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ATD Blog

Setting New Managers Up for Success

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Congratulations, you made it to management! But now what? The transition from employee to manager comes with many new challenges—some that are anticipated, but many that are not. As a leader, you’re no longer just a member of the team; you’re now in charge of the team, responsible for everything it does or fails to do. In addition to operational hurdles, new managers face many legal and leadership challenges. Here are six techniques new managers can try to help them navigate those obstacles.

Take a step back

New managers might believe they must arrive on day one and begin implementing changes immediately. While it’s important to establish authority, it’s also important to begin by observing and taking stock of your new environment. This observation period includes gathering information about your employees (how they perform individually, how they interact with each other, their individual and group strengths and weaknesses), about the current processes your team utilizes and their battle rhythm (in other words, their operational cycle), and about the “rules of the road,” including the company’s practices and policies. Only then can a new manager evaluate what works and what doesn’t work, reach decisions about what changes to make, and implement those changes. This process of observing, evaluating, deciding, and implementing should start from day one and should be ongoing throughout a manager’s tenure.

Understand why you may need to play “bad cop”

One of the most common mistakes new managers make is failing to document their employees’ poor performance, bad behavior, and violations of company policy. Sometimes this failure is simply due to inexperience. Sometimes it’s a fear of confrontation. Sometimes managers don’t want to be the bad guy, or sometimes they think they’re doing the employee a favor. In reality, failing to document an employee’s deficiencies robs the employee of an opportunity to improve and sets them up for failure, and also exposes the employer to significant risk.

If the employer later terminates the employee and the employee sues the employer, the first question an employer may receive is, “Where is the documentation justifying the termination?” Otherwise defensible terminations can become an uphill battle due to a manager’s failure to properly document an employee’s shortcomings.


Be engaged

Managers must know their people and put the needs of their employees ahead of their own. This can’t be achieved by simply having an “open door” policy; it requires engaged leadership. Walk the floor, talk to the members of the team. Ask them what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, how it contributes to the team’s goals, what you can do to help, and if they have any thoughts about how things can be improved. In the process, managers will understand their team better, develop strong relationships, achieve more buy-in from their employees, gain a clearer idea of and improve team morale, gain insight into how effectively they’re communicating goals and priorities, and gather ideas about how things can be improved.

Set challenging, achievable goals, and then measure them

Inspect what you expect, understand that you’re responsible for what your team does or fails to do, and hold your team accountable. If you’ve set goals and priorities and clearly communicated them to your team but failed to take the time to ensure your team is working toward them through engaged leadership, then you have no excuse when your team falls short. When individual members of your team fall below the standard or the team fails to achieve its goals, hold them accountable. The standard is whatever standard you enforce.

Be humble and set the example

Regularly ask your manager, “How can I improve? What am I doing that works? What am I doing that doesn’t work?” Recognize and admit you don’t have all the answers. Don’t be afraid of the feedback you may receive. Seek it out, take it to heart, and get better. Your boss will be impressed, your skills as a leader will improve, and your team will be better off.

Understand the bigger (legal) picture

New managers must understand they are no longer measured by their individual performance, but rather the successes and failures of their team. Their actions and inaction create risk for their employer, not only in terms of inefficiency and reduced productivity, but in terms of increased costs resulting from litigation, government investigations, and other legal risks that flow from failing to comply with laws such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and other federal and state laws and regulations governing the workplace. Their actions bind their employer, and their knowledge is attributable to the employer. For these reasons, it’s imperative that new employers understand the law, take seriously their responsibilities to the company for adhering to the law, and take necessary action when situations arise that they believe violate or may violate the law.

These six techniques can help new managers effectively meet the challenges they face, but they are not a total solution. In fact, there is no single formula for being a truly good leader. Effective leadership is a lifelong pursuit and requires consistent curiosity, education, reflection, and refinement. If you dedicate yourself to that process, you’ll be well on your way to being the leader you want to be—and the leader your employees deserve.

About the Author

Jason Morris is an attorney in the Newport Beach, California office of Newmeyer & Dillion. Jason’s practice concentrates on the areas of labor and employment and business litigation. He advises employers and business owners in employment litigation, as well as advice and counsel related to employment policies and investigations, often including hosting in-person training seminars. Jason previously served in the United States Marine Corps. You can reach him at [email protected].

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