I’m a New Leader – What Should I Do First?

Written by Nic Dampier

Woman addressing a meeting in office boardroom. Businesswoman having a meeting with her office staff.

Congratulations! You’re a star performer, and your company has recognized your achievements by promoting you to a leadership role. You’re excited to embark on this new chapter and have lots of ideas on how to lead your team to success.

On your first day as leader, you waste no time and start delegating tasks and setting deadlines for your team. But, as days and weeks pass, you notice your team’s initial enthusiasm waning and discomfort seeping in. Some members seem hesitant to share their ideas, while others appear stressed or overwhelmed. Their productivity decreases, and resignations start pouring in. Alarmed, you belatedly realize that despite your dedication to succeed, there was a huge disconnect between your expectations and the team’s needs.

You’re not alone in this situation. A study by CEB Global shows that a sobering 60% of new leaders fail within their first 24 months. Employers often make the critical mistake of promoting top achievers without preparing them for the transition. The assumption that their success as individual contributors will automatically translate into effective leadership sets the new leader up for failure; excelling as an individual doesn’t necessarily guarantee the skills to lead and inspire a team.

The journey from a star performer to a manager is thus more than just a title change. To succeed in this transition, you’d need a comprehensive understanding of the responsibilities and expectations inherent in leadership, beginning with your own reasons for becoming a leader.

Becoming a Leader – What’s Your Motivation? 

If you find yourself thrust into a leadership position without thinking much about it, pausing to consider if it’s genuinely what you want is crucial. While a bigger paycheck might be a shiny incentive at first, the added responsibilities that come with it can overshadow any financial gains. Being a leader is more than the managerial responsibility of overseeing tasks or directing workflows – it’s about embodying a vision, empowering others, and fostering a collaborative environment where everyone prospers. Employees can spot the difference between leaders who want to be there versus those who don’t, as it’s a game-changer in how they approach their role and interact with the team.

To assess if you’re ready for a leadership role, ask yourself these questions:

  • Why am I taking this role? Is it because I’m passionate about making a difference or guiding a team? Will my motivation for taking this role sustain me long-term?
  • Do I care about the impact I have on the people around me?
  • Do I handle stress and tough situations well? Do I consider how my behavior affects others?
  • Am I resilient and open to learning from my mistakes?
  • Am I willing to prioritize the team’s success over personal recognition?
  • Can I balance authority with empathy when interacting with others?
  • Do I understand my strengths and areas of development and how they might affect my behavior as a leader?

Reflecting on these questions can help gauge your alignment with the leadership role and whether it resonates with your values, aspirations, and capabilities. If you find yourself leaning toward “no” to these questions, it’s fine to acknowledge that you’re not ready or if your heart isn’t fully committed to the role. It doesn’t mean you’re unfit for leadership; rather, it allows you to identify potential areas of development that can guide your personal and professional growth as you work on enhancing these skills and qualities.

If you respond “yes” to these questions, then it’s a promising sign that you’re ready and well-suited for a leadership role. Embracing leadership involves a combination of self-awareness, empathy, resilience, and a genuine drive to guide and inspire others.

Setting and Leading through Expectations

Stepping into a leadership role often comes with a laundry list of expectations. Suddenly, there’s a call to be empathetic, inspiring, strategic, communicative, and much, much more. But when it comes down to it – do you really know what’s expected of you as a leader? How will your performance be evaluated? Are you meant to continue your individual contributor responsibilities?

To get a clear picture of what’s expected, engage in alignment conversations with your superior. These discussions help define what success looks like and ensure you’re equipped to meet the expectations of your new position. Acquiring a shared understanding with your superior is necessary as it will guide you on your leadership journey and set the stage for personal and team success.

At the same time, set your own expectations. For example, how much time should you dedicate to your own work versus managing the team? And when you manage the team, will you be actively engaged on the ‘dancefloor,’ delving into day-to-day operations? Or will you take a ‘balcony’ approach, overseeing the broader aspects of the team from a higher vantage point?

Gaining clarity on these expectations through discussions with your superior and setting clear parameters for yourself will serve as a compass, guiding your actions and decisions as you step into your new role.

Connecting with Your Team Through Empathy and Engagement

One of the biggest challenges of any new leader is inheriting an established team. Understanding the dynamics of an existing team while bringing your leadership style and vision to the table requires a delicate balance. It’s important to realize that not everyone will spontaneously sync with your style – and that’s normal. Approach this with sensitivity and take the time to observe and understand the team’s strengths, weaknesses, and existing dynamics before implementing significant changes. Building rapport and trust with team members gradually can help ease the transition and facilitate the introduction of your leadership approach.

While one-on-ones might not always be feasible, try finding other ways to connect. Leverage various communication channels such as team meetings, chats, and emails that help you set your expectations with the team and promote consistent interaction. When you instill an open-door policy, members will feel comfortable approaching you with their ideas or issues. Even something as simple as asking your team to share what you can stop, start, and continue doing as a leader can open the door to fruitful and authentic conversations. By actively listening to their insights and showing empathy when handling their concerns, you create a feeling of trust, belonging, and respect that will go a long way to improving the team’s dynamics.

Freedom to Fail: Building a Growth Mindset

Contrary to popular belief, leaders aren’t born – they’re made. Leadership is an ongoing experience that’s about learning, evolving, and adapting your actions with the values and vision you uphold. While it may be daunting to admit your limitations, it’s how you approach these shortcomings that can make or break you as a leader.

Here, you have a choice – you can either ignore your skill gaps, or you can admit that you don’t have all the answers. As paradoxical as it may seem, acknowledging vulnerability can be the first step towards effective leadership. Learn to shift your mindset from “I can’t do this” to “I haven’t mastered this yet”, as it allows you to embrace mistakes and recognize that they’re not just acceptable but vital for progress.

When faced with uncertainty, don’t hesitate to ask questions or seek feedback. You’re not expected to possess all the answers alone; rather, your responsibility is to guide and empower your team to discover solutions together. Often, you’ll find that your team members hold a wealth of knowledge and expertise that may surprise you.

Moreover, owning up to mistakes and demonstrating accountability showcases humility as a leader. It sets a precedent for team accountability and emphasizes that every failure is a learning opportunity. On the flip side, whenever a team member fails, give feedback privately and treat the misstep as a lesson for improvement. Doing so encourages your team to adopt a growth mindset as well and cultivates a culture that thrives on trust and continuous learning.

Celebrating Wins 

With a growth mindset, even the smallest victories can be celebrated as significant wins along the path of progress. Recognizing and celebrating wins, whether big or small, demonstrates appreciation for your team’s efforts and achievements and strengthens team cohesion even more. However, before celebrating every win publicly, ask yourself whether that’s what your team members want. Everyone’s different – while some might expect public acknowledgment during meetings or through awards, others might prefer private praise or even non-monetary incentives.

Tailoring recognition to individual preferences showcases genuine and personal connection, strengthens team bonds, and inspires continued excellence. This approach resonates with each individual and encourages a sense of morale, belonging, and loyalty among team members, ultimately contributing to sustained productivity and a happier, more engaged team.

Prepare For Your Role as a New Leader with Frontline 

Your leadership journey is a continuous process of growth and learning. Embrace each step, whether challenging or triumphant, as they contribute to your development. Above all, prioritize creating an environment where every team member can flourish and realize their full potential. Remember, leadership isn’t about reaching a destination – it’s about nurturing your team’s continual progress, support, and collaboration that pave the way forward.

At Frontline, we understand all about the challenges new leaders face. For more valuable insights on transitioning into your leadership role, check out our podcast, where our resident experts discuss effective tips and provide real-life examples. We also encourage you to learn more and register for one of our signature leadership trainings like Supervisor Boot Camp, or Leadership Foundations, or contact us for personalized solutions to train your new leaders and provide them with the essential skills needed for success.

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About the Author

Nic Dampier

Nic Dampier is the Creative Director at Frontline Training Solutions as well as the Grand Rapids, Michigan locations of Express Employment Professionals and Specialized Recruiting Group. With his degree in Strategic Communication Management, and over a decade in creative leadership, Nic developed the C.R.I.C.K.E.T. framework for effective brand messaging and excels in storytelling and brand identity. A U.S. Navy veteran and former Creative Arts Pastor, he has a rich background in cross-cultural communication and large-scale production. Nic is also an accomplished filmmaker, recognized at the 2021 ArtPrize International Art Competition for his impactful storytelling.