ATD Blog

Three Things First-Time Leaders Should Know

Monday, April 14, 2014

The number one problem first-time leaders face is failing to understand that leading requires entirely different strengths than managing. We’ve all experienced first-time managers who come in with guns blazing. They think they can be successful by doing more of what they were doing before—and telling others to do the same.

Case in point

When Gillian first started her role as a manager, she assumed the best way to get people to buy into her ideas was to prove that she was capable. She went off in all directions, trying to change processes, marketing plans, new product lines, and so on. It wasn’t long before she realized that not only was this not working, it wasn’t sustainable. She needed to be strategic, and more importantly, patient.

The reason telling others to do things can be sub-optimal is that “telling” diminishes. At best, people comply with the teller’s direction. This is why more experienced managers persuade and support. Great leaders go one step further to co-create a purpose-driven future with their followers.

This leads to the three things first-time leaders should know:

  • Leading is different than managing. Where managing is about organizing, coordinating, and telling, leading is about inspiring, enabling, and co-creating. Great leaders can also “do” and “tell” when needed, but they focus on inspiring and enabling others to do their absolute best together to realize a meaningful and rewarding shared purpose.
  • Taking over as a leader for the first time is a critical, career-defining moment. Getting this transition right accelerates your career trajectory. Avoiding avoidable mistakes at this juncture requires preparation, commitment, and follow-through.
  • Focus on the cause. People follow charismatic leaders for a time. But they devote themselves over time to the cause of a BRAVE leader who inspires and enables them in the pursuit of that cause. BRAVE leaders have the courage to accept that leadership is not about them, but rather about working through behaviors, relationships, attitude, values, and the environment to inspire and enable others.

Implications for training and development

Leading is different than managing: Don’t follow this idea off a cliff. Your new leaders need to know how to organize and coordinate as well. Invest in programs to give them basic management tools.


Taking over as a leader for the first time is a critical, career-defining moment. No excuses here. Make sure they get the support they need to accelerate their onboarding. Make sure their bosses know how important this is and are ready, willing and able to do their part.

Focus on the cause. The point for you here is that it’s not enough to onboard them well and give them organization and coordination tools. You can help them make the leap from managing to leading by guiding and coaching them in this direction. All sorts of ideas here. (I’m a marketer at heart.) 

Editor’s Note: This post is partly extracted and partly adapted from the executive summary of George’s new book, First-Time Leader. Request the full executive summary.

About the Author

George Bradt has a unique perspective on transformational leadership based on his experience as a business leader, consultant, and journalist. He progressed through sales, marketing, and general management roles around the world at companies including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and J.D. Power’s Power Information Network spin-off as chief executive. Now he is a principal of CEO Connection and managing director of the executive onboarding group PrimeGenesis.

George is a graduate of Harvard and Wharton (MBA), co-author of four books on onboarding, including The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan, and co-author of a weekly column on, The New Leader’s Playbook.

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