How to Support Your First-Time Manager for Success

Manager speaking with employee across a desk
Gettyimages/ ONOKY - Eric Audras

The hard work of developing a new manager begins, not ends at the time of the promotion. Unfortunately, too many senior managers get this entirely wrong. They identify an individual with “leadership potential,” extend a promotion, fund a training course and then proceed to disappear, leaving the first-time manager to flail and often fail.

This flawed formula is painful for all individuals involved and costly for the organization.

Sadly, this process is repeated over and over again in our organizations. When addressing this issue in workshops and coaching programs, a number of common themes emerge, including: 

  • First-time managers often describe being left to “sink or swim” in their new role. Armed with little context for the challenges of directing and developing others, the rookie managers frequently resort to morale killing micro-managing and dictatorial practices.
  • Senior managers often describe believing that “on the job” training is the best and only way to learn how to manage others. They cite their own experience in being “tossed into the fire” in their first management role.
  • New managers almost universally describe wanting more coaching, feedback and feed-forward to support learning.
  • Team members of unguided first-time managers express significant frustration over the aberrant behaviors and styles of their rookie bosses. They wish that observation, coaching and on-going training were part of the start-up process for their new manager.

    It is time to put an end to this slipshod approach to developing new leadership talent.

    If you are involved in identifying and managing first-time supervisors or managers, your commitment to the following 9 mentoring and coaching activities will significantly reduce the odds of first-time manager burnout.


    9 Activities to Help You Mentor First-Time Managers on Your Team:

    1. Remain involved, regardless of other pressing priorities. This point is critical. The success or failure of this individual is your responsibility. They are a reflection of you and your leadership, and you owe it to yourself, the new manager and the extended team to do everything in your power to help the start-up process succeed.

    2. Challenge the new manager early on to define his/her leadership approach and values. A powerful question I repeat regularly and that works perfectly here: “At the end of your time with this team, what do you want them to say that you did?”  I love the practice of challenging managers at all levels to articulate what they stand for and what they want to be known for. While our perspectives change over time, running this activity with a first-time manager forces him/her to articulate their early leadership philosophy and values.

    3. Find ample opportunities to observe the new manager and offer timely, behavioral feedback and feed-forward. Nothing beats observation over a variety of settings to develop an understanding of where an individual is succeeding and struggling. While you do not want to have to be present constantly, a blend of planned and spontaneous observations will help you offer meaningful feedback and coaching guidance.

    4. Extend training programs beyond the classroom and into the workplace. Too often, the learning ends with the training program. Work hard to help your manager implement, apply and extend the training  beyond the actual event. Encourage the individual to develop and present you with a post-program action-plan. Remember to review progress against the plan in your regular coaching sessions. 

    5. Meet with your new manager’s team members one-on-one to gauge reactions and gather coaching ideas. This idea is often controversial. It should not be. Make it clear to your new manager that you will continue to talk with his/her team members and that you will listen carefully to their perspectives for hints on potential strengths and gaps. Be certain to let your manager know that you will not use this input to pass judgment, but rather to help identify additional areas for observation and possible coaching.


    6. Meet regularly with your new manager and use questions, not statements to promote reflection and learning.

    • How are you doing?
    • What’s working?
    • What’s not?
    • What is the most difficult part of the new role for you?
    • How do you perceive people are responding to you?
    • Why?
    • What do you think you should do about it?
    • What will you do differently the next time?

    7. Identify and enroll a more experienced peer-manager to serve as a sounding board for your new manager. Your involvement in priceless however, it helps if the new manager has a peer to discuss difficult issues and share experiences.

    8. Challenge your new manager with a series of increasingly difficult assignments. As your manager displays competence at the fundamentals, ramp up the scale and scope of the challenges. Ask the new manager to lead an initiative to solve a particular problem. Later, ask the manager to form and coach but not lead a team in pursuit of a particular issue. Timely and deliberate exposure to increasingly difficult challenges will turbocharge development and help identify additional strengths and gaps.

    9. Give the new manager an out during the first year. Not everyone is cut out to manage. If you or both of you decide it is not working, provide an exit path and allow the individual to return to a contributor role. The promotion should never be a prison or life sentence. Nor should this developmental initiative cost you a good employee. 

    The Bottom-Line for Now:

    Developing the leadership talent on your team and in your firm offers a remarkable return on investment. Prioritize your efforts accordingly.