coaching Leadership Development

How to ensure your first-time supervisors are bullet-proof without compromising profitability and productivity

If you’ve ever managed people before, then there was a time when you were a first-time manager. We all arrived at that spot by different paths. Some people via the educational route, earning degrees or advanced degrees in the discipline before taking on the role, while others established themselves as uniquely high performers in their field, and were promoted to a supervisory role on merit. Some companies have robust in-house training programs, others outsource their leadership development and still others (perhaps the majority) rely on ‘on-the-job training’, which often translates to sink or swim!

Suffice it to say, it can be a nerve-wracking experience being ‘crowned’ supervisor – especially if it means supervising former co-workers. Most organizations don’t do as well as they’d like preparing new supervisors for their challenges. I’m reasonably confident it’s not out of malice, or some perverse desire to make the new supervisor suffer as we once did (although I’m not saying it’s not…kidding) but I do think as difficult as it is to be a first-time supervisor, it’s equally difficult to manage first time supervisors. Although there’s a plentiful supply of leadership resources to help senior leaders on a strategic level, I haven’t encountered as much from a tactical side for second-tier managers.

One of the biggest challenges first-time managers face when assuming their role is their relative lack of experience dealing with performance problems. The reason is simple – they’ve likely always been high performers, so they’ve never been on the receiving end of the conversation, and there’s likely been very little opportunity for them to deliver coaching for performance. And anecdotally, given the predilection for so many people to avoid these conversations anyway, it’s a safe assumption that this is not an area a new supervisor will come to the table proficient in.

To compound the problem is an inherent insecurity most of them have (I say ‘them’ but let’s be honest and say us because it’s not limited to first-time managers) about not being quite qualified for the role. That ‘if only they knew how little I know, they’d demote me’ fear keeps these supervisors from asking what they think you think they already know. And, if they like you (and hopefully they do) they’re also going to want to maintain your good opinion of them.

That’s why I strongly recommend orienting them to their role with a very clear set of expectations about the types of things they’ll be doing as supervisors that they weren’t doing as individual contributors. In many cases, it’s not just a matter of training them so that they’ll be more comfortable, it’s also a matter of liability. Your supervisors can get themselves and the company in a lot of trouble if they say or do something illegal! Some areas where you’ll likely need to work with them are:

  • Performance management
    • Goal Setting / Organizational and Individual Metrics / Coaching / Reinforcement / Training
  • Understanding and correctly functioning within established company processes
  • Recruiting and hiring best practices
  • HR policies and employment law
  • Communicating appropriately and effectively
  • Championing the company culture
  • Other Management Skills
    • Delegation / Effective Meetings / Vocation to Leadership

Now fear not! Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your new supervisor isn’t going to break your company if she/he doesn’t have this all mastered by day one (probably). You’re not going to teach your first-time supervisors everything they need to know on their first day in their new role, and you certainly don’t want to overwhelm them or destroy their confidence. If your company has defined processes and training in place already, this is much easier. Assuming they don’t, it’s often helpful to start with a simple checklist. List out the items of import and have the new supervisor fill out a checklist indicating for each whether they are: Completely comfortable, desiring refresher training, or in need of complete training. In addition, have them rate the urgency of the training need on a scale of 1-5.

Armed with this information, you can decide first whether or not their self-assessment and judgement is accurate, but also where this particular supervisor needs immediate support. In addition, if adopted by other managers, this will illuminate significant areas of training opportunity within your company.

As with most skills, stating expectations is only the first step to mastery. New supervisors must also be taught HOW to perform the tasks, and how to determine if they are doing them correctly. As their manager, you must be prepared to coach and provide feedback every step of the way as they grow into their role. Encourage your new supervisors that a mis-step does not mean the end of the career or that they just weren’t cut out for management – far from it! Instead, support them in taking the risk of stepping out of their comfort zone! It’s a huge mental shift to learn the delayed gratification of accomplishing tasks through the efforts of others after being a high-performing individual contributor.

I hope you found this article useful. If you are interested in learning more about training first-time managers, please visit us at for more information.

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Carrie Maldonado is the founder of Today’s Leadership Solutions, a Seattle-based consulting firm providing comprehensive organizational development solutions for companies who are growing and who truly value their people.  With certified Executive Coaches, Organizational Behavior Management (OBM) practitioners, SPHR-certified HR professionals, and Organizational Development Specialists, Carrie’s team brings a unique perspective and a cross-functional approach to providing workplace solutions that work.  Carrie can be reached for consultation at