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Lessons to a First-time Leader, from a First-time Leader

There was a sense of excitement (or maybe it was anxiety, I’m not sure) that I felt when my director called me into his office on the day of my promotion. I knew that the company was looking for the next manager, and my director and I had already had multiple conversations during which he alluded that I was the front-runner for the promotion. I felt ready for what was next; I knew the technical job like the back of my hand.  More importantly, I was confident in my ability to train any team member that walked through the door. What I didn’t know, however, was that there was more to leadership than met the eye. 

Leadership serves up lack of control, difficult conversations, and, as the famous phrase goes, the need to sometimes herd cats. Everyone says that making the transition from an individual contributor to a first-time leader is one of the most stressful times in your career.  But what exactly makes it so difficult? And how can you set yourself up for success? Here are 3 lessons I learned from my first-time leadership experience:

  1. Lose control

Why it’s difficult.

I came from a sales job, which meant that I had direct control over my work ethic, which ultimately gave me direct control over my income. These conditions – both in my control – drove my motivation to succeed in the role. 

In management, the leaves fall a little differently. No matter how hard a leader works, it doesn’t necessarily follow that their team will work harder or perform better. New leaders are faced with a dilemma. Should they focus on immediate results to gain more control, or should they learn to let go of a bit of control for now and empower their team with delegation and effective communication? Let’s be real, it takes longer to build a team with empowerment – and sometimes it feels easier to jump in and do things yourself.  But let’s also be real, is it what you were promoted to do? Is it sustainable? Simply put, what is the cost to you, your team, and the organization, of staying in ‘doing’ mode rather than stepping into the strategic ‘leading’ mode?

How can you cultivate it?

Give yourself a taste of what it’s like to “lose control” by informally leading a team or a project without your hands in the cookie jar. Utilize a coach or mentor to work through the intricacies of predicting behavior or adjusting a team to a constantly changing environment. 

  2. Understand your team isn’t you

Why it’s difficult.

New leaders are promoted because they’re coachable, easy to work with, and willing to learn and try new things. As a new leader, it’s natural to assume that everyone on your team is as willing to succeed as you were. When they aren’t, you label them as “difficult” or “hard to work with,” when in reality, you were promoted because you have different skills than the average team member. 

How can you cultivate it?

Be a mentor to people on your team or in your department, especially those you’re not similar to. Your coach can expose you to different perspectives and behaviors, but you need hands-on experience with people who aren’t like you to learn how to lead others effectively.

  3. Being liked doesn’t mean you’re respected

Why it’s difficult.

When you move into leadership, 9 times out of 10, you’re going to end up leading the people you once worked alongside. It’s easy to still see your team as your friends and to want to keep that collegial relationship.  But in leadership sometimes you’ve got to be the bad guy. It can be hard to look at people who once were your peers and tell them “no” or point out what they’re doing wrong. Unfortunately, just because someone likes you, doesn’t mean they respect you, so you’ve got to earn that respect as you lead.

How can you cultivate it?

Even something as simple as not tagging along for a (virtual) happy hour can help create an appropriate distance between you and your peers as you work your way into leadership. But even more so, practice shifting your perspective around what it means to develop and mentor your team into greatness.  Supporting your team members toward growth means sometimes saying “no” and often challenging them to think differently or examine and close performance gaps.    Work with your coach or mentor to role-play these developmental conversations so that when the time comes, you’re ready.

 

The lessons for a first-time leader are never-ending. Similar to the way you adapted to your first role at your company, there is a learning curve to leadership and great leaders aren’t made overnight. Consistently document the opportunities and challenges you face and role-play them with your coach or mentor, but above all else, give yourself some grace. Grab that second (or even third) cup of coffee, and focus on what you can do to become a better leader every day.

You’ve got this. 

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Catherine Germinario

Partner

Over the past few years, Catherine gained experience ranging from human resources and program administration to the heart of any business, sales, and marketing. She quickly moved into multiple training and management roles, creating training material, building processes, and spearheading women-in-sales focus groups. At Optify, she focuses her efforts on business development and marketing campaigns as a thought leader to continue to expand outreach.

Catherine holds a Masters of Arts in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She earned her B.A. in Psychology from Christopher Newport University with minors in Leadership and Communications. Catherine was also an avid member of the President’s Leadership Program and recipient of the Joann S. Squires Award for Industrial and Organizational Psychology in 2018.