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How to build leadership skills in new managers: 7 ideas you’ll actually use

It’s a classic challenge in fast-growing companies. Your headcount is catching up with how quickly you’re evolving, and that inevitably means new leadership positions open up! A lot of the time that means promoting from within or hiring someone for their first managerial role. 

But being a new leader is far from an easy job, especially if you’re trying to learn fast!

And so you turn to Google, only to find advice like ‘try delegating’ – without any real indication of how you’re meant to do it. Or flimsy tips like ‘prepare them for difficult situations’ without a good explanation of what that really means. 

The trouble is, these aren’t really ways you can develop leadership skills in new managers. You need tangible actions and pointers that will truly help you build the right traits and skills, ways to equip first-time leaders with the knowledge they need. 

That’s why we’ve put together seven ideas that will really help you build the next batch of brilliant managers. But first…

What are the most important leadership skills for new managers?

  • Self-awareness.
  • A focus on impact.
  • Good listener and feedback collector.
  • The ability to remove pressure for employees.
  • An acceptance that failure is okay if you learn from it.
  • An agile mindset and change acceptance.
  • To absorb knowledge from other leaders and encourage this in their people.

1. Empower existing leaders to show them the ropes 

There’s a difference between understanding how to carry out a performance review and what the process looks like at your company. Your existing leaders are a perfect bridge between the two!

Why? One is about theory, and the other is about practice. People already in the role will have built up tacit and implicit knowledge on-the-job, making them the perfect mentors for new managers – no matter how many leadership courses they’ve taken ahead of their new role.

Culture is the perfect example, it’ll influence how we lead but can only really be understood by someone who’s leading in that culture. From how employee check-ins are run to the feedback processes, current leaders will have plenty of cultural wisdom to share with those who are new to the role.

The problem you want to avoid is asking those experts the same questions over and over again. They’re a productivity killer, for both parties, and a source of frustration – probably for both parties too if there’s pressure to respond and a long wait for the response.

That’s where building a knowledge sharing culture can truly help new managers flourish. You identify those subject matter experts, mine their brains for those great insights, capture a consistent response and make it available on-demand. 

Now your new leaders can find what they need when they need it, and your experts can stop answering the same questions again and again.

2. Help them build self-awareness so they can align their intentions with impact

As leadership expert Ally Jones explained to us, every single person has an awareness gap. A divide between our intentions when we enter a role or take action and how they’re received or people perceive us.

The Sh*t Sandwich technique is a perfect example of this in managers. They say something bad in the middle of two positive things, normally because they think it’s a kinder way to deliver criticism and hope that it’ll still be understood sandwiched between compliments.

The employee, meanwhile, is baffled. Are they being praised or called out for something they did wrong – what’s the message they’re meant to be taking home?

Essentially, we’re talking about understanding our impact on others – which requires self-awareness! And there’s a couple of great ways you can build in it new leaders.

  • Encourage them to block out time for reflection: New managers are busy, and their confidence might be fragile, so we’re not talking about full-hour dressing downs every day. Leaders can, and should, block out short five or 10-minute windows to reflect on how their behaviour has influenced others. Especially after important meetings or check-ins.
  • Build a culture where better questions are asked: Good questions get good answers. So instead of asking something vague like ‘how did that session go’, try questions like ‘what one thing could I have done better in that hour?’.

3. Help them develop the right mindset when it comes to impact

Stepping into a new manager role often brings some friction around responsibility. You’re moving from individual contributor who’s responsible for their own impact to the output of your team being the thing that matters most.

That friction typically bubbles up because nobody explains this part to new managers. 

Simply providing that clarity can be a big help, but there are other steps you can take. Schedule regular check-ins centred around the team’s goals and progress, building a habit of thinking in those terms. You can also set collaborative goal-setting processes, where the outcomes of the team are the most important aspect.

4. Create feedback loops that remove friction

Part of building the right self-awareness and mindset is about understanding how you’re perceived. Simply for the fact that it’ll influence how comfortable people are giving you feedback.

Typically, the more senior you become, the less comfortable people feel giving honest responses. And if you’re progressing from part of the team to leading the team, there might also be scepticism around the changing relationship and what that means for providing criticism or feedback.

One thing you can do to help those managers is to build out feedback loops that remove that feeling of risk when employees give feedback. It might mean creating anonymous forms so that people feel there won’t be negative repercussions for providing honest criticism. 

You might also choose to build multiple loops so that employees can provide feedback without having to go directly through their manager.

5. Build out practice scenarios and low-pressure environments

Learning on the job can be great. However, there are certain situations where you feel like you’re more likely to sink than swim or that the risk of sinking is just too much! 

End of year reviews or salary discussions, for example, are moments where you really don’t want to be thrown in at the deep end. Especially if there’s that sense of pressure or feeling that you’re at risk of ruining a relationship!

Practice scenarios can be the perfect tonic, a place to try your hand without the pressure. That might mean simulating discussions with employees and receiving feedback from a colleague. You might choose to repeat that process until you’re comfortable approaching the real thing. The important angle is that we offer budding leaders a chance to hone their skills.

6. Provide psychological safety

Failure is a crucial part of learning, even for leaders! Especially new leaders, who we’re hiring not because they’re the finished article or have all the answers.

And so we have to provide psychological safety for new managers, to ensure that trying something new and not getting the expected outcome isn’t the end of the world. When you are learning fast and adapting to a new role, you’ll be really lucky if everything goes to plan.

This means culture can play a critical part in their development. If it’s one where they are encouraged to try, fail and learn from mistakes, it’ll help them learn faster. Remember, we often develop more when things don’t go to plan…

7. Build a realistic timeline (and know when to get out the way)

Every new leader is unique, they’re offering different skills and experience, they might naturally pick up parts of the role sooner and there might be things they struggle with. That’s why you should be putting together personalised development plans, with realistic goals and milestones.

At the same time, you should have the flexibility and mindset to adapt those plans and goals. You might have pencilled in their first, independent employee check-in for week eight, and that manager might not be ready. By the same token, they might be flying by week four and ready to take it on. It’s a case of understanding when to step in and when to get out of the way…

For more advice on how you can build leadership skills for new leaders, read:

What Your Leadership Development Strategy Needs! A Guide For The Modern World Of Work

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Check out our other leadership development resources