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First-Time Managers Are Often Ill-Prepared for Their New Role

New managers can face a steep learning curve, making training and mentoring essential to their success.

A group of people are congratulating each other on their promotion.
Being in charge is a stressful job, as even the most experienced managers will tell you. When managers are new to their positions, there is often a steep learning curve, compounding that stress. An effective transition to their new role that includes training and mentoring can be crucial to the success of rookie managers. Without it, they can falter, bringing their teams down with them.

A 2023 nationwide survey by Harris Research and Oji—a provider of soft skills training—of 2,066 employees that examined the performance of first-time managers found that an inexperienced and unprepared new manager can have real business and human costs. For workers who had a negative experience with a poor manager:

  • 41 percent said they were stressed or anxious about reporting to work.
  • 34 percent wanted to leave the organization.
  • 31 percent wanted to change managers by changing jobs or teams within their company.
  • 31 percent lost confidence in their company overall.

A Learned Skill

With little or no training in decision-making, running a meeting or knowing how to defuse conflicts, an untrained manager can harm even a well-oiled team, says Matt Kursh, CEO and founder of the San Francisco-based Oji. 

“It’s no surprise that freshly minted managers have anxious teams that want to quit,” he notes. Unprepared managers, he says, “are unskilled at decision-making, cultivating good communications, coaching people to success and a range of other universal leadership skills.”

Effectively managing others is a learned skill that can take time. Becoming a manager “is a head, heart and hands deal,” says Linda Hill, a Harvard Business School professor who chairs the school's leadership initiative and co-authored the bestseller Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader (Harvard Business Review Press, 2019). 

“You have to help [newly promoted employees] understand how to manage,” Hill says. “Don’t assume they know. Do your research to understand what’s really key for the new managers in your context and help them get a sense of what that is.” It’s no surprise, she adds, that untrained leaders often struggle in many areas, “dragging their teams down with them in the process.” 

Sink or Swim

“In my research, I’ve seen how strong individual contributors are often promoted to management roles with little or no leadership training, with a ‘sink or swim’ philosophy,” Hill says, adding that some rookie managers may be seasoned workers but have difficulty in their new role because employers generally don’t train workers later in their careers.

‘Unprepared managers are unskilled at decision-making, cultivating good communications, coaching people to success and a range of other universal leadership skills.’ —Matt Kursh

Jen Jortner Cassidy, director of customer success at Oji, recalls that her experience as a 17-year-old first-time manager with no training at a grocery store shaped her conviction that new managers must be supported by those who promoted them if they are to succeed. “I had no training to take on the role,” Cassidy recalls of her supervisory cashier job. “Reflecting on it now makes me want to apologize to everyone who encountered me as a colleague.”

Cassidy says organizations that promote from within owe their new managers the training and support they require to succeed, saying, “That responsibility starts with the manager themselves and trickles down all the way to those who will be led by the new manager.”

Coaching and Mentoring

Simply having been around good managers doesn’t automatically instill the qualities needed to take over a team, notes Kursh. He advises companies to “have a step-by-step process that helps [the new manager] practice and gain skill over time.”

For example, learning to delegate tasks is a common difficulty for new managers, says Paul Tripp, senior executive coach at Boston-based AceUp, which provides coaching and leadership training. Tripp acknowledges that this can be difficult for new leaders more accustomed to being individual contributors. 

“It’s important for organizations to think about how people go from the change of leading themselves to leading others and some of the pitfalls new managers experience,” Tripp says, such as having difficulty with time management or experiencing imposter syndrome.

It can be difficult, Hill agrees, for star employees accustomed to being “A” players to suddenly be in a position of learning. Aligning rookie managers with experienced coaches and mentors can help create a safe space for them to talk about where they feel they need improvement without the fear of being seen as “the promotion mistake,” Hill says.

‘It’s important for organizations to think about how people go from the change of leading themselves to leading others and some of the pitfalls new managers experience.’ — Paul Tripp

Coaching is an opportunity, Tripp agrees, to talk about new roles and be realistic about realigned responsibilities. Group coaching sessions of 10 to 15 new managers, led by a third party, can offer a safe place to ask questions and learn from one another on a specified topic, Tripp says. A TED Talk or article shared ahead of a coaching session could be used to spark discussions about leadership skills.

A Continual Journey 

Some companies attempt to make up for the skills new managers lack by sending them to a brief, intensive management training. But trusting that a new manager will learn the large task of leadership in just a single seminar is unrealistic, Kursh says. 

“Nothing magical can happen in those eight hours that makes you a good manager,” he affirms. “There needs to be a social component where you interact with real humans” to have discussions, ask questions or role-play. People are social animals, and peer coaching and mentoring can be useful approaches for learning leadership skills.

Hill says even new managers with great promise require adequate preparation to lead a team. 
“Very few people look at the process” of becoming a manager, she says. "Even if you're going to be really, really good at it, the transition is still really hard. … They are going to have missteps."

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for SHRM's HR News.


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