“Tell me about your first management role,” says leadership coach Nils Vinje. He begins most episodes of his B2B Leadership podcast this way, and the answer is usually the same: I was thrown into the job and I made lots of mistakes.
This scenario is much too common. Top individual performers get promoted into leadership, but their past excellence doesn’t mean they know how to lead teams. Plus, these rookie managers rarely get the support they need to thrive in their new role.
Throwing people into leadership roles without proper training or support can have dire consequences for businesses. Ineffective managers can sabotage productivity, undermine team cohesion, and drive away top talent. But if busy senior leaders and middle managers make time for mentoring and coaching, they can prevent these costly problems.
The first step is for companies to acknowledge the importance of first-line managers, who directly supervise front-line workers and customer-facing personnel. “If we empowered and enabled our new managers from a leadership perspective, we could change everything in the entire organization,” Vinje says. “They are the linchpins.”
And by focusing on four essential leadership skills, top managers can make the most of limited coaching time, help rookie leaders thrive, and ensure a high-performing, inclusive workplace culture.
Curing the epidemic of bad management
Bad managers are everywhere. They are roasted on TikTok and flamed on Twitter, but lousy leadership is no laughing matter. An August 2020 survey by SHRM reports 84 percent of U.S. workers blame bad managers for creating unnecessary stress. Bloomberg wrote in October 2021, that bad managers are making the labor crisis worse.
And this challenge isn’t new. In his 1969 book, “The Peter Principle,” Laurence J. Peter famously described how managers are promoted until they are ineffective in their jobs and cease being promoted. But even though the problem isn’t new, it doesn’t have to be permanent. Proper leadership development and training can cure bad management.
“There’s lots of training in lots of different areas, but the one that is overlooked the most is leadership development and training for new managers,” Vinje says. “When you get to the executive ranks, you get to hire an executive coach. If you’re below the executive ranks, you’re told to figure it out, read a book, go to Udemy. But that’s not enough”
For busy senior managers, outsourcing the leadership training for new managers can be worth the investment. These lessons are more effective if they are practical and can be used immediately. Vinje designed his B2B Leaders Academy with those goals in mind. He created content that can be consumed in short sessions, so new managers can integrate them into the flow of work.
However, most organizations depend on middle managers to train their first-line managers, if they receive any coaching at all. It can be challenging to know where to begin, but these four leadership skills are a good foundation. Help your rookie leaders develop a leadership mindset, encourage them to give good feedback, and teach them to set clear expectations and hold their direct reports accountable. Your mentoring will enable your peak individual performer to transition smoothly to influential team leader.
Before anything else, a shift in attitude
The first, most important task is to help newly promoted leaders shift their mindset from being an individual contributor to prioritizing the welfare and performance of the team. Changing their viewpoint can be one of the highest hurdles for new leaders, Vinje says, especially if their egos have been linked to their individual performance.
“You’re in 100% control of everything that you do and deliver as an individual contributor, and all of a sudden, you don’t have control over the output anymore. You are responsible for other people’s output. Your mindset has to shift from doing everything to make sure I‘m successful, to doing everything to make sure my team is successful,” Vinje says.
“If leaders are struggling with the fact that it’s not about them, it’s about their team, it’s going to be really hard for them to be a great leader, because they’re still focused on themselves.”
First-line managers who don’t put the team first might hold onto high-profile assignments, make decisions without getting team input, take personal credit for others’ work or ideas, or blame their direct reports for any failures. None of these behaviors should be tolerated.
Senior leadership and middle managers should make it clear that rookie leaders will be held accountable for their team’s performance. They should be encouraged to build relationships with their direct reports through weekly one-on-one meetings. By getting to know the people on their team, new leaders can play to team strengths and shore up individual weaknesses. Important projects should be distributed in an equitable way, depending on those strengths.
Again and again, mentors should emphasize that the team’s performance and productivity are what matter, and new leaders should direct the work, not do the work.
Emphasize the power of clear expectations
The second key skill for new managers is the ability to set clear expectations. Those not used to leading teams might feel uncomfortable giving orders, and this discomfort causes them to give unclear directions with tentative deadlines.
“One of the biggest problems I see, especially with new leaders, is that when it comes to expectations, they’re vague,” Vinje says. “One of my favorite sayings is, ‘What happens in vagueness stays in vagueness.’”
Mentors can help their mentees understand that when they don’t set clear expectations, team performance suffers. The new leader might assume their direct report knows what they want, but making assumptions about another person rarely works out well. Often unclear expectations result in outcomes that are inadequate, late, or poorly executed.
“The person who was responsible for it will feel terrible, because they didn’t deliver it on time or they delivered something that had nothing to do with what you actually wanted.”
Ideally, expectations should be an agreement that will achieve the best outcome for the team. Mentors can help their mentees get used to this process by demonstrating the S.T.A.R. framework, which frames expectations as specific, timely, action-oriented, and realistic. Both the rookie leader and their team member should understand the task to be accomplished, when the task should be finished, and what a successful outcome will look like.
“The key skill set there is being 100% clear, 100% confident, and 100% in agreement with the other party with regards to the expectation and not shying away from that,” Vinje says.
Show how accountability cultivates trust
If expectations are clear and employees agree to them, including the timeline, they should be held accountable for accomplishing the task or providing the product. But new managers can have a hard time following up or enforcing consequences of unmet expectations. They might be tempted to overlook a poor performance or to redo the work themselves. Mentors should emphasize that neither practice helps the team.
“We as leaders have to hold people accountable to what they already agreed to deliver to us. And the No. 1 concern that new leaders have, when it comes to accountability, is they do not want to sound, feel, or appear like a micromanager,” Vinje says.
“They might say, ‘I don’t want to be the bad guy.’”
Mentors can help new managers focus on team welfare instead of the momentary distress of dealing with a staffer’s poor performance. Far from being a micromanager or the bad guy, leaders demonstrate their allegiance to the team and build mutual trust when they hold employees accountable for their actions and work. When everyone on the team knows that they are all working hard for a common goal, they will be more engaged and more likely to perform well too.
This culture of accountability, according to Forbes, results in an ownership mindset and contributes to high-performing teams.
Encourage effective feedback
Hand in hand with accountability is the need for feedback, both positive and negative. Effective feedback is essential for professional growth, and too many employees are denied this vital learning opportunity.
Mentors should remind their mentees how important feedback is and that it takes practice, especially if it is negative. Sometimes, a communication framework can help new leaders get used to the process. Feedback should happen soon after the issue arises, the problem should be articulated clearly, and discussion should focus on a solution. New leaders should also be expected to provide positive feedback, words of encouragement, and public acknowledgment when a job is done well.
Senior managers can also model how to give effective feedback. But new managers, especially if they have been outstanding individual performers, might not be used to criticism, no matter how constructive. One useful strategy is to align the feedback with the new manager’s professional or personal goals.
“How can you help someone in a significant way, if you don’t know what they want,” says Donald Thompson, CEO of The Diversity Movement and an experienced executive coach. “In order to achieve at a high level, there’s going to be pain, sacrifice, and inconvenience. And people only go through pain, sacrifice, and inconvenience for something that they want.”
Inclusive mentoring is an investment in company culture
Learning how to lead teams is an ongoing process, and there is always more to learn – even for seasoned leaders. But by providing a strong foundation of knowledge, mentors can help rookie leaders be successful from the start. By linking their personal success to the team, being clear about expectations, holding people accountable, and giving solution-focused feedback, new managers can avoid common leadership pitfalls and thrive in their new role.
And by taking time to coach inclusive leadership, senior leaders and middle managers can help transform a high-performing individual into an effective manager. And at the same time, they are contributing to a company culture where every employee feels valued and motivated.
Resources for inclusive leaders
Additionally, mentors can point to resources that provide complimentary viewpoints and useful information. There are countless books, podcasts, articles, and courses on better leadership, but here are a few to begin with:
- Connected Leaders Academy. McKinsey & Company offers this free leadership course designed to improve the talent pipeline and give leaders the skills and support to succeed. There are currently cohorts for Black leaders, Latine leaders, and Asian leaders.
- The Donald Thompson Podcast. Entrepreneur, adviser, and speaker Donald Thompson hosts business leaders and inspiring guests who have forged paths to success.
- The B2B Leadership Podcast. Best-selling author and leadership coach Nils Vinje interviews leaders about their journey and what they’ve learned along the way.
- “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” by Stephen R. Covey. For 30 years, this book has helped leaders of all types transform how they work and think about work. It’s a classic for a reason.
- “Dare to Lead,” by Brene Brown. High-performing leaders use empathy, courage and connection to build and grow inclusive teams. This book tells leaders how to put those principles into action.
- “Radical Candor,” by Kim Malone Scott. The former Apple and Google executive explains how radical candor – feedback that incorporates both praise and criticism – is the antidote to toxic work culture.
- “The Inclusive Language Handbook: A Guide to Better Communication and Transformational Leadership,” by Jackie Ferguson and Roxanne Bellamy. This slim, but powerful volume helps leaders consistently use respectful language that promotes belonging, productivity, and teamwork.
For more great advice on inclusive leadership, check out Jackie Ferguson’s interview with Nils Vinje on the “Diversity: Beyond the Checkbox” podcast.