8 Ways to Prepare for Your First Leadership Role

Whether you’ve applied for a management position, received a promotion (congrats!) or have found yourself unexpectedly in a leadership role, becoming the boss you want to be can take time. In fact, it can take a lifetime. But there are lots of tips and tricks that can help any new manager become a thoughtful, decisive, and inspiring leader.

In this post, I’ll share my own leadership learnings, from how I got promoted twice in 18 months to how I developed my management style to best serve my team and organization. You don’t have to be perfect to lead a team, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared and this post is a great place to start.

My 8 tips to becoming a great first-time manager

  1. Evaluate your motivations
  2. Identify your fears
  3. Ask for an honest evaluation 
  4. Understand the expectations 
  5. Balance out your strengths and weaknesses 
  6. Get to know your organization
  7. Identify your support system 
  8. Make a plan for your progress

My leadership story

I got the job of VP of Marketing at an international premium web hosting company just shy of my 30th birthday. In fact, I hadn’t even been at the company for two years before being asked to join the executive team and become a department head. When I first moved into management, I had been at the company for 6 months, and after a year as Head of Growth, overseeing 7 people, this new promotion meant overseeing the work of about 20 individual contributors across 3 teams.

I’m sure someone who has been in management for 20 years could give more seasoned, time-tested tips on preparing for leadership. My angle is that I got promoted quickly, twice, in the last two years, so I have very fresh memories of what that was like and I’m going to share my tips and lessons learned.  

Now, I want to point out that my career in Marketing and Communications really started in 2010, so I’ve been working in Marketing, in some shape or form for more than a decade. But it was only in 2014 that I made the decision to start at the bottom again and quit my job to do an internship so that I could move from the Financial industry into Tech. From there, I moved around a bit, but not without a pretty good idea of what I wanted to be doing in the medium term. 

How to use your job hops to get into leadership

Everyone’s situation is different, but if you’re looking to move up into a leadership role, whether that’s leading a project or seeking out a people management position, there are two main ways to do that. Both require being proactive and vocal about what you want. Either you seek out opportunities within your own organization or you get a new job in a new company that gets you closer to your goal. From my own experience, both of these strategies have worked for me at different times in my career. Sometimes you have to leave to get unstuck, and sometimes the best place to grow is right where you are. 

If you want to lead— now, or in the future, start making it known.

Personally,  my biggest career wins have been within the organization I work for today. This post is the 8 ways I prepared for that first leap into management as Head of Growth in 2020 and the tips that continue to serve me, 6 months into my role as VP of Marketing. 

1. Evaluation your motivations for seeking a leadership role

I wrote a whole blog post that outlined what you should be asking yourself as you determine if a leadership role is your next career move. And figuring out if you’re doing it for the right reasons. Are you seeking a promotion because it feels like the next natural step? Or are you really passionate about making change happen? Are you wanting that promotion because everyone around you is an idiot, and “if they’d just listen to you, things would be so much better“! Do you want to be the boss to call the shots? Surprise! Middle management often means navigating a lot of competing priorities and sometimes it feels like less control. 

Is it the people management part that inspires you? That’s great because in my experience, being the boss is spending a lot of time putting other people first and making sure your team members are growing and thriving.

It also means letting other people get the credit and seeing the collective win as your own win. I want to mention that there are a lot of ways to lead without having a management role. You can lead projects, task forces, committees, and other leadership roles without the workload of performance evaluations, performance quotas, and budgets. This is a great way to develop your leadership skills whether you want to eventually move up or not. 

In short, think about what is attracting you to a leadership position, so you’re sure it’s not all about your ego or the job title.  

2. Get real about your fears

If you want a leadership role, but have been hesitant to make the leap, it’s time to get real about your fears.  One quote I hear from time to time is that men will apply for jobs they’re 60% qualified for and women will only apply to jobs they’re 100% qualified for. We can never be totally ready for management, you just have to start somewhere. And the idea of going from managing zero people to managing a team of 4, 5, or 10 individual contributors can seem really daunting. If this doesn’t resonate with you, great, carry on! This tip is for those who have apprehensions and self-doubt about being able to hit the ground running as a new manager.  

We don’t always have the luxury of dipping our toes into management, managing one person and seeing how it goes. And in most organizations, you can’t just stop, do management training for 3 weeks and then start your new job. It’s real, on-the-job training. So, what’s the best way to get over your fears? Face them of course. But you have to put words to the feelings. What are you really nervous about? Is it having difficult conversations? Managing budgets? Salary negotiations? Being taken seriously by the people who now report to you? Being responsible for your department’s numbers? Take the time to find out. 

One of the suggestions is to ask your manager or mentor “what’s one thing you see me doing that gets in my own way?”

– Thanks for the Feedback

3. Ask for an honest evaluation

This tip is useful if you got the management job but also if you were turned down for a promotion or not selected for a position. Ask your boss or the managers around you what they think your strengths are and where you may have some blind spots. One book I highly recommend to new managers is “Thanks for the Feedback” by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. One of the suggestions is to ask your manager or mentor “what’s one thing you see me doing that gets in my own way?

If you got turned down for a promotion, a good hiring manager will tell you why. On the flip side, you may have been the top choice for this particular management position, but that doesn’t mean you’re perfect. Find out what others think may be a stumbling block for you so you have that information as you prepare. Don’t get discouraged if you’re not moving up as quickly as you want. Adopt a growth mindset where every failure is a chance to learn and grow

4. Understand the expectations

If there’s one thing that can really set you up for failure, it’s a misalignment of the expectations of you in this role. This can be expectations from all sides of the organization. It can be the expectations of your boss, other managers, your direct reports, your board members. Being a good boss and colleague is understanding the new dynamics you’re stepping into and how to be a considerate and helpful colleague. 

This will also help you set realistic goals and prioritize what your team should be focusing on. It can also help if you’re coming into a role as a replacement, and finding out what needs to change under new management (i.e. YOU!). 

If you’re still in the evaluation stage and figuring out how to move up in your organization, ask around how other managers like their job. And if you’re serious about making a move, find out from the people in leadership what they value in team leaders and what the expectations are for people in that role. This can help you align yourself with those expectations or even help you present yourself well in job interviews at other companies. 

5. Balance out your strengths and weaknesses

My next tip is to balance out your strengths and weaknesses. By this, I do mean soft skills to some degree. Self-awareness and the ability to receive feedback are perhaps one of the most underrated skills for a manager because you’re not going to be good at everything and you’re going to make mistakes. But I also mean that you’re going to have to balance your practical, hard skills too. One of the biggest shifts for me when moving from an individual contributor role to leading a team was that all of a sudden, I was doing a lot less of what I was an expert at and a whole lot more of everything else

As a manager, you have to be a support to everyone on your team, not just the functions or tasks you’re really familiar with. I went from doing content creation to managing a team with PPC advertising experts, demand generation specialists, and affiliate managers. These were areas of Marketing I understood but was never in charge of. As a manager, I quickly had to get knowledgeable in all the areas I was overseeing and spend a little less time on the ones that came naturally. 

I had to balance where my attention was going so I could actually be helpful to everyone and the team as a whole. I also had to know enough to connect the dots for team members within the team, and with initiatives happening outside the department. This is a skill you can adopt even if you’re not in a management role. Being able to see outside of your own area of expertise and collaborate across departments will make you an attractive candidate for leadership.

man in an office space

6. Get to know your organization really well

This leads me to tip 6: Get to know your organization really well. This advice is definitely for people who are looking to move up within the organization they already work in. But looking back at my own career journey as well as my experience promoting people into their first leadership roles, employees who are active, pay attention to the company’s operations and make an effort to stay on top of internal news and inter-departmental initiatives stand out as potential candidates for leadership. 

Because as a manager, it’s your job to be aware of policies, big picture company values, product roadmaps, and to bring that information back to your team of experts who are focused on their specific areas of responsibility. The most effective leaders are the ones who have their finger on the pulse and know who to ask for what information in their organization. 

7. Identify your support system

Knowing your organization well will also help you identify your support system in your new management position. One noteworthy change when you move up in an organization is your relationships with your colleagues. I have a great working relationship with my team, but there was a slight change when I became their boss and again when I became their boss’ boss. You simply can’t talk about department challenges or air your grievances in the same way. It can be unprofessional and create an unhealthy work culture if you’re dishing about a sensitive topic to team members, especially if you’re disclosing information about a colleague of theirs. 

You have to create those boundaries so every team member trusts you. But YOU still need support. As a new manager, you have to identify what your support system is for when you need help, need advice, or simply need to vent! It could be your HR rep, your boss, or fellow managers at your level or above. It could be a mentor you meet with regularly. You’ll also discover new connections and relationships within your strata of the organization. The biggest shift for me when I joined the executive team was to start thinking about the other executives as my immediate colleagues, as my team, rather than only having those relationships within the Marketing department. 

8. Plan your progress

And my last tip is to make a plan for your progress. Whether you’re gearing up to apply for your first leadership position or are currently a boss. When I was promoted to my first management role, my team’s work didn’t stop, I didn’t go to leadership training right away, and we didn’t backfill my old position either. So, I could easily have been overwhelmed by the tasks at hand and never taken the time to level up my management skills. You have to make a plan for your own career development. Talk to your HR team, your boss, or whoever is in your support system, and find out what resources are available to you. 

If you’re more or less on your own, build your own learning plan. Identify the books, courses, podcasts, blogs (like this one!) and carve out time every week to learn about a new topic and hear from veteran leadership experts.  And don’t be afraid to admit to your support network when you need a second opinion or to bounce ideas off of someone. You’re not alone. 


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