4 Tips for First-Time Managers

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Whether they worked their way up the company ladder or fell into their position, first-time managers need help if they want to succeed. In fact, the most widely cited stats place the manager failure rate around 50 percent during the first year. A new whitepaper from UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, Five Tips to Inspire First-Time Leaders, offers these new leaders some practical guidance to help them start strong and thrive as their responsibilities grow.

The paper’s author, Kirk Lawrence, director of the UNC Executive Development Program, has 35 years of experience leading large and small organizations. In Five Tips to Inspire First-Time Leaders, he explains that although differences in organizational cultures and environments may drive different behaviors, “the principles of exceptional leadership are constant regardless of whether one works in a hierarchical environment like the military or a matrixed company such as IBM.”

So how can first-time managers overcome the most common stumbling blocks to effective leadership?


Tip 1: Be a Good Follower

For starters, Lawrence suggests that good leaders must first be good followers, acquiring five essential skills that will serve them well in their management role: awareness, diplomacy, courage, collaboration, and critical thinking. But being a good follower does not end when one becomes a leader, reminds Lawrence. Instead, smart managers who continue to practice good followership skills will instill trust, stability, compassion, and hope among the members of their teams.

Tip 2: Listen and Learn

First-time managers are likely replacing someone who spent years learning, growing, making mistakes, and getting better at the job. New leaders should take the time to find out who came before them. It’s a good idea, says Lawrence, to talk to colleagues and ask questions like, “What did my predecessor do that worked well?” or “What good ideas have already been tried and failed?” Then listen, and listen some more. “When good leaders practice these active listening skills, they show employees that they care about them,” says Lawrence.

Tip 3: Practice Reciprocity

We all know the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would wish to be treated. Lawrence recommends that new managers try the Cohen-Bradford Influence Model, which is based on the law of reciprocity. The model presents six simple steps:

  1. Assume everyone can help. 
  2. Prioritize objectives; ask why you are trying to influence. 
  3. Understand the other person’s situation; practice empathy. 
  4. Identify what matters to you as a leader and to the other person. 
  5. Analyze relationships.
  6. Make the exchange.

Tip 4: Don’t Confuse Respect With Being Liked

Many new managers have the inherent desire to be considered the “hip, all-around-cool-person leader.” In other words, they want to be liked. But this approach can quickly lead to trouble. At some point, they will have to make difficult decisions that are not popular to make their organizations better. Talent management professionals can help new leaders understand that earning respect is far more important. “Respect is earned by accomplishing what needs to be done and by creating a desire among others to work together to accomplish goals without question because of the regard they have for their leaders,” explains Lawrence. “Respect is also about leaders building trust among their team members.”

For more insight into helping new managers succeed, download the UNC whitepaper Five Tips to Inspire First-Time Leaders.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs, as well as ATD's government-focused magazine, The Public Manager. Contact her at 

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