How to ease the transition from individual contributor to leader

Sarah Eppink, Leadership Program Manager, Corporate College

Think back to your first day as a manager. You’ve been praised as a high-performing associate for quite some time and becoming a manager is the next step in your career. However, upon assuming the reigns of leadership you quickly learn the skills you’ve employed to accomplish your own work aren’t so effective now that you’re leading a team of individuals with their own work styles and goals.

“Individual contributors are expected to execute work themselves and suddenly, once promoted to the role of manager, they are expected to execute work through others,” points out Sarah Eppink, Leadership Program Manager for Corporate College. “This can prove challenging to high performing individuals who have rightfully been praised for being accountable for their own good work.”

In order to ease the transition from being an individual contributor to a strong leader, organizations should provide support for new managers throughout the training process.

Smart Business spoke with Eppink about why new leaders struggle, what competencies should be developed, and how to choose appropriate training providers.

Why do most new leaders struggle?

Managers oftentimes are promoted through the ranks of their organizations as high-performing individual contributors with expertise in their field. This is important, as you certainly need a leader to have technical expertise and a solid frame of reference. However, these newly promoted managers tend to lack the soft skills that prove crucial to leading a team and managing relationships.

Another challenge can arise when a newly promoted manager is leading a team comprised of former peers. It can be difficult for teams to accept a former peer as a new boss because that person ‘used to be one of us.’ A manager doesn’t usually just receive respect because of a title, especially not in this situation. To gain acceptance, a new leader needs to leverage their relationships within the team and accomplish quick wins. Organizations must adequately support these new managers through training and reinforcement during this challenging transition.

What competencies should new leaders develop?

Individuals new to managing others should look to develop behaviors that would help them tackle both day-to-day tasks, as well as more strategic thinking. A solid training program for new leaders addresses the following competencies: leadership styles, building trust, communication, delegating tasks, developing and coaching others, change management, conflict management and decision making. Programs that focus on skill development in these areas can effectively minimize the learning curve of new leaders. You might be wondering why I didn’t mention skill sets like building a team and acquiring talent. New managers typically inherit a team and don’t have the luxury of hand selecting the talent they will lead. Depending on the organization, some new managers may not have a need to acquire new team members for quite some time. When the need arises to develop these skills, this training should be made available.

In addition to training, what are some resources organizations should make available to new leaders?

One can’t possibly master a new behavior through classroom learning alone. While training will provide you with new knowledge, it is our experiences that shape us. Be sure to provide new leaders with the space to demonstrate new skills. Ensure that the new leader’s direct manager is fully engaged with this person throughout their new leader training program. Their direct manager should act as a sponsor for them — developing goals as they go through the program, and assisting with identifying current projects for which these new skills can be utilized.

Mentoring can provide a tremendous learning opportunity for new leaders as well. Align new managers with seasoned, well-respected leaders within the organization. A mentor is invaluable when you’re starting out and can benefit from someone else’s learning curve.

What are the risks to organizations if new leaders are not developed correctly?

Frontline supervisors are the primary driver to higher levels of employee engagement, as they interface with more employees than any other level of the organization. The reverse is also true — frontline supervisors with inadequate leadership skills can decrease levels of employee engagement, leading to low morale, turnover, etc. It can be a slippery slope. If you’re a manager in a revenue-generating area of your organization, low employee morale on a team may also lead to profit loss.

How do you choose the appropriate provider to help create a new manager program?

Not all training is created equally. Make sure whatever curriculum you choose is industry-recognized for presenting quality content. Professional organizations such as the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) can point you in the right direction of a reputable training provider. A training provider should meet you where you are in identifying the appropriate solution, which should assess what the aforementioned new leader competencies look like in your organization. For example, what does it look like for a new leader to manage change in your company? For some, it may mean communicating change to employees and coaching their teams through changes passed down by upper management. For others it may be having a seat at the table to create change within the organization and facilitating change for their team. Learning activities delivered around these competencies should address what successful demonstration of these behaviors looks like in your world.

Be wary of any provider that does not offer solutions other than a host of classroom-based courseware. Learning occurs in different ways. A good provider will offer blended learning solutions, leadership coaching, assessments and consulting.

Sarah Eppink is Leadership Program Manager for Corporate College. Reach her at (216) 987-2917 or [email protected]