How first-time managers learn to be brilliant leaders

Young employee presenting

Becoming a manager for the first time may be a milestone achievement for you, or a job thrust upon you by necessity. Either way, stepping into a role as new manager can be daunting, overwhelming and much harder than expected.

The fact is, what made you successful in the past as a specialist does not guarantee your success as a manager of others. There are new skills and behaviours you’ll have to adopt, and others you’ll need to let go of if you want to be a brilliant leader.

How to overcome 4 common challenges faced by first-time managers

1. Shifting your identity from an individual specialist to an enabler of others

The transition from being responsible solely for your own success, into a role which requires delivery through others, is new territory. It requires ‘letting go of some assumptions about what good performance is’ and shifting how you see yourself as a leader. 

This change of identity, from individual contributor to enabler of others, is a difficult mindset shift to make, especially when you’re strongly attached to being a specialist in your field.

Here are some helpful ways to manage this transition:

Change your thinking to ‘us’ not ‘me’

Aim to let go of the concept that it’s just about ‘me’ and rather, now, it’s about ‘us’, the team. This means valuing the outcome of your team over the value of your individual contribution.

Develop good relationships

Work towards letting go of the need for independence and self-sufficiency. Instead, focus on developing good relationships with others and working together with a shared purpose.

View situations from multiple perspectives

Doing your job fast and with clear-cut solutions becomes less valuable as a first-time manager. Gathering information and seeing situations from multiple perspectives is increasingly important.

Create consensus and accountability in your team

Although useful, your authority and the hierarchy will start to lessen in value as a first-time manager. Rather, you should focus on creating consensus in your team, mutual accountability and shared decision-making.


2. Building an engaged team

One of your biggest tasks ahead is the responsibility for building and managing a high performing team. Here are some tips on how keep people engaged

Release control and enable the team instead

When starting as a new manager, there is overnight accountability for a whole team. With this pressure you may revert to behaving in ways which previously worked for you such as doing the technical, specialist tasks. You’ll need to let go of these tasks and let the team handle it instead.

Think about your communication style

It’s important you learn how to communicate effectively with your new team. Not just in emails and meetings but the non-verbal cues of body language, voice and how you treat people too.

For example, think about how you act in team meetings, do you ask for ideas and views making the meeting a two-way conversation, or are you using meetings to dump information onto your team?

Be clear about your team’s purpose

Having a shared goal is essential to creating a cohesive team dynamic. One of the first things you can do as a new manager is co-create a really clear team purpose which articulates why the team is important to the business.


3. Managing work-friends and peers

Moving into a first-time management role could mean leading people who are work-friends and people who were previously peers. This can feel awkward for all parties involved so these pointers can help everyone feel more comfortable.

Use a ‘contracting’ approach

Talk together about what will be different, what the issues might be and how the situation could be approached. Talk about how support can be given both ways; it’s important to see the other person’s point of view. Then make an agreement about how to go forward.

Be honest and vulnerable

You should not be expected to be a brilliant leader straight away. Instead, be honest with your team and ask for support while you learn. Ask them to trust you and let them know you’re open to feedback.

Be yourself

Becoming a manager does not mean changing your personality. It’s ok to be the same person you were previously. Your authenticity will shine through if you stay true to yourself.


4. Developing yourself as a manager

In your new role you’ll need to add to your specialist knowledge and begin to specifically focus on your development as a manager. Considering these tips can help: 

Get to grips with the basics

Make sure you know the basics of being a manager such as information about holiday entitlement, sickness policy and flexible working and how to hold a performance conversation.

Make self-awareness a priority

Being self-aware and reflective is an essential skill to develop. This will help you clarify existing skills and what your gaps are, then seek-out ways to develop. Thinking about the leadership you’ve encountered before will help, the good and the bad, what you can learn from. Then model the best behaviours going forward.

Ask for feedback

Ask your team for constructive feedback. Although daunting, it can provide the rich data you need to identify blind-spots and develop from there. Crucially, this assists with developing a culture of openness and trust in the team.
Learn from every situation

Being a new manager can feel a daunting task, so the ability to ‘fail forward’ and learn from mistakes will help you thrive and become a better manager each time. 


What it takes to become a manager for the first time

Firstly, it’s important to recognise that the transition into becoming a manager for the first time is an emotional journey which takes time. Try not to expect immediate results. Instead seek-out meaningful support that helps you through the transition.

In time, with the right mindset, development, support and coaching, you’ll be taking steps to becoming a brilliant leader.

We’d love to hear your personal experiences of becoming a manager for the first time. Let us know the toughest challenge you faced or your best tip for first-time managers in the comments below.