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How First Time Managers Can Become Great Leaders

After years of being an individual contributor, now is your chance to step up to the plate as a manager and be an advocate for your team. First time managers have been granted the significant responsibility to lead and develop the relationships, work and future of their teams. For some first time managers, this may be welcome news. For others, it may be terrifying.

Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of emotions, it’s important to recognize that leadership can be learned. Among the many resources readily available to you, there is a combination of skill sets that can enhance your ability to positively impact your direct reports and, ultimately, the organization at large.

Leading People vs. Managing Work

Managing and leading are not necessarily synonymous. There are key differences between a manager and a leader. Management consists of controlling a group or set of entities to accomplish a goal. Leadership, however, refers to an individual’s ability to influence, motivate and enable others to contribute toward organizational success. At this point in your career, you have likely experienced both. Which one had a more positive impact on your growth and success?

As a leader, you have a unique opportunity to support and influence the career progression of your team members, as well as encourage employee engagement. When you only focus on balancing the priorities of your headcount and goal achievement, you miss a key ingredient of your team: the people.

You should provide a balance of autonomy and collaboration within your team. This cultivates a strong foundation for workplace productivity. Inc suggests letting your employees source, evaluate and execute their own projects. Your top team members will be eager to take on new challenges, although some are inclined to wait for assignments to be handed down to them. This approach gives leaders and organizations a chance to capitalize on and evaluate their team’s creativity and ingenuity.

Developing effective collaboration within your team, and across departments, is equally important. All too often, different departments within an organization can start to operate like independent units. When this happens over a long period of time, workers within those compartmentalized units begin to lose sight of the company as a whole and they may even feel disconnected from their colleagues. Share details of your team’s work with other parts of the organization and encourage your team to share their own, and their colleagues’ highlights. This boosts alliances and invigorates employees to champion one another’s work.

Your employees are on the front lines, producing output for the greater team and organization. Their learnings and perspective should be a function of your overall strategy. So, start with them. What do your individual contributors need to feel empowered to succeed? How can you support and advocate for them?

Frequent Calibration

Advocate, First Time Manager, Leadership

Spend time creating a supportive environment for their experience. Consistent meetings both with individuals and as a team, encourages a feedback loop from all parties. This allows you, as the leader, visibility into the day to day tasks of each team member. Additionally, it creates a space for folks to speak about anything they may be blocked on, concerned with or excited about. Schedule 1:1s weekly or bi-weekly, depending on bandwidth.

Beyond individual 1:1 meetings where you discuss workload and projects – set up a monthly development meeting where you focus on individual team member’s career goals and progression. This is an extremely valuable way to connect with your team. Teams are made up of individuals. Individuals are focused not only on their role and impact to the organization, but also on how they can grow in their career. Regularly addressing goals and needs form a basis for a relationship-centered workplace because people are an organizations greatest asset.

Offer learning and development opportunities such as continuing education programs, leadership, and/or diversity and inclusion training to support professional goals, while also contributing to the teams overarching organizational impact. Cultivating this culture, exemplifies an organizational interest in individual contributor‘s career progression.


Transparency, Communication, Advocacy, Leadership

Open, honest and transparent communication goes a long way for first time managers. But it takes practice. Ask questions and answer questions. The best questions are open-ended and elicit deeper conversation. Try questions like “What do you feel like you should know but aren’t confident in yet?” or “What have been your peaks and valleys this week?”. And here’s my personal favorite: “What has been surprising that you didn’t expect in the role?” Through this process, managers can detect job satisfaction/job fit issues early and address them head on.  

Remember that you are the liaison between your direct reports and senior leadership. It is your responsibility to communicate the greater goals and expectations of the organization to your team. It is also your responsibility to communicate the professional needs, wants, and concerns of your team, to your manager and beyond. Encouraging this communication flow builds trust with all parties.  

Celebrate the little wins (and the big ones, too) as a team. Then share your team’s praises with the greater organizationExpressing gratitude, even just ‘Thank you’, encourages and engages employeesRecognition is key for building a strong working relationship, as well as employee loyalty. Acknowledging and presenting the successes of your team to your manager (and beyond), on a regular basis, allows you to further advocate for individual team members promotions, raises, and/or lateral movement within the org.  

Constructive criticism is inevitable, and necessary. Provide thorough feedback when individuals underperform to keep employees on track. Keep your team members informed about areas of their role that could use improvement – in a timely matter – to help your team advance forward on future deliverables.  

Ultimately, having a good understanding of an individual’s professional strengths and areas in need of development, can help you better support both your individual employees, and the cohesion of your team.  

Compensation and Benefits

Compensation and Benefits, Job Collaboration, HR, Promotions, Advocacy

In PayScale’s latest research report ‘Why They Quit You’, 25 percent of respondents said their primary reason for seeking new employment outside of their current organization was to make more money. For first time managers, allowing your direct reports to share their thoughts through frequent communication gives you the opportunity to encourage retention. Managers should be as transparent as possible when communicating compensation changes across the organization. If you believe employees are your most valuable asset, make sure they are being paid equitably 

Aside from the employee themselves, managers have the most visibility into how jobs are changing over time.Work closely with HR to keep the job descriptions of your direct reports up to date. These play an import role in determining pay, motivating employees, and retaining your team. Accurate and detailed job descriptions help describe success and have an impact on employees’ ability to succeed in their role. Additionally, if your job descriptions include the “right” or most “current” skills, they can help you identify any gaps in skills that may exist within employees.   (Job Collaboration CTA) 

In this tight labor market where top employees have many choices, a 5 percent salary underpayment may be enough to send your key talent to the competition. First time managers – and all managers – should have ongoing conversations with their direct reports and HR around compensation. This is vital for your individual contributors, your team, and the greater organization’s retention. 

Key Takeaways:

As a first time manager, you have the chance to project a team culture of empowerment and inclusion. Create a framework for success by fostering meaningful professional relationships with your direct reports. Your role is to influence and enable your team towards personal, group, and organization goalsThe key is to encourage both autonomy and collaboration.  

Regular 1:1 and professional development meetings give your direct reports an opportunity to express their current sentiment, share ideas, and present their goals in a safe space. Team members are more likely to feel heard and respected when they are given a chance to express their thoughts.  

Strong communication is imperative. Increase clarity among your direct reports by asking open-ended questions. Simultaneously, keep in mind that you are the intermediary between your individual contributors and the greater organization. Celebrate and share your teams’ wins across departments. However, don’t forget to provide constructive feedback privately and in a timely manner. Transparency will allow you to see your employees strengths and weaknesses.  

With your direct reports strengths and weaknesses in mind, you can have conversations with HR to ensure that your team is being paid fairlyA best practice is for you to work with HR to update job descriptions regularly, as they change over time. This process may also help identify gaps in skills that may already exist within your team members.  

Advocating for your new team necessitates empowerment, inclusion, transparency, and fair pay. Practice these impactful methods to create success for your team, and your overall organization.  

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TELL US What you think

As a first time leader, how did you advocate for your team? Let us know in the comments below. 

Nicole Tessier
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Patrick Tessier
Patrick Tessier

Excellent article!

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