The ultimate guide to leadership for first-time managers
Congratulations on moving to your first ever management role!
Whether you finally landed that big promotion or you're taking your first steps into management at a brand new company, you’re making a huge leap up the career ladder.
Suddenly your working day will be very different. Instead of operating on the front line of the business, you’ll be a stepping stone between entry-level staff and senior management.
It’s your job to help the former succeed and make sure that the latter are satisfied. You’ll need a very different skillset to what you’ve been using so far in your career.
With the size of the task ahead of you, it’s not surprising that you may have some concerns about becoming a manager.
Yes, management does require a different skillset, and a different mindset to your former role. But if you’re well prepared and understand your new responsibilities and how best to fulfill them, you can step into that first team meeting full of confidence.
This guide will walk you through your preparation for your first managerial role, show you how to build and shape your leadership style, and ultimately make a storming success of your new job.
Let’s get started!
Assuming that you’ve been given more than five minutes’ warning of your new role, there’s time to do some prep work before your first day!
Your team's first impression of you, their new manager, will define your relationship for the initial weeks and months of your role. That’s why it’s crucial to prepare thoroughly for your first day.
#1 Get in touch
If at all possible, ask your new boss if it’s possible for you to contact your new team before your first day as their manager. There may be issues around this if you’re starting at the company rather than being promoted internally, but you may be able to get hold of their work email addresses. In fact, email may be the best communication channel for your introduction.
Here’s a template to get your started:
Hi [first name],
I’m [your name], your new manager - I’ll be starting on [date]. I’m excited to get started and meet you in person. I’ve long admired the work your team/company does, and I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to help shape its future.
Previously, I worked as [job title] at [company/department], but I’m looking forward to moving to this new role because it allows me to contribute to [X] and [Y].
On my first day, I’ll arrange one-to-one meetings with you and the others on the team, but in the meantime I’d love to learn more about your role within the team and what you’re currently working on.
And if you have any questions for me, please send them my way - I’ll do my best to answer them. Looking forward to working with you!
We recommend personalising these emails as much as you can - employees will appreciate that you went to the effort of composing separate emails instead of sending everyone identical messages. Little things like this are key to making the right impression.
These email conversations will set the tone for future communications with your team - bear that in mind when typing your responses to any replies!
#2 Reach out to senior managers
All too often new managers are so focused on managing their team that they forget they also need to foster relationships with senior managers.
They’ll decide your budget and resources, so it’s best to be cordial towards them as soon as possible! In particular, speak to senior managers about the goals for your team and if there are any key performance indicators (KPIs) you should focus on.
If you’re not sure who you’ll be reporting to, you could speak to your interviewers to find out.
Ask senior managers about the tools and equipment currently used by your new team. Find out about hardware (PC or Mac?), software, and specialist equipment you might require. Knowing the resources you have to work with is important if you’re to hit the ground running.
#3 Contact other junior managers
Other junior managers at the company can become valuable peers and mentors as you embark upon your managerial career. If you’ve been promoted to your new role, reach out to managers you know through work.
If you’re moving to the company for the first time, connect with managers on LinkedIn beforehand. Try to keep these conversations friendly but professional. Ask about company culture. See if they have any advice for you in your new role.
#4 Brainstorm ideas for change, but don’t set your heart on them
You probably made the move into management because you wanted to change the company for the better by guiding and leading a specific team to success. If you already have plenty of ideas about how to switch up your new team, note them down.
By all means, research their viability and calculate the costs and benefits associated with each of your ideas, but don’t fixate on them.
Once you’re a few months into your new role, you’ll be better placed to understand how changes will affect your team and the company as a whole.
Are you ready for your first day as a manager?
By the time you set foot in your new office, you should be confident that you understand your new responsibilities, your team’s goals, and the role of each employee who’ll be under your watch.
Your first day as manager
The very first day in your new role is the most important of all. Leading an already established team has its benefits, but also its problems for a new manager like you:
- You’ll constantly be compared with the previous manager.
- Employees will be concerned about the changes you’ll make.
- They’ll wonder if your leadership style will help or hinder them.
And it’s important not to forget your new boss, either. After all, it’s them that you need to impress the most.
Regardless of whether you’ve already been introduced over email, keep your in-person introductions with employees short.
Once you’ve exchanged introductions, show that you’ve done your research and explain why the company have brought you in, and what you hope to achieve (keep it broad).
Explain that you’ll arrange a series of one-to-one meetings over the coming days to get to know the team better.
The main purpose of these meetings is to understand the role of each employee and any concerns they have. Listen to both positive and negative feedback about individual roles and the team as a whole.
This’ll help you figure out team dynamics, such as any leaders within the group, introverts and extroverts, and preferred ways of working. You’ll also unearth potential problems with processes, tools and equipment as employees see a new manager as a chance to upend slow or broken systems.
These meetings will also be an opportunity to learn more about the aspirations of your team, helping you understand how its composition might change in the future. Ask staff members to help you get up to speed with current progress on projects.
Finally, if you’ve been promoted to manager from within the team itself, reset your working relationships with your former colleagues. Explain that things have changed, and you need them to treat you as the manager you are. Set expectations about the nature of your new working relationship so that there are no misunderstandings further down the line.
Ask for anonymous feedback
Employees are unlikely to be 100% honest with a new manager who’s looking to make changes, so open the door to anonymous feedback, too.
You can use Google Forms for this, or specialist anonymous survey tools like TINYpulse or Officevibe.
Meet senior managers
Your success as a manager doesn’t only depend on how you manage your team, but also the strength of your relationship with your manager in turn. If there are any management meetings scheduled, attend them.
Again, your first meetings with senior management should be more about listening rather than talking. You don’t know enough about the company and your current team to be able to ‘sell’ big changes to those above you.
Listen, learn, and revisit the topic at a later date.
Your first week as manager
Once the introductions are over, your first week as a manager should be dedicated to relationship building and information gathering.
Continue to communicate with senior management on a regular basis - not just to clarify anything you’re unsure of in your new role, but also to remind them of your commitment and determination to achieve the company’s goals.
It is senior management that dictates the resources you have available to carry out your plans. For your team to have the right tools for the job, you need to have a strong relationship with those above you so that you can easily gain their ear and a budget boost when you need it.
Listen and learn
Spend time this week learning more about how your team operates. Find out more about the software used by your employees, and how it works. Learn what the typical day looks like for different employees, and be on the lookout for any inefficiencies, or processes that particularly impress you.
Only by understanding the tasks that your employees complete will you be able to suggest suitable changes and make improvements in the future. And when your employees are showing you the ropes, you’re bound to learn more about their ability to communicate familiar concepts with those who are less familiar!
Your first team meeting
Once you’re confident that you have a solid understanding of your role and your team, hold your first team meeting. Open by explaining how you intend to lead the team, and summarise what you’ve learnt during your first week. Give your team the chance to correct or clarify what you’ve said before continuing.
The remainder of the meeting should focus on two or three issues that you’d like to prioritise during your first few months as a manager.
These could include things like:
- Updating software
- Reducing miscommunication
- Fast-tracking a project
- Improving training and onboarding
Don’t commit to any big changes at this stage - your team will still be wary of your motivations, and it’s likely that you won’t completely understand the various problems your team faces, nor the wider company dynamics.
Set aside part of your meeting time to invite individuals to share concerns that are shared by multiple employees within your team. Let them argue their case. Listen, and make notes.
You might not have an answer for the employee now, but give them a timeframe for a response. Find those answers. Communicate your findings, and your decision, by the date you promised.
By showing employees that you stay true to your word, you’ll quickly gain their trust.
Leading by example
Your behaviour during your first week as a manager will influence the behaviour of your team. Even if you don’t intend to, you will be setting an example.
Take a long lunch break, and your employees will start to do the same.
Take personal calls at the office, and employees will do the same.
Just because you’re the manager, it’s not OK to brazenly flout the rules you expect your team to follow.
Be aware of all the small actions you take at the office, and how your team might interpret them. For example, by leaving the office shortly after 5pm you signal to your employees that you don’t expect them to stay late. This is useful if your team struggles with stress and you want to improve their work-life balance.
Your actions during your first week can have a huge impact on the actions of the rest of your team.
Top leadership skills you need to succeed
When you become a manager for the first time, you need to become a leader, too. That might sound scary, but the good news is that no one is born a leader.
Sure, some people are naturally more suited to leadership roles, but all of us can learn, study, and train enough to become capable leaders.
When you're moving to your first leadership role, it's important to recognise the leadership skills you lack, as well as those you already have. While the skills you need will depend on your role, your team and your employer, there are some qualities that will almost always come in handy.
Excellent verbal, non-verbal, and written communication are essential if you're to succeed as a manager. You need to be able to clearly communicate with those above and below you, as you'll be responsible for delegating tasks, sharing your ideas, and reporting to senior management.
It's vital that you understand how to delegate without micromanaging, how best to communicate during difficult situations, and how to use precise language to communicate your points.
Empathy is an underappreciated quality in the management world, but it's key if you're to build a strong, loyal team. As an empathetic manager, you'll be able to read and understand the emotions of your team, helping you navigate tricky workplace conflicts and defuse difficult situations before they cause any damage.
Empathy can be as simple as noticing an employee isn't their usual self, taking them to one side and asking them if they're OK. This straightforward understanding of your team's emotions will help you build strong bonds with your employees, improving their engagement in the long term.
#3 Time management and prioritising
Managers need to keep their team – and their new boss – happy. You'll soon find that you'll be pulled in multiple directions. You won't have time to complete every task put in front of you.
Time management and prioritising tasks will therefore be critical to your success as a manager. You must be able to identify and prioritise the most important tasks, and learn how to diplomatically delay or delegate less critical items.
#4 Ability to motivate
A manager who's able to motivate those around them is a valuable asset for any business. The ability to inspire employees to excel in their roles is often what separates a good manager from a great one. Of course, motivation isn't just about pep talks and inspirational quotes.
Employees are motivated in different ways, and it's your job to figure out what makes individual employees tick. It could be results, or money, or making a difference that motivates them. Learn how to understand employee motivations, and how to adjust your management style based on them.
As a manager, you'll quickly learn that you won't be able to keep everyone happy all of the time. You'll need to make compromises. It's unlikely you'll ever find a solution to a problem that works for everyone.
Problem-solving skills help you figure out the best solution to a given problem. There are different ways to approach problem solving: you can be logical and methodical, or apply lateral, creative thinking to try to find a solution. It's useful to understand both these approaches and when to use them.
#6 Strategic thinking
Thinking strategically means considering the 'big picture'. Instead of focusing on managing the short-term, strategic thinkers plan for the future thanks to their understanding of industry trends, the company's position, and how your team's contributions will change during the years to come.
It's not easy to think strategically when you're desperately trying to manage your immediate workload, but it's a must if you're to impress those above you and progress further up the management ladder.
Adaptability is an essential skill for everyone in the workforce, given the rapid pace of change in today's world. Whatever the driver of change, as a manager you need to be able to adapt to it. Whether it's utilising a new technology, changing workflows or responding quickly to crises, you must be confident in your ability to adapt.
New responsibilities or unforeseen challenges shouldn't faze you. Instead of ploughing on in a straight line, you must be able to change your course when facing obstacles.
#8 Planning and organising
It's not the most exciting part of management, but planning is critical if you're to manage your team successfully. Whether it's organising tasks for an upcoming project or simply planning the staff rota, you'll need to have the drive and know-how for completing this all-important paperwork.
Other skills come into play here, including written communication, strategic thinking and time management. Your organisational skill is the glue that holds projects and processes together. Without it, all of your big ideas will break apart.
In business, vision is the overarching idea of what you want the company to be. As a manager, you must understand senior management's vision of the company, as well as developing your own vision for your team or department.
Having a clear vision of the future of your team helps engage employees in their work, as they have a broader, long-term goal to work towards - that they might even be passionate about! Vision is different to strategic thinking as it focuses on an intangible goal, rather than how to get there.
How many of the skills in this list do you possess? Be honest. If you're able to answer that question relatively easily, you definitely have some self-awareness!
A self-aware manager understands their strengths as well as their weaknesses. They seek help from others when their own expertise is lacking. They know that they need to learn, and they take opportunities to do so. Finally, self-aware managers are conscious of their own emotions, health and stress levels. They know when they need to step back before making a decision, or when their workload is unmanageable.
Learning these skills
It's unlikely that you possess all ten of these skills. Bearing in mind the requirements of your role, choose two or three of these skills to improve over the next six months. Do your research, watch other leaders in action, or turn to a mentor for advice. If you're keen to learn and improve, you're well on the way to becoming a successful manager!
Finding the right leadership style
Having the right leadership skills is important, but it's how you interact with your team (and, well, lead) that determines your success.
It's important to find a leadership style that works for you and your team. This'll provide consistency that employees will appreciate.
Your leadership style will be partially determined by your skills, but the best leaders succeed because their leadership style adapts to fit the current situation.
They know when to take a step back and let employees get on with it, and they know when they need to micromanage.
They know when to ask for more from individuals, and when to ease their workload.
Let's take a look at the different types of leadership style and when they're most effective.
This leadership style gives the manager complete authority over their team. The leader makes all the decisions without consulting anyone below them, and they dictate all guidelines, procedures and processes.
Communication tends to be one-way - from the leader to the employees.
When it works: If employees require close supervision, or when there's a looming deadline.
When it doesn't: If creativity is required, or when employees are highly skilled.
Key quote: "Here's what you're doing today.";
Pacesetting leaders want only the best from their team. They expect employees to perform to the highest standard in the sector, and they hold themselves to the same standards, too. Pacesetting leaders expect employees to work independently, but when their work isn't up to scratch, the leader will take over.
Under a pacesetting leader, demands on employees are high, and there may be little opportunity for employees to provide feedback to the leader.
When it works: When the team is motivated, competent, and has a short-term goal or deadline.
When it doesn't: When applied over long periods of time, or when the leader themselves isn't competent.
Key quote: "If you can't meet this goal, we need to talk.";
This leadership style is all about big ideas. A visionary leader is able to communicate their vision for the team (and the wider company) with their employees, inspiring and motivating them to perform at their best.
Visionary leaders are reliant on their team to bring their ideas to life, and tend to take a hands off approach to management.
When it works: When your brand is bringing something different to the market, or when your team is short on motivation.
When it doesn't: If employees struggle with details or don't believe the leader's vision is grounded in reality. A visionary leader may also brush aside immediate problems as they're so focused on the big picture.
Key quote: "Through our work, we can build a better future.";
The coaching leadership style focuses on continual employee development. The leader acts as a coach, passing on their own skills to others on their team. This fosters a positive working environment where the leader genuinely wants the employees to succeed.
Communication runs in both directions as employees frequently turn to their manager for advice and feedback.
When it works: When employees want to learn and develop, when the leader is highly skilled and when they're effective teachers.
When it doesn't: In high-pressure environments that require immediate results.
Key quote: "Let me show you how this works."
Democratic or participative
Democratic leaders invite employees to take part in almost all decision-making processes.
Communication works both ways, and the leader listens to feedback regardless of an employee's seniority. Importantly, the leader still makes the final decision.
When it works: In creative environments where employees are highly competent and have near-complete knowledge of each situation where their input is sought.
When it doesn't: When leaders constantly ignore employee input, or when difficult decisions need to be made quickly
Key quote: "What do you think?"
This leadership style is the opposite of autocratic leadership. The leader never directly supervises their team, with little to no communication in either direction. Instead, employees are left to get on with their work and make most decisions without being interrupted or managed.
When it works: When employees are highly experienced and motivated.
When it doesn't: Whenever employees struggle to find motivation if they aren't supervised, or when there are tough targets to meet.
Key quote: "If you have everything you need, I'll leave you to it."
Affiliative leaders focus on building strong bonds within their team. Their main priorities are ensuring that the team works well together, and that each employee remains positive, motivated, and engaged.
Communication is two-way, and frequent. People always come before targets.
When it works: When morale is low, or when you're bringing a team together for the first time.
When it doesn't: When you're struggling with direction and/or performance
Key quote: "Is there anything I can do to help?"
Shifting leadership styles
As you can see, there isn't a perfect leadership style that works in every single situation. The best leaders are able to adjust their leadership style depending on the team, current circumstances, and your goals.
But few first-time managers have the skillset to switch between these styles with ease. You might have the people skills to perfect the affiliative leadership style, but you struggle to switch to a pacesetting style when you need to ask more of your team.
If you're not used to certain leadership styles, your attempts to adopt them are unlikely to be immediately successful.
Employees won't take your talk of deadlines and targets seriously if it conflicts with your usual softer leadership style. And if your typical style tends to be slightly autocratic, a sudden pivot to laissez-faire leadership will be met scepticism and confusion.
That means that you should be prepared to adapt your leadership style based on the situation, rather than completely reinventing it.
Dos and don'ts
You will make mistakes in your first management role.
And you'll learn from them.
But by doing your homework, you can avoid making the same mistakes that pretty much every new manager makes.
This'll give you a head start in your new role, impress your boss and put you on the fast-track to further advancement.
Here are our top tips for new managers.
Do keep learning
You've made it as a manager, but that doesn't mean you can stop learning. As well as developing your management skills, try to learn the basics involved in every role within your team. Sure, you don't need to suddenly become an expert programmer or award-winning designer, but it helps to understand the processes and tools each member of your team uses on a daily basis.
It's surprisingly difficult not to micromanage when you start off as a new manager. After all, you're so used to working on the front line of the business that it's a hard habit to break. But if you're to win over your team, micromanaging is just about the worst thing you can do.
Do think beyond now
You may not have had the luxury of looking to the future in your previous role, but now that you're a manager, you should dedicate a significant amount of time to planning for the medium and long term. If you're always busy fighting fires, you'll never have the chance to implement the changes you're desperate to make. To get there, delegate more tasks and revamp key processes one by one.
Don’t get emotional
Even if an employee's actions leave you seething with anger, always rein in your emotions before discussing the issue. You don't want to gain a reputation as a manager with a short temper who threatens and insults employees instead of reacting professionally. If you need to, take some time to calm down before meeting with the employee in question. This'll help you form a more coherent set of arguments.
Do work hard to secure resources
Whether it's software, hardware, or more employees that your team needs, you must do your best to secure the required resources from your boss. Your team are counting on you to persuade senior management to invest in them.
Don't deflect criticism onto your team
As a manager, you must give your team all the credit after a successful project, but equally, you must take responsibility when something goes wrong. Sure, an employee's mistakes may have contributed to the problem, but you should never push the blame onto your employees. Your boss won't be impressed that you deflected criticism instead of admitting fault. You should have double-checked that project for mistakes before you signed off on it.
Do praise your team – publicly and privately
Recognising the achievements of employees is critical if they're to stay motivated at work. Some team members will prefer to be given credit publicly – in a company-wide email, on the website, or even in the press – while others are happier with private praise. Learn what motivates each of your team members.
Don't act differently with senior management
This should go without saying, but many managers present a different side to senior managers without even thinking about it. Don't start moaning about your team when you're talking to your boss if you've told your employees that you back them completely. Similarly, don't sit there singing your team's praises if you've spent the week telling them to up their game. Be authentic and honest.
Do familiarise yourself with company policy
Discipline, absence, social media, dress code, and any other company policies are critical to your new role. Familiarise yourself with all these policies, and do your best to apply them fairly when necessary. You may be tempted to take your own informal approach to dealing with employee disputes, but this route will only lead to inconsistency, and, potentially, expensive employment tribunals.
Don't send mixed messages to your team
As an employee, you've probably worked under a manager who gave you conflicting feedback. They might praise your work in the same sentence as a hefty criticism. They might tell you your work is off the pace but only yesterday said you were ahead of schedule. Don't be that manager.
Do what you say you’re going to do
Again, if your team can't trust you to stick to your word, they're going to quickly become disengaged. Don't promise anything that you can't deliver.
Don't jump to conclusions
Even if there seems to be an obvious reason behind a dispute or incident, take time to gather more information before pointing fingers or turning to disciplinary measures. You could easily ruin someone's reputation at the business, or even their entire career, by jumping to conclusions before finding out the facts.
You'd be surprised at the number of managers who don't get the basics right – or make any effort to improve their management style.
By applying what you've learnt from this guide and, most importantly, adapting these lessons based on your team, company and goals, your new managerial career should be off to a flying start!
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