of the individual contributor role you were promoted from. The skills and strengths that helped you excel as an individual are quite different from those needed for effective people management. As a first-time manager, you will be faced with new challenges you have never had to deal with before. Yet, in a study of 500 new managers in the United States, it was found that 43% received no leadership training. As a result, 42% of first-time managers said they developed their management style by imitating a previous manager, independent of quality or leadership training their manager received.
If you are on track for a promotion to management or have already received one and are now officially a first-time manager or supervisor, then continue reading as this guide covers what you need to know about becoming the leader you want, and need, to be.
Individual Contributor vs. Manager: The Differences Between Your Old Role and New One
There’s no honeymoon period when you move from an individual contributor to a manager or supervisor. One day you’re responsible for your own tasks and projects, and the next you are responsible for the productivity, performance, and engagement of others. According to an IMD survey, it’s one of, if not the, biggest transition a professional will make in their career as everything from your mindset to your behaviors must change.
According to Michael D. Watkin’s Harvard Business Review article, “How Managers Become Leaders,” there are seven seismic shifts that occur during a leadership transition. They are as follows and highlight the key differences between the role as an individual contributor vs. a manager or supervisor.
4 First-Time Manager Mistakes to Avoid
Whether you like it or not, your transition to management will be closely monitored and even scrutinized, not just by your boss but your employees as well. While mistakes are human and part of the learning process, any first-time manager will want to minimize the number and severity of mistakes they do make. Fortunately, if you know what not to do, you can then monitor your own actions and behaviors to actively avoid such mistakes. To help you do so, here are some of the most common mistakes new managers and supervisors make and what to do instead.
❌ Don’t let the authority you now have go to your head
✅ Do support your employees and be humble
As one Medium author put it, managers and supervisors who secretly enjoy having their employees come to them to make every decision (no matter how inconsequential), get a bit of a rush when they’re able to point out a flaw, or feel validated by their team’s inability to function without them, have let their formal authority go to their head and are on a power-trip. Not only is this a dangerous mistake, but it is also one that sticks with people and is hard to shake without time and serious effort.
Instead, strive to be a humble leader. As this Forbes article puts it, “Humble leaders understand that they are not the smartest person in every room. Nor do they need to be. They encourage people to speak up, respect differences of opinion, and champion the best ideas.” In fact, by supporting others and using that formal authority for the good of those around you, you can spur an increase in engagement and job performance.
❌ Don’t act like a know-it-all
✅ Do check your ego and adopt a learner’s mindset
When a first-time supervisor or manager feels insecure, unworthy, or unprepared, it is not unheard of for them to adopt a know-it-all attitude as a way to avoid being questioned or protect themselves. While understandable, this is a common mistake first-time managers and supervisors make that can eventually lead to unwanted tension. To avoid this, be mindful to keep your ego in check, be honest with yourself and those around you about the things you don’t know, and be prepared to be uncomfortable as you learn new things.
❌ Don’t let imposter syndrome hold you back
✅ Do believe in yourself
“Who do you think you are?”
“You just got lucky.”
“You don’t belong here.”
This type of internal dialogue is a hallmark of impostor syndrome (also referred to as impostor phenomenon). Coined back in the 70s, it refers to a “faulty belief system wherein one chronically doubts his or her abilities in spite of rivalling external evidence.” Today, research has found that this is common among men and women alike, with 7 out of 10 people experiencing it.
While it is common, it is still a mistake to indulge in it as a first-time supervisor or manager. That’s because imposter syndrome tends to result in long-lasting repercussions that can ultimately limit your ability to reach your full potential as a leader. You must believe in yourself. If not, how can you expect those around you to? As one professional who overcame imposterism said, try not to dwell on your self-doubt and instead quickly replace such thoughts with more positive ones. You may even try to keep track of these instances so you can identify triggers and note which solutions worked. Finally, she recommended finding an ally that you can talk openly to and be authentic with, whether that be a boss, coach, mentor, or friend.
❌ Don’t Expect to Change Things Overnight
✅ Do Take the Time to Understand
Many first-time managers and supervisors are eager, ready to prove themselves and brimming with ideas and changes. While this is not inherently bad, it is a mistake to assume those things can be implemented overnight. No matter how well-intentioned you may be, doing so can quickly alienate those around you.
Instead, take the time to understand your new team, their challenges, and the environment they are working in. Ask them about their experience and really listen to their ideas. Given that they’re the ones “working in the trenches,” employees often have incredibly valid and insightful feedback, complaints, and ideas that you can then use to implement meaningful change and secure buy-in.
The Hard Truths First-Time Supervisors and Managers Will Face
Of all the advice new managers and supervisors receive from fellow leaders, friends, thought leaders, and even strangers on the internet, we often find the following five hard truths are left unsaid.
You May Not Be a Great Leader on the First Day
If you’ve been looking forward to becoming a leader, you probably have a vision in your mind of what it will be like and in doing so, have created expectations for yourself. As you can imagine, it can be disheartening if you don’t live up to those expectations right out of the gate. In reality, transitioning into a new leadership role often presents a steep learning curve that will challenge you for weeks and even months. So, be gentle with yourself and manage the expectations of not only your employees, but yourself, because believe it or not, it’s okay if you’re not a great leader right away.
It May Be Awkward At First
As you transition into your new leadership role, you might find yourself managing friends and peers, which can be awkward for all involved parties. Rest assured, these relationships can evolve. According to Amy Cooper Hakim, an industrial-organizational psychology practitioner and workplace expert, here’s how you can alleviate the awkwardness or tension that may be present as you transition from friend to boss:
- Negative emotions can only be quelled by talking them through
- Show vulnerability by saying, “This could get weird, but I don’t want it to and I am looking for your support.”
- Lead by example by being positive, speaking with clarity and kindness, and holding people accountable
Leadership Can Be Lonely
It can be hard to see the group of peers you were once a part of grab coffee after a meeting or meet after hours for drinks. But the fact is, in a management position you are privileged to conversations and information that demand a certain level of distance from the informal discussions your former peers partake in.
If this makes you feel rejected or lonely, you aren’t alone. Many first time supervisors and managers feel this way. According to a survey that examined the main challenges of nearly 300 first time managers, almost two-thirds cited the transition from friend to the boss as the biggest. To ease the transition, seek out guidance and mentoring from someone who has lived this experience. This could be a fellow team leader, your direct supervisor, a senior leader in your organization, a leadership coach, or someone outside of your organization who you trust and admire.
You Have to Let Go of “Your Way” of Doing Things
After years of working as an individual contributor, it can be surprisingly difficult to let go of your way of doing things. But the hard truth first time leaders must accept is that employees rarely do things exactly as you would have. Just remember, it matters less how employees get the job done, and more that they actually get the job done. If you don’t accept this and instead try to force “your way” of doing things onto employees, then you’ll run the risk of becoming a micromanager, which could compromise any other positive leadership behaviors you exhibit.
You Won’t Always Be Liked
At some point, you may have heard, “leadership is not about being liked.” Which is true - to an extent. At the end of the day you have been hired to do a job; one where you’re inevitably going to have to make tough calls and decisions that those around you don’t agree with. In which case, a fear of not being liked could seriously impede your effectiveness as a leader. On the other hand, not putting any effort into building healthy working relationships based on trust is also a mistake. All of which is to say that you’re going to have to find just the right balance, which will take time, experience, and energy.
What Does It Mean to Be a Leader? 7 Leadership Behaviors You Should Adopt
What does it mean to be a good supervisor or manager? Every first-time leader will contemplate this question in their first weeks and months in their new role. What you’ll eventually come to realize though is that the answer will depend on the type of leader you want to be and the type of leader your team needs you to be. This means that every manager or supervisor will have to slightly adjust their leadership style to be optimally successful.
Of course, there are a number of underlying leadership behaviors that typically define a “good” leader. We have outlined seven in particular that you should consider adopting as part of your own management style going forward.
You prioritize relationships
What sets great managers apart from average ones? It’s their ability to build and foster trusting, open, and positive relationships. When managers and supervisors build deep-rooted connections, the individuals on their team are much more open to take risks, accept stretch assignments, and be open to coaching, constructive feedback, and development from their leader.
You lead by example
As a first-time supervisor or manager, you are quickly going to realize that your employees use your actions and behaviors as a benchmark for their own. This means the “do as I say, not as I do” leadership model is out of the question. Instead, a good manager or supervisor will lead by example by embodying the ideal qualities, modelling the behaviors, following the rules and procedures, and taking responsibility for their actions or part in a problem or mistake.
You make unpopular decisions
Becoming a manager or supervisor means being the one to make unpopular decisions or tough calls. While this can be difficult, especially for those who want to be liked, a good manager or supervisor will be decisive and rip off the bandaid when a difficult decision needs to be made, and will then actively manage any consequences or fallout.
You set people up for success
Going forward in management, your success will be judged and assessed based on the success of your employees. As best-selling author, Jon Gordon put it, “Great leaders don’t succeed because they are great. They succeed because they bring out the greatness in others.” You can set people up for success and ensure it is possible for them to do their best work by harnessing their strengths, supporting their weaknesses, granting them autonomy, giving them stretch assignments, removing roadblocks, and standing up for them.
You provide constructive feedback
If you're nervous about providing feedback to your employees, you’re not alone. A Harvard Business Review survey of over 7,000 managers, found that 44% find delivering constructive feedback stressful or difficult, with 21% altogether avoiding it. Despite your personal reservations though, employees need feedback as it clears up ambiguity, helps them make fewer mistakes, encourages ongoing learning, and builds trust. If you want to continue learning about this topic, Constructive Feedback: A Manager’s Guide To Giving Feedback That People Actually Want, should be your next read.
You break down silos
You’ll be hard-pressed to be able to complete projects, meet deadlines, and hit goals without collaborating with other teams and individuals across the organization. Yet, a silo mentality, where certain departments or teams do not wish to share information or resources with others, is prevalent in many organizations. When you’re in a management role, you’re now the delegate for your team or department in the organization. That means it’s up to you to break down silos by bringing others together, sharing your vision of why it is beneficial to all work together, and modelling the behaviors of collaboration and teamwork with your peers.
You lead up
Leading up, a concept developed in a book by Michael Useem, is one’s ability to influence the decisions made by more senior leaders in the organization, especially the person they report to, to help you achieve your goals. To be successful in management, you’ll need to build the influence you have on superiors in your organization. As Useem puts it in his book, “Leading up is the act of working with people above you – whether one boss, several bosses, a chief executive, a board of directors or even stockholders – to help them and you get a better job done.”
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8 Skills First Time Manager and Supervisors Should Learn ASAP
First time supervisors and managers have cited the three biggest leadership challenges they face as the adjustment to people management/displaying authority (59%), developing managerial and personal effectiveness (46%), and leading team achievement (43%). This makes sense seeing as the skills that once made you successful as an individual are vastly different from those you need in your newfound leadership position.
Fortunately, leadership development is a thriving 166 billion dollar business, which means that if you don’t have the leadership skills you need yet, there are countless leadership development programs available to help get you there.
Of course, with so many options at your fingertips, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. It can also feel like there’s so much to learn and so little time. If this is how you feel, bear in mind that leadership is a lifelong learning journey. From here on out, you will always be honing and developing your skills in an effort to become a better leader. But to start, we recommend focusing on the following leadership training topics and skills:
When the results produced by your team rest on your shoulders it is easy to fall into the trap of not delegating tasks that should be done by others. When you do this, those around you feel disengaged, not empowered, and that you do not trust them to do the job they were hired for.
For that reason, it is important for first-time managers and supervisors to develop their delegation skills as you shift from being the one doing the work, to the one leading the people doing it. Through delegation training, you will gain the skills and knowledge you need to determine what tasks should be delegated, clearly explain your expectations, and set boundaries on how much freedom employees have and when they need to involve you.
In the workplace, when you, your employees, and your colleagues are passionate about achieving results, conflict is bound to happen. Differing opinions, ideas, resource allocation, and personalities require you, as the leader, to step in, mediate, and turn what many feel is a negative situation into a positive one.
Given that conflict typically stems from the way someone responds or reacts to a situation, it’s important to have conflict resolution skills that will allow you to successfully defuse conflict when it happens. This knowledge and skillset will also help you in the long-term to create a team culture where the behaviors of those on the team are ones of listening, asking questions to understand, and respect.
The ability to communicate clearly and in a way that inspires those around you to take action is among the most vital skills for management success. Yet, the majority of supervisors and managers struggle with communication. So much so that in a survey, 91% of employees said their leader lacked communication skills.
When this happens, it results in leaders giving unclear expectations, not providing constructive feedback, avoiding coaching, and pulling back on communicating altogether. To avoid this, one of the first things you should seek out as a new manager is communication training. The best programs will help you develop the communication skills you need to lead in situations and scenarios such as in one-on-one meetings, performance reviews, and team meetings.
Being accountable yourself and holding others around you accountable is a skill often overlooked by first-time managers and supervisors. When you lead your team to be accountable, it means they take responsibility for their own actions and the success or failure which comes from those actions. As Canadian self-help author Bob Proctor puts it, “accountability is the glue that ties commitment to the results.”
When teams and employees are accountable it eliminates finger-pointing, missed deadlines, and possibly lackluster results. To drive accountability in an individual reporting to you, you will need new knowledge and skills. These include communicating expectations clearly, gaining commitment from the employee that they will be accountable to the task, establishing frequent checkpoints to ensure accountabilities are progressing and providing any coaching if needed, having difficult conversations when accountabilities are not met, and addressing performance issues when they arise.
When your team members have a wide range of differing personalities, experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives, collaboration and teamwork may not come naturally. According to the author of How to Build a Successful Team, an article featured in the New York Times, if this is the case then “Leaders have to play a far more hands-on role to make sure the group works well together and remains focused on the right priorities.”
Remember you’re now the one who needs to think about and cast a team vision, set goals and targets, and decide on the type of team culture you want. You’re also the one who must create an environment where each team member feels safe and motivated to share their ideas, try new things, and collaborate with others. Given that all of this is new to many first-time supervisors and managers, a fundamental leadership development program can be a huge contributor to your competence and confidence.
Your role as a manager or supervisor isn’t just to deliver results, it’s also up to you to bring out the best in each of your team members. This requires deliberate effort in developing others by providing motivation, coaching, and feedback. You should be their biggest cheerleader, invested in seeing them grow, and believe in their ability to succeed.
However, you cannot expect an employee to be open to and willing to apply coaching and feedback without first building a relationship that is built on mutual respect, trust, and honesty. Learning the skills to develop interpersonal relationships, provide coaching, and deliver feedback is crucial to not only your success but the success of those you lead.
One of the greatest things a manager can do for those around them is creating an environment where everyone feels like they belong. An environment where team members feel safe, accepted, welcomed, and valued. When this happens, team members are more engaged and connected to achieving team and company goals.
Attending leadership training focused on diversity and inclusion is the first step to creating an inclusive team environment. The knowledge, understanding, and skills gained will enable you to lead a team where the core value is inclusion.
New policies, procedures, initiatives, systems, and strategies are disruptive to your team’s engagement and productivity; there’s no way around it. Change is going to happen. While you may think it is the change your employees dread, in reality, it is the chaos that comes with it.
Fortunately, if you develop your change management skills before change happens, you will be more capable of mitigating the chaos everyone fears. This is done by communicating why change is happening, how it is beneficial to your team and the organization, and a timeline for what exactly will be changing.
Conclusion: Learn to Lead With Niagara Institute
It’s not an overstatement to say every day on the job in the first few weeks and months as a new supervisor or manager is an adventure. You’ll be presented with challenges you never could have anticipated that will stretch you far beyond your comfort zone. Needless to say, it’s a humbling, exciting, and nerve-wracking experience.
Given the magnitude of this transition, you should receive adequate training and development to ensure the transition is as smooth as possible. More specifically, a DDI study found that it was the new managers who received the following who experienced the smoothest transition.
Fortunately, with a partner like the Niagara Institute, this is entirely available to the everyday leader. So whether you have access to a formalized leadership development plan or not, you can still get the training, coaching, and assessments you need to get your career in leadership off on the right foot.
With open-enrollment training, you don’t have to wait for your company to offer the training program you want to take. Instead, you sign up for the program and date that works best for you and then attend a virtual session alongside leaders just like yourself from anywhere in the world to learn the skills you need, when you need them.
Working with a one-to-one coach is a truly personalized development experience as it is entirely focused on you. Based on your goals and personality, a coach with the experience, tools, and approach will be selected. They then work directly with you over a set period of time to further develop your skills, provide situational advice, act as a sounding board, and navigate challenges or roadblocks.
With Niagara Institute's extensive network of training and development partners who are top in their field, we’ll be able to source you the leadership assessments you need to personalize your leadership development plan and get the training or coaching you need most.
Whatever steps you take to gain the competence and confidence you need as a first-time manager or supervisor, the Niagara Institute and our team of partners look forward to supporting you along the way!
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After filling out the form, we will send you to the PDF version and also a copy to your email so you can file it away or share it with other people leaders like yourself.