Developing First-Time Managers

Developing First-Time Managers

Being the most productive team member and helping others become more productive are two entirely different things. An individual contributor can be an outstanding performer, but to also be a manager of an exceptional team, one needs to possess and exhibit a different set of skills.


As Charles Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities, we seem to be living in “the best of times” and “the worst of times”. Rapid, massive, and disruptive changes on the one hand, and a diverse, multigenerational workforce on the other with varying levels of expertise, are revolutionising the way we work. One such radical change is a younger workforce increasingly transitioning into managerial roles.


Studies indicate that millennials comprise 50% of the global workforce and are estimated to increase to 75% in the next five years. According to a recent survey, approximately 62% of millennials are moving into management roles and have direct reports. Moreover, many of them become managers in their 20s and early 30s.


When someone becomes a manager for the first time, they carry their first-hand knowledge and experience as a point of reference. Being a good manager is a skill rather than an entitlement, and if not oriented well, it could turn out to be disastrous not only for the individual but also for the team and the organisation.


Do organisations have a process to identify first-time managers?


Excellent individual performance is a significant criterion for promotion. As a result, when someone is elevated to a role with direct reports, their capability to lead a team is seldom examined or assessed. It is presumed that in addition to the enhanced role, one will also manage the team. Hence, the initial few months of being a first-time manager is a unique experience coupled with excitement and confusion.


The transition of a manager from a junior or middle-level position to a leadership role is taken seriously. Organisations typically have structured programs to assimilate the new leader into the role. A Learning Plan is developed after several initiatives like skip-level meetings with all stakeholders, 360-degree feedback, coaching and other tools.


However, first-time managers go unnoticed, especially when they are at a lower level in the hierarchy with only one or two direct reports. Without proper training, they are left on their own to understand the nuances of being a manager and the accountability to develop their direct reports.


HR’s role in developing first-time managers


What got you here won’t get you there; what got you promoted won’t make you a great manager! HR and Business leaders have a collective responsibility of not only attracting and retaining talent, but also developing individuals so that they understand that knowledge is important, but it is okay not to be the smartest person on the team. When that happens, the cliché “people leave managers, not companies” no longer holds.


There should be a process to identify and induct first-time managers, followed by training, the majority of which should happen on the job with programs focusing on the following aspects:



1. Managing Self


You cannot manage other people unless you manage yourself first. — Peter Drucker


For first-time managers, the immediate shift in roles means developing empathy, managing emotions, guiding and coaching others, investing in people’s growth, and anticipating challenges. Some skills are innate, some we gradually learn, and others need time and attention to develop. HR and Business leaders need to design programs that prepare employees for their new roles and help them build these capabilities.


Constant learning and a growth mindset mean different things when you do it for yourself versus when you do it to develop others. Goal clarity, adherence to timelines, being healthy, having humility and decisiveness are qualities that team members look for in managers. Acquiring and practising these skills is a long-term goal, not just for first-time managers but also for seasoned leaders. One should be open to learning and transforming by imbibing these qualities, not just for self-development but also to lead a successful team in all aspects.


2. Managing People


Simply put, managing people entails ensuring that everyone on the team is effective and engaged in their work. The route to achieve this is by focusing on others’ performance development, as that is how managers are assessed.


The key differentiator that brings this effectiveness at work is giving timely and constructive feedback, which provides scope for independent decision-making, effective engagement, and conflict resolution. While doing all this, develop every team member and be better equipped to manage relationships.


Initially, it may be discomforting to give difficult feedback, step into the role of motivating and coaching others, and enhance engagement levels or develop listening skills that are a basis for communication. The entire approach towards becoming a manager requires a 180-degree shift in perspective – less of doing and offering solutions, and more of helping others in finding them; not ‘managing people’, but becoming the ‘People’s Manager’. All this may not come easily, and that is precisely what HR can facilitate in the initial days – by providing tools and techniques to help first-time managers traverse smoothly into their new roles.


3. Managing Tasks


Managing tasks entails more than just the completion of work. Stretched goals, right delegation, collaboration and communication with agreed timelines and transparency in performance assessment are necessary skills for a manager to be effective in any task.


Knowing what not to do is also a vital trait. Most of the time, it is easy to get into the mode of doing or jump in to fix things. Effective delegation is a significant challenge for both first-time managers and seasoned leaders.


Understanding what to delegate, whom to delegate it to, and how much to delegate with clarity on expected outcomes is a niche skill that needs to be developed early in one’s managerial journey. A task-oriented manager works cross-functionally, creates a bridge between people and organisations, and is adept at decluttering the mess for impactful work. All this is a gradual and steady process for which an organisation should have structured programs to prepare first-time and other managers.


4. Managing Business


The fourth quadrant concerns knowing every aspect of the business — institution-building and having a holistic view of both the internal and external environments with a strategic orientation, as this will affect day-to-day operations. On a micro level, one needs to ensure that every team member is aligned to VGOS (Vision, Goals, Objectives, and Strategy) in order to foster a culture of transparency and vulnerable trust.




Developing the capability to do everything mentioned above is a huge responsibility, and HR leaders should prepare new managers for the transition so that they can eventually motivate their teams to give their best. A manager’s ultimate success is when they know how to handle the strange catch-22 situation of pushing the team harder for results while being a good manager.



Sushma Bhalkikar is currently heading the HR function for GMR Varalakshmi Foundation (GMRVF), a CSR arm of the GMR Group of companies. With more than two decades of multi-faceted experience, she has extensively worked in the areas of talent acquisition and management, compensation & benefits, L&D, policy formulation, etc.


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