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4 Critical Mistakes in New Manager Development—and How to Fix Them

Managers occupy vital positions in organizations, serving as bridges between enterprises and their workforces. Consequently, the ability of managers to motivate, communicate with, and lead their teams effectively is critical to business performance and success.  

But the latest research by i4cp and ATD revealed that many companies are heightening their exposure to business and talent risks by making crucial mistakes when it comes to developing new managers, especially those taking on leadership duties for the first time.  

In particular, four problem areas stood out in the results of our survey on the topic of new manager development, which polled nearly 300 talent and development leaders worldwide. Inattention to these potential stumbling blocks can not only hamper organizations, but may contribute to the already significant failure rates for first-time managers (which some estimates place at 50% or higher). 

1. People jump blindly into management

Six in 10 organizations represented in the research reported taking action to identify employees as potential future managers—that’s twice the percentage that don’t. Often, companies make those identifications through HR, the learning and development function (L&D), nomination by leaders, and/or other mechanisms. In other cases, employees may self-identify by expressing their interest in advancing to management. 

“I advocate identifying people who are interested in becoming new managers and providing the opportunity to lean into that early on,” said Ryan Maddux, talent development and organization effectiveness program manager, new manager excellence, for financial services company Wells Fargo. The organization is among the 60% of firms that purposefully identify potential leadership talent . 

Maddux, who served as an advisor on the i4cp/ATD study, Developing New Managers: Key Elements for Success, expressed concern that many organizations overlook a big issue in the identification process. Too often, he says, those designated as potential management talent don’t have a realistic understanding of what managerial jobs require. Consequently, they don’t know what they’re stepping into. “If you aren’t clear up front about the responsibilities of managing people, you may end up with adverse impacts downstream.”

The Fix

Provide previews for potential managers. 

Maddux suggests a program of structured job shadowing and other opportunities that enable interested employees to observe managers on the job.  

In another organization that participated in the study, an employee resource  group (i.e., ERG or BRG) supports individuals interested in potential management careers. The employee-led group of about 100 people provides opportunities for members to talk about and explore the various aspects of management. They also work on developing knowledge and skills to enhance their appeal as potential new-manager candidates.

2. Delays in training set up new managers to fail

Three in four organizations offer training that is specifically designed for first-time managers, and slightly higher numbers of survey respondents described their approaches as structured programs (versus individual courses or training assets). To provide structure, many companies use competency models (though other terms, such as capabilities, may be used).

High-performance organizations, in particular, tend to define leadership traits at all levels and use that information to build development content.  

Sounds good, right? But the problem is that too many organizations create effective training, but delay providing it to first-time managers. 

Three-quarters of survey respondents who reported that their organizations develop new managers said the training begins only after those individuals are in their new roles.

Sometimes well after: one in four said training might begin up to three months after first-time managers have assumed leadership responsibilities; one in five reported starting development after the three-month mark. 

Delaying training for first-time managers can put companies at significant, and potentially long-term, talent and business risk. Untrained, inexperienced managers may develop negative behaviors that adversely affect their teams, their departments, customers, and other stakeholders, sometimes causing fallout for years to come.  

Even well-meaning new managers who are fully prepared can inadvertently expose their employers to legal liability, sabotage engagement, harm employer brand, and ultimately affect business results.

The Fix

Begin developing new managers before they become responsible for others. 

Only 12% of organizations start training for people managers when they’re hired or promoted into first-time leadership; about 15% begin sooner—at the point individuals are identified as potential future management talent.  

Protect your organization and workforce—set up new managers for success by starting training early and continuing to provide development at least through new managers’ first year on the job.

3. Organizations don’t measure effectiveness of new manager development

Here’s an interesting discovery: The Developing New Managers study found 82% of respondents rated their training for first-time managers moderately effective or better.

While that’s a positive finding, the research also determined that more companies don’t measure development effectiveness than do (47% versus 44%, respectively).  

With fewer than half of organizations measuring new manager development success, that 82% level of optimism about the effectiveness of new manager training is called into question.

Even among the diligent measurers, more than eight in 10 relied on simple completion of new manager training programs as their top metric. Training completion gauges activity, but it doesn’t offer any reliable insight into effectiveness of development.

The Fix

Build meaningful measurement into development for new managers. 

Tracking completion of first-time manager training is a useful indicator of program participation, but assessing true effectiveness of development relies on more qualitative measures.  

Application of new knowledge and skills on the job, evaluation by employees managed, and observation and evaluation by new managers’ managers are top choices for gaining insights into true development program success.

4. Ignoring performance means missed opportunities

Failure to spot new managers who are struggling can heighten the potential for organizations to experience talent or business risk. Only 38% of survey participants said they try to identify first-time managers who are having difficulty in their roles. Even when they did find managers in trouble, fewer than half (42%) provided those individuals with additional training or support to help them address problem areas.

Companies are even worse at finding and reinforcing the efforts of successful new managers. Only 37% of respondents said their organizations regularly identified first-time managers who were excelling in their new jobs. Of that group, fewer than one in four said they rewarded the standout managers or gave them any recognition for their efforts. Less than a third chose to develop those successful first-time managers for advancement to higher-level leadership positions.

The Fix

Don’t overlook performance—good or not so good.

Diligent observation of new managers’ performance empowers learning and HR professionals to spot both problems and opportunities. Companies that screened new managers for skills gaps most often found deficiencies that could be addressed with more development in leadership, management and/or people skills.  

Monitoring performance also calls attention to first-time managers who are doing things right. Identifying excellence empowers organizations to recognize and reward outstanding work by first-time managers. It also highlights development strategies that produce effective results. 

For more information on the study and development for first-time managers, i4cp members can download the report here: Developing New Managers: Key Elements for Success.

Carol Morrison
Carol Morrison is a Senior Research Analyst and Associate Editor with the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), specializing in workforce well-being research.