Date posted: 01/12/2023 8 min read

The next step: Stepping Into a leadership position

If you’re technically competent and doing well, stepping up into a leadership position is a natural career progression. But how do you transition from the person doing the work to delegating the work?

Quick take

  • One of the greatest challenges for a new manager is moving from doing the work, to delegating the work to a team and managing their delivery.
  • To develop your leadership skills, you need to consider what kind of leader you are while retaining your authenticity, and be open to receiving and acting on feedback.
  • New managers should also draw on support resources, from training to working with a mentor, and don’t be scared to ask for help.

Your skills have taken you as far as they can. Your next promotion will elevate you to a management position, but how well will you perform in your new role when you have no experience managing a team?

“Transitioning into a management role requires you to redefine what it means to be successful,” says New York-based leadership consultant Melissa Janis. “Rather than individual achievement, success as a manager depends on delivering outcomes through the team.”

She recommends creating a plan to learn something every day.

“Choose the way that works best for you, as long as it includes a steady diet of leadership content such as classes, books, podcasts and blogs, guidance and feedback from more experienced leaders and your team, and loads of real-life practice.”

Kevin Kan, partner – assessments and coaching at Stanton Chase in Singapore, suggests talking to anyone who has worked in the equivalent of your new role and ask about their experiences, and the challenges they faced.

“The manager you’ll be reporting to can also help by clarifying their expectations,” he says. “Then, when you’re transitioning into the new role, take every opportunity to show leadership potential by attending meetings with your new team, taking the initiative on projects, demonstrating problem-solving abilities and showcasing your people skills.”

Managing expectations

It’s never too late to develop the trait of active listening; of being attentive, taking mental notes of non-verbal cues and not talking over people or interrupting.

“Managing expectations is key to becoming a successful leader,” says Kan. “Active listening engenders trust and allows you to have open conversations that will help you manage the expectations of your stakeholders, both up and down the chain. Be prepared to listen to the concerns, feedback and ideas of your customers, manager and employees.”

Some people feel threatened by any kind of feedback. However, if you truly want to improve your management skills, you’re going to need to reframe how you view other people’s perspectives on your own performance.

“It’s common to get a little defensive but, if you trust that the person providing the feedback has good intentions, you should be able to see it as a gift of information and insight, rather than criticism,” says executive coach and author Karen Stein.

Looking back on his own experiences, Craig West, general manager at Downer New Zealand, told The Institute of Management New Zealand that when he realised he wouldn’t be able to get everything done in one day, he had to take time to consider what was really important.

“It made me prioritise the key things I needed to achieve and think about how I could empower the team to help with that,” he says. “Another important observation was not to be afraid to take on new challenges, but also not to be afraid to ask for help.”

Stein believes that connecting with your purpose can support your adjustment into management, and help your success as a leader and a motivator.

“People who understand their worth and the value they bring to the role are muchmore engaged and energised,” she says.

Mistakes to avoid

Many mistakes made by inexperienced managers stem from their resistance to making the shift from hands-on doer to delivering through others.

“They continue to do the work themselves, rather than delegating,” says Janis. “Then, they blame employees for shortfalls in performance, rather than taking responsibility for their own shortcomings, such as failing to set clear expectations, provide training or adequate resources.

“Letting go of day-to-day tasks can be particularly tricky for managers in accounting and finance, where detail orientation is a strength. It’s also worth noting that new managers with business degrees tend to find interaction-based skills more challenging than managers with humanities backgrounds. By underinvesting in one-on-one conversations and team meetings, they miss setting a foundation of trust and inclusion with their team. This undermines their ability to build a cohesive team, make good decisions, delegate effectively, and develop and retain employees.”

“Letting go of day-to-day tasks can be particularly tricky for managers in accounting and finance, where detail orientation is a strength.”
Melissa Janis

You could find yourself trapped in your comfort zone.

“Along with the excitement, a new role can bring uncertainty and perhaps a degree of discomfort,” says Stein. “If you’re still spending a great deal of time on the kind of work you did in your previous position this could be providing you with a sense of security, but it will also hold you back.”

Most new managers are eager to please and deliver some quick wins.

“You may feel the need to control every aspect of your team’s work to show management that you can do the job,” says Kan. “This micromanagement can demotivate the team, reduce productivity and create issues around trust. It can also lead to burnout and prevent team members from developing their skills.”

However, as Janis points out, mistakes are not failures if lessons are learned and result in meaningful improvement.

It can help if you reframe failure as learning moments for you and your colleagues,” she says.

Feeling overwhelmed

Feeling overwhelmed

Despite your best efforts, there might be times when you feel overwhelmed by your new responsibilities.

“Noticing the stories you’re telling yourself can be very helpful,” says Stein.

“Are you listening to a supportive and positive voice, or one that says you’re doomed to fail? You should also pay attention to specific emotions – are you feeling frustrated, worried, stressed? Learn to look out for them and you can develop an appropriate response before they get to be overwhelming. You can then focus on building up your positive emotional energy to the point where you feel more optimistic and engaged, and more motivated to seek support from others.”

In her book Be Your Own Leadership Coach, Stein talks about filling a virtual backpack with self-coaching strategies. “Knowing you have effective strategies to draw on will help you feel armed against challenges and confident that you can bring your best self to whatever leadership role you might have,” she says. “You’ll also be well placed to build the self-awareness youneed to recognise how you can best learn and grow.”

Kan suggests a personality assessment or psychometric test because it’s a great way to be more self-aware.

“When you understand your own strengths, weaknesses, ways of thinking, behaving and communicating you can crystallise your leadership style, and how you will adapt to your new responsibilities and challenges,” he says.

Avoiding burnout

As a first time manager, you naturally want to appear knowledgeable and capable – but there’s danger in taking that too far.

“However motivated you are, it’s vital that you take breaks to recharge to avoid burnout,” says Kan. “Have a regular routine of daily self-reflection, exercise and eating healthily. Learning how to balance work and life will be key to your success as a new leader.”

Surrounding yourself with a competent team will also help to reduce the pressure.

“Having the right people around you allows you to keep your sense of humour and keep your passion and enjoyment of what you’re doing,” says West.

Fostering a good relationship with each member of your team will strengthen trust, collaboration and communication.

“This can be particularly important if you’re being promoted ahead of your peers,” says Kan. “In this case, you should speak to them individually to reassure them that your working relationship hasn’t changed. They are still respected colleagues and you are still your authentic self.”

Janis says that you can demonstrate solid leadership skills by being a curious learner who asks thoughtful, open-ended and non-judgemental questions.

“Seek information, listen and make sure you have a good understanding of things before making changes. When you engage with others you’re more likely to get buy-in, rather than mere compliance.”

Holding yourself accountable

Ideally, every organisation should provide guidance, support and training for the people they promote.

“When you have clear expectations of the new role, you can assess what you need to learn to do the job well,” says Stein. “From there, it would be best practice for the company to support your growth and development by giving you access to a buddy or coach, training materials or relevant courses. That should also be the start of a path of constant learning and development, so you can continue to build up confidence in your role over time.”

However, while there may be help, you also need to hold yourself accountable.

“This is your career to drive,” says Stein. “In the end, it’s up to you how much you’re prepared to put into building your own success.”

Stepping up into a leadership positionImage credit: Martin Adams

Six-step guide to a successful transition into management

When you move into your first management role, you might feel pressured to show value by making changes right away. US-based leadership coach Melissa Janis cautions against it.

1. Build understanding and relationships

Engage in self-discovery to define your values and vision for yourself as a leader. Then, conduct organisation and team discovery to learn what you need to know about the role and the different levels of the business, while simultaneously cultivating relationships with key stakeholders.

2. Synthesise

Reflect on the insights you have gleaned from discovery conversations to understand the fundamentals of the business, the organisational culture and values, and internal politics. For example, how decisions are made, how power and influence work, and whose support you’ll need.

3. Hypothesise

Create working hypotheses to determine and inform the actions you will take to address key business and people issues.

4. Plan

Creating a strategy and a plan of implementation are the building blocks to success. Delegate effectively by identifying the right person for the job – which means the employee is capable of completing the task – and be clear on communicating the results you expect. Be prepared that you might need to provide support to ensure they succeed.

5. Execute

Implement the changes and monitor progress through reporting and regular one-on-one conversations with your team members. Provide ongoing coaching and feedback to maximise their performance.

6. Improve

Conduct project reviews pinpointing what went well and what didn’t. Avoid blaming individuals or departments and offer praise for diligence. Listen to opinions and openly discuss possible improvement strategies for next time.

Take away

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