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The Fundamental Shift from Professional to First-Level Manager

Moving from one level of management to another involves challenges, but what about moving from a professional role to a first-line management role? Some people consider this to be the most challenging of all professional transitions. We asked three SPB coaches for their opinion.

ÈVE-MARIE – Is it hard to move from a professional role to being a first-line manager? I like this question. Many people think that it’s enough to have done the job themselves and be technically competent in order to be able to manage others effectively. Yet this move involves many challenges that are often underestimated by organizations because the general thinking is that first-line management has fewer obstacles than third-line management.

KIM – Absolutely. Thus new leaders are often essentially left to their own devices to figure out the kind of leader they want and need to be and how to develop these new skills (which are fundamentally different from those of individual contributors). Often, while under the magnifying glass of their previous colleagues as they seek their way, thus adding additional pressure and scrutiny.

AMANDA – I think it also requires a fundamental shift in perspective in terms of how you add value in your organization as well. It’s no longer about your ability to deliver as a person rather than how well you achieve results through other people.

ÈVE-MARIE – This move is similar to an elite athlete becoming a coach. Certain skills are in common, for instance perseverance and stress management, but others are highly distinct, like the ability to motivate and support others.

KIM – You’re right, Ève-Marie. This is a particularly disruptive passage as you can’t rely on how you functioned previously. You need to learn how to do so many things for the first time, such as managing others’ performance, building a team…

AMANDA – Which is not necessarily the case for higher-levels of leadership.

KIM – Exactly. As you move up, you can at least draw on leadership skills you learned in this first leadership experience. But when you become manager for the first time, your toolkit is often relatively empty and you can be left feeling ill-equipped for the task. There are competencies that are often under-developed in first-level managers, such as…

AMANDA and ÈVE-MARIE – Managerial courage?

KIM – You’re reading my mind! [Laugh] First-level leaders often either find it difficult to make the tough calls and not please everyone or tend to assert themselves in a very direct, even abrupt, controlling or demotivating manner as they find themselves in a position of authority for the first time and required to make constant decisions.

ÈVE-MARIE – Exactly. After they are promoted, new managers need to leave certain things behind, including being a true part of the group. They also have to mourn a professional identity – that of the individual contributor – and accept that they are no longer necessarily the expert in the group, but the person who is a catalyst and brings out that expertise.

AMANDA – The shift is a social one as well. It requires reframing, and for some, redefining their social identity. For some people this is a progressive evolution: They aspire to leadership, they start to emulate the behaviours that they see as successful in other leaders, and they prepare for this shift in identity because it aligns to who they want to become in their career.

KIM – You’re right. For some, it’s a progressive evolution. And yet for others, it can be lived as a very challenging transition, particularly if they don’t have a good support network to rely on.

AMANDA – You’re right, Kim. For some, the required shift in identity is a startling one, to say the least. It’s a smack in the face when they are faced with their first stumble, falter, or flat out flop. They start to realize that what they felt was important and valued in terms of their strengths is no longer what is needed to be successful. And here comes the hard part… self-discovery and insight about those underlying or dormant leadership qualities waiting to be awakened.

KIM – In this struggle lies a great opportunity to figure out the kind of leader you want to be. You know, as I navigated my way through my first leadership position, I was so lucky to have the support of my boss and a coach who helped me feel understood and not judged while understanding the impact I had on others and wanted to have. The most important benefit was helping me find my own voice: inviting me to take a step back and reflect and ask myself, “What did I really think?” and determine the best approach consistent with my values going forward. Essentially, helping me discover my own internal ‘compass’ for guiding my decisions based on the leader I wanted to become and not relying on others’ expectations or views of leadership.

AMANDA – What am I doing here? Where do I belong? Who am I as a leader? These are essential questions. First-level leaders must seek to uncover the answers to these questions, which help them begin to establish their leadership identity. When they can begin to reframe their identity as leader, the shift in behaviour and competency development required come more naturally and fluidly.

KIM – As a coach, this is one of the things I most enjoy doing with new leaders: Helping them discover what is important to them and the leader that they want to be; to allow them to make decisions and take action with conviction and authenticity. Time and time again, we come back to the key question: “And what would the leader you want to be do in this circumstance?” It all starts at the first level of management, and it takes courage and great self-awareness to navigate this transition successfully.

Do you want to go further? Contact us.

Kimberlea Baron MASc, PhD
  • Partner | Organizational Psychologist & Coach

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