Room at the top

Two UB School of Management professors explore common challenges for new leaders — and what organizations can do to help

By Timothy Maynes and Mary Ann Rogers

First-time managers are often surprised to learn their idealistic expectations of what it’s like to be a boss don’t match reality. Indeed, for many, the exhilaration of earning a coveted promotion gives way to uncertainty and even fear. Unfortunately, those feelings may be an omen of what’s to come.

Nearly 60 percent of new managers fail within their first two years, which imposes tremendous costs on organizations in recruitment, replacement and lost productivity. Why is the failure rate so high? And, what can organizations do to help new leaders overcome those challenges and successfully transition from employee to manager?

Last spring, we sought to answer these questions. First, we held a focus group and one-on-one interviews with more than 20 people who had lived through the first-time manager experience. “What did you struggle with?” we asked. “What surprised you?” “What kept you awake at night?” “What would you have done differently?”

Their responses were fascinating, and we wondered how common their challenges were for all new leaders. Thus, we surveyed 253 new managers, asking them 40 questions about leadership competencies and how their organization supports its managers. Our respondents came from a variety of industries; their average age was 35.

From this data, it’s clear the challenges new managers face are not unique to a certain industry, demographic or functional area. But with the right training and resources, organizations can help leaders overcome these challenges and succeed.

Leadership development opportunities

To be effective, new managers need the foundational skills to drive long-term results, coach and mentor low performers, and delegate tasks. We found new managers commonly struggle with at least one of the weaknesses listed in the table below, though many contend with three or more.

Overall, new leaders struggle to establish and stick to priorities that will drive lasting success. Instead, they spend time “fighting fires” or taking on extra work to avoid difficult conversations with low performers.

The result? New leaders find themselves “working the second shift,” as one focus group member called the long, extra hours they need to get everything done. In fact, we find even when situations call for it or the team consists of high performers, many new leaders are reluctant to delegate work, leading to fatigue for everyone involved — both the managers who burn themselves out, and their direct reports who are robbed of development opportunities and may take their talents elsewhere.

Developmental challenge Respondents who report skill as a weakness
1.   I spend a substantial part of my day “fighting fires,” so I am not able to get to the things I know will help my team/group achieve longer-term success. 32%
2.   Rather than have difficult conversations with low performers, I generally develop alternative ways to get the work done without relying on them. 39%
3.   Even when I can delegate the work to others, I often do the work myself because it is more efficient. 44%
4.   I feel it is important to be a friend and confidante to every member of my team/group on an individual basis. 49%
5.   I frequently stay late, come to work early or work on weekends to get my work done. 54%

Unexpected challenges (I did not see that coming!)

Next, we observed several unanticipated challenges that surprised managers in their first leadership position, including internal conflict, politicking and a lack of resources. An overwhelming number of those we surveyed experienced at least one challenge listed below, and about a third failed to deal with those issues effectively.

With the severity of these problems, it’s easy to see why so many new managers fail within the first two years. Ineffectively handling these challenges can lead to a highly toxic culture and cause absenteeism, low performance and turnover to increase.

Challenge

Experienced

Failed

1.   I have led a team/group that struggled with significant internal conflict.

68%

34%

2.   I have led a team/group in which there was a lot of back channel communication and politicking behind the scenes.

68%

36%

3.   I have led a team/group in which one or two members had a bad attitude that threatened to undermine the morale of the team

75%

33%

4.   I have worked for a boss who did not have the ability to get me the resources I needed to be effective as a leader.

66%

32%

Potential actions and prescriptions

Recognizing these challenges, what can organizations do to support first-time managers? Not surprisingly, the more hands-on and concrete the learning experience is, the more value it will provide your employees. (See full list in the first table below.)

New managers found the least value in newsletter and blog subscriptions, books and general leadership seminars. Instead, consider adding formal mentorship and rotational programs, and leadership training on specific competencies, all of which our respondents looked at most favorably.

Too often, first-time leaders fail because they don’t receive the training they so desperately need in their new roles (see second table below). For example, more than half of our sample struggled to manage teams filled with conflict or bad attitudes, at least partially because most were not trained to properly handle these complex issues. Similarly, less than a third learned how to develop strong relationships, set shared goals or delegate and follow up — all critical skills your organization’s managers need to tackle the challenges we found they’re likely to encounter.

So, evaluate the training your organization provides and consider adding to or changing your programs, if necessary. Do your training opportunities address these common challenges? Where are the gaps? And is it delivered in a way that resonates with your employees? Moving from contributor to manager is one of the most difficult career transitions anyone will experience. But by providing resources that match new managers’ most common challenges, organizations can help their leaders achieve success — for themselves, their teams and the organization as a whole.

Resource

Limited/No value

1. Subscriptions to leadership content

58%

2. Leadership and management books

48%

3. Leadership seminars and presentations

42%

4. In-house training on personnel policies and procedures

31%

5. Support group composed of other leaders at a similar level

31%

5. In-house management training program (e.g. fast track program)

31%

6. Leadership training

29%

7. Rotational program (i.e. experience multiple jobs in first months/years)

28%

8. A mentor assigned by the organization

23%

Leadership training received

1. Performance evaluation (58%)
2. Conflict management (50%)
3. Team building (50%)
4. Coaching/Mentoring (47%)
5. Providing feedback effectively (44%)
6. Delegation and follow-up (30%)
7. Effective hiring and firing practices (28%)
8. Developing shared (team/group) objectives, plans or goals (27%)
9. Developing relationships based on trust and respect (24%)
10. Change management (22%)

Timothy Maynes, Assistant Professor of Organization and Human Resources, University at Buffalo School of Management  Mary Ann Rogers, Clinical Associate Professor of Organization and Human Resources, University at Buffalo School of Management

Timothy Maynes, assistant professor, and Mary Ann Rogers, clinical associate professor, both in the University at Buffalo School of Management’s Organization and Human Resources Department, conducted their research in spring 2018.

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