New Managers: Alone and Out of Their Depths

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Jan 18, 2023

By Mark Vickers, Institute for Corporate Productivity 

Being a new manager is a lot like learning how to swim. You can watch others, study a chart about it or even read a book on it. But ultimately, you learn by doing.

That's not to say that you just jump in the deep end by yourself and hope for the best. Far from it. There's usually a transition period where you paddle around the shallow end, helped and safeguarded by a teacher or coach.

If your instruction is any good, you hit the deep end only when you've learned a stroke or two. And, even then, there's somebody there to support you if you need it.

But when people are first promoted into management, a different approach is often taken. Sure, they may get some training, if they're lucky, but then they're often just thrown into the deep water. Sink or swim. There's not much of a transition and, even if there is, there's nobody really keeping track of success in any meaningful way.

At least that's the way it seems, based on a new survey conducted by the Institute for corporate Productivity (i4cp) on behalf of one of our member companies. The survey found that only about a quarter (23.5%) of respondents judged their organizations to be "good" when it comes to how well workers make the transition once they've been promoted from individual contributor status to manager.

Another 16% say their companies are actually "poor" at these transitions, while most (60.5%) rank their firms as "fair."

The idea that management development is, generally speaking, pretty mediocre is supported by other recent Institute studies. For example, our So, How Do You Really Feel About Managers study found that slightly fewer than half of respondents think that the overall management in their organizations is above average, a number that drops to two-fifths when only non-managers are asked.

And preliminary data from a major new study on leadership competencies, conducted in partnership with the American Management Association, found that only a fifth of respondents agreed to a high or very high extent with the statement "My organization is strong at developing future leadership talent."

In short, there appear to be a lot of managers in the workforce pool who are floundering and flailing, maybe dog-paddling, to get by. Not exactly the managerial version of a Michael Phelps.

Unfortunately, most companies don't even know where they stand in terms of managerial talent. Our Management Transition Tools survey found that only about a third of respondents said their companies use tools to gauge how effectively a nonmanager transitions into a management job.

Even among most of the organizations using such tools, there's nothing fancy going on. About three-quarters use standard performance appraisals, and 59% use 360-degree feedback instruments. Meanwhile, only 40% (of those who do such evaluations at all) use leadership competency assessments, and even fewer use coach or mentor evaluations.

Correlation isn't necessarily causation, but we also found that higher-performing organizations (based on self-reports) were more likely than their lower-performing counterparts to use 360s and less likely to use standard performance appraisals for the purpose of evaluating transitions. The higher performers were also more likely to use leadership competency assessments.

There's no widely adopted silver bullet out there. Tools are more likely to be developed internally than purchased from a vendor, and that's probably because lists of leadership competencies tend to vary from company to company. Most HR professionals and managers ad lib and customize or simply go without.

Going without seems pretty scary. After all, people are often over their heads when they take on a management job for the first time. It will be harder, and probably much more time-consuming, for them to improve if nobody is measuring how they're doing or establishing their strengths and weaknesses. If this is typical of the experiences of first-time managers, then it's little wonder that so many companies are worried about their leadership ranks—they aren't developing their neophyte managers very systematically or, it appears, very well.

The Institute for Corporate Productivity's Four Recommendations for Improving Productivity of First-time Managers

  1. Train first-time managers before their first assignments. Make sure they understand the behaviors and competencies expected of them.
  2. Evaluate them both prior to their assignments and afterward. Evaluate them within four to 12 months of getting their promotion.
  3. Don't just use conventional performance appraisals unless you're sure they're good for management development. Consider using 360s if they fit your culture; 360s often provide more well-rounded information about how new managers are faring.
  4. Provide new managers with support. This should not be a throw-them-into-the-deep-end, sink-or-swim experience. Train, support, and evaluate so they have the confidence they need and so you know where their strengths and weaknesses are 

About the Author(s) 

Mark Vickers, Institute for Corporate Productivity Mark Vickers is vice president of research at the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp).