Three Tips to Help Employees Transition to a First Time Manager Role

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Making the leap from individual contributor to people manager can be tough. People are often promoted to management because they are doing well in their current job, but that doesn’t mean they’ll magically know how to be successful at leading people.

I was thinking recently about my very first job as a people manager. One day I was an HR generalist, and the next day four people reported to me. It was intimidating! Sure, as a generalist I knew all about the vacation policy and how to fill out performance reviews, but being on the other side of the table as a people manager was an awakening. There was no training and no formal development plan to help me learn how to manage others. I was fortunate to have a team of incredibly supportive leaders (Pam Rowlands and Judy Adams, I’m talking about you!) who I could rely on for coaching and mentoring. I was equally fortunate that my new team was patient with me learning the ropes. Somehow I muddled through. That was, well, longer ago than I care to say… but things haven’t changed much for first time managers.

When our team at McLean & Company set out to examine how best to support HR in helping people make the transition to their first time people manager role, we came across a lot of research that reinforced this need for better support. Here are a few highlights:

  • 7 out of 10 UK organizations don’t train new managers (Scott, 2016)
  • Only 12% of organizations "invest sufficiently in the development of front-line managers” (HBR Analytics Services, 2014)
  • 87% of managers “wished they had had some sort of manager training before being thrust into a manager role” (Acurantes, 2016)

These days, organizations are flatter and there are bigger jumps between levels, making the move to a first time manager role all the more challenging than it was back in my day. Added to this, jobs themselves are not static – in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous work environment, managers often have to figure out the boundaries and intricacies of their staff’s shifting roles at the same time they are navigating these things for themselves.

Sadly, many organizations don’t recognize the challenge of transitioning from individual contributor to first time people manager, and therefore miss the vital first step in priming employees to become leaders. As a result, development for first time managers is often self-driven. And if the manager is swamped navigating their new role, it might not happen at all. This matters. Failing to develop first time managers represents a lost opportunity to lay a solid leadership foundation early on, instead of having to spend way more time and effort correcting behaviors and bad habits of leaders down the line.

When I was getting ready to write this blog post, I canvassed some friends who work in a variety of job families to better understand what they found most challenging in their first time management roles. The results were pretty consistent:

  • Navigating the transition from being a peer one day, to the boss the next.
  • Dealing with different personalities, age groups, and expectations.
  • Figuring out what standards were reasonable, in terms of volume and quality of work.
  • Moving from doing the work yourself, to getting work done through others – although many first time managers are working managers needing to juggle the original and new responsibilities.

McLean & Company’s own, much more robust research on the topic bore out these same themes. We found that often what challenged new managers was shifting their mindset from heads down, to heads up:

Source: McLean & Company, Enable the Transition to Leadership for First Time Managers

So how should HR tackle the development of first time managers?

First, remember that what may seem obvious to HR, might not be obvious to a new manager. Clearly outline expectations and supporting resources in four key areas:

Source: McLean & Company, Enable the Transition to Leadership for First Time Managers

It takes a village to develop first time managers, so bring one together. Don’t leave it all to their direct manager, or even worse, to the new manager themselves. Executive sponsorship of a first time manager program is key. Seek out feedback from all levels of management when building a robust program that will be both effective and sustainable.

Map out a learning path for first time managers. While there’s been a lot of talk about the 70-20-10 model – with 70% of development time spent on experiential learning, 20% on relational, and 10% on formal, in reality, the breakdown looks substantially different with formal and relational methods accounting for more than half of time spent learning (McLean & Company, 2018 HR Trends Report; N=502). Be sure to incorporate all three methods into your program and clearly outline who (HR, the direct manager, and/or the first time manager) is accountable for which piece of the program. You may also include coaches, mentors, internal subject manager experts, senior leaders, and others as appropriate.

Our members have access to a wide variety of research, tools, and templates to assist in developing a first time managers program, including a learning methods catalog, a learning path tool for first time managers, a suite of manager training decks, and our flexible 360 degree feedback program.

We’ve also just launched a three-day Management Fundamentals program that members and non-members alike can leverage as part of their new manager development programs.

By Karen Mann

Interested in learning more about how HR can support first time managers? Explore

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