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How do you teach a new line manager to manage?

29th Apr 2010
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Imagine you are two or three years into your career: knowledgeable, confident and well regarded within the organisation. What’s next? Maybe a promotion with a team, more responsibility and a pay rise? Though alongside these come new pressures, a new way of working and the need to use a different type of skills.


How do organisations typically help these newly promoted individuals build the skills and understanding of a new way of working to succeed in their jobs? In Orion Partner’s experience, the short answer is they don’t; or at least they don’t in the way these line managers really need it.

Often in organisations that have identified this gap, the solution includes a generic ‘introduction to line management’ induction course that touches on a broad range of subjects from performance reviews and managing employee relations issues to coaching and giving feedback and how to use the new manager self-service module on their HR Information System. This may or may not be supported by an employee handbook and some advice and direction from their new manager. Worst case scenario, the first time line manager is handed their new job description and expected to just get on with it.

The issue
But is this really enough support for a first time line manager to be effective in their new role? Great leadership theorists have always argued that people are promoted for their strong technical skills, not their ability to manage or to lead – which creates a barrier to their potential to really excel in their new role from the offset. With this in mind, how can we expect these first time line managers to have the skills to manage without the proper interventions? 

A conversation I had a few weeks back with a newly promoted line manager confirmed this point. When discussing upcoming performance review conversations with his new team, I asked him how prepared he was for these and what skills he would draw on in the process. He stared at me blankly before responding with: “I figured I would mimic the conversations I’ve had in the past with my line managers. After all, they worked for me.”

Sounds sensible but how can his organisation be sure that he’s:

  • Having the right type of conversations with his employees?
  • Stretching his employees to their full potential?
  • Developing the skills they need to take their career to the next level?

The answer to all these questions is that they can’t. Through working with organisations in the public and private sectors in the UK, Europe and globally, we constantly find that new managers are not getting the right development and support they need - like the manager above - to work effectively in their new role. The effects may include anything from an underperforming team or stalled individual development to a resignation and the loss of ‘top talent’ within the organisation.

We believe that if a manager is going to make as much of a splash in their new role as they have in their previous role - which got them promoted in the first place - there is a need within organisations to start focusing on their development. This applies to seasoned managers as much as it does to new managers.

So, what’s the solution?
With employee engagement and line manager development as hot topics right now, what is the answer to making this work? And what’s HR’s role in making this happen?

Through working with organisations on exactly this issue, we at Orion Partners have developed an approach to close this gap. Our three-step approach was designed to ensure that all line managers, new or experienced, are clear on what ‘great’ looks like in the line manager role with clarity around how they can get there.

Step one
Step one is about identifying what good line management looks like in your organisation from the skills and behaviours to the mindset and beliefs. We at Orion call this the Line Manager Success Profile. It is HR’s role to lead the pack on this initiative – building a model for what excellent management looks like in their organisation.

This starts with identifying exemplar line managers within the organisation and then interviewing them to dig below the surface to identify what it is that makes them successful as a line manager. In our experience in running these exercises, what typically make these line managers successful are not the ‘hard’ skills – such as the ability to conduct a performance review, recruit a new team member or manage a grievance - but the mindset and beliefs they hold about their role as a manager.

Step two
Once the success profile is built, step two is about helping managers assess themselves against this model of exemplar line management to really understand where their development areas lie. In some instances, HR will run these exercises and in others their role is about facilitating the process and making sure it happens. This may require HR to coach these line managers’ managers on how to engage the employee or how to ask questions to test their employee’s abilities.

This activity is important for two reasons. Not only does it ensure the newly promoted line manager really understands the role of the line manager - far beyond what is included in their job description - but it helps the employee recognise what they need to do to be successful in their new role.

Step three
Once development gaps have been identified, step three is about identifying the development intervention(s) to close this gap. In our experience, courses focussed on coaching skills, having difficult conversations and employee engagement are a good starting point. Though, with current learning and development budgets feeling the pinch, it is important to remember that this activity doesn’t need to be grand and expensive. It is HR’s role to get creative with the initiatives and identify which solution will have the most meaningful impact for that employee. Sometimes this may be as simple as recommending a great book on leadership, organising a coaching session with the employee, setting up a formal mentoring relationship with well-regarded line mangers or providing access to an online toolkit.

From the line manager’s perspective, the outcome of this three step process ensures that they:

  • Know what good looks like for line managers within their organisation
  • Have a clear view on how they measure up against this and where their strengths and development areas lie
  • Have a clear picture of how they will fill these gaps
  • Are confident their development interventions are fit for purpose
  • As there is no one ‘right’ way to manage that fits all situations, line managers need to understand the skills and beliefs that the best adopt and learn to use them alongside their natural style. It is the role of HR to facilitate this process: from creating a model for exemplar line management within their organisation, to ensuring managers feel supported to excel in their new role
  • HR needs to create a culture that supports development of line managers - new and seasoned - within their organisation. They must ensure that line managers are well equipped to manage their people in the most effective way possible - balancing the needs of their organisation against the needs of their team

Replies (3)

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By Sheridan Webb
29th Apr 2010 12:53

As someone who has designed a few new manager's induction programmes in the past, I didn't expect to learn anything new from this article, but I did. It's a great idea to focus more on the less tangible aspects of management, and I do think that I will be looking at this more from now on.


Many clients focus primarily on operational issues, and this means the 'technical' stuff.The suggested approach really requires excellent role models and mentors to be available in the business, which isn't always the case.New managers need to have work taken off them, otherwise they will fall back into their comfort zones of 'doing' rather than managing (although I think this is implied by Step 1 and identifying 'what good looks like')

Maybe we need to change the focus on HOW new managers are selected and promoted. It is surely easier to promote people with the right underlying skills, values and attitudes and teach them the technical stuff, than it is to promote someone for their technical expertise, and expect them to learn the underlying skills?

Sheridan Webb

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By Yuvarajah
04th May 2010 11:11

The truth of reality, as claimed by the article, is that almost all Line Managers are promoted predorminantly for their technical skills, downplaying the relative significance fo conceptual and people skills. The logic is for them to pick it on the job through development including making mistakes, incuding a few costly ones, like turnover. 

This is why we find Managers suffering from "Peter Principle". Yet, time and again we witness "Technical" managers "indispensable" forces despite lacking leadership qualities. And, to expect HR to play a dynamic role in bringing them into allignment with the "holistic" leadership model is like asking to be god. 

The article seem to imply that it is HR's role to make all this possible in making the Line Managers competent beyond the technical capability. I wholly agree with. But, is the management willing to empower HR with the same level of "authority" is discharging the responsibility without fear or favour. And, that includes the leadership support and committment to strategic HR plans relating to Talent management. 

This brings to question the KRA of succession planing and career development challenge. Why must there be gaps in the first place, if the requisite training and development opportunities are provided prior to promotions. What is the point of asking HR to fix problems in underperformance when the very selection criterion to managerial positions is lopsided and skewed.

The step one above is precisely what Competency Modelling is about and why it has to be part of the DNA of a company. It provides the basic framework for talent management, specific to acquisition, development and engagement. With it, you can identify and measure WHAT to look for in completing the exemplary profile of managers by positions.       

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By liz3499
05th May 2010 09:43

This is an interesting perspective on training new (and seasoned) line managers: the point about knowing what 'good looks like' is crucial for sharing good practice, and it's something we also do at Employers' Forum on Disability.

Our practical guides for line managers on issues like attendance management help managers treat both disabled and non-disabled colleagues fairly, and get the best from everyone, whether they have a disability or not. The guides cover topics that can be unfamilar and difficult for new managers, like handling difficult conversations or recognising the signs when someone might have a disability.

You can find out more via this link:

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