three sharpened red pencil among many ones

Becoming a leader can be an empowering and motivating event in someone’s career. But it can also be confusing, isolating and daunting to navigate.  

The transition to first-time leadership has a steep learning curve with high expectations and, according to the Harvard Business Review, it is a transition that can be disorienting and riddled with failures. Not only can this have financial and personnel impacts on the organization, but it can make a lasting impression on the new leader, influencing his or her leadership style for the remainder of his or her career.  

While many first-time leaders are eager and ready to do what it takes to succeed, they often require training to be effective. Organizations can mitigate the potential problems associated with first-time leadership by better preparing new leaders to be successful and intentionally training them in key skills that they will need. Organizations can support first-time leaders by helping them learn three critical skills they will need to know to succeed.  

1. How to have difficult conversations 

Hard conversations are an ongoing part of any leadership role. They are crucial to get right, or the company can lose employees and clients. But for first-time leaders, those first hard conversations are usually unpleasant experiences that rarely go smoothly, and often pivotal conversations that leaders remember for the rest of their careers.  

Because hard conversations are so nerve-wracking and intimidating, many new leaders make the mistake of elongating the experience by delaying the conversation or not covering it completely the first time. A poll from VitalSmarts, a top 20 leadership training company, showed more than 80 percent of workers are cowering from at least one scary conversation at work — a conversation they know they need to have but are dreading.

Organizations can help new leaders learn to have hard conversations by role-playing difficult situations and helping the new leader process the emotions of a complicated conversation, such as apprehension, stress and fear. Another way the organization can help is by having someone more experienced come alongside new leaders when they need to have hard conversations, rather than leaving them to handle the difficult task alone.

Organizations need to have compassion for their first-time leaders and not require them to handle particularly difficult conversations alone when they are new in their roles. A coach, mentor, human resource specialist, or other experts can handle specific hard conversations instead of making a new leader try to figure it out. 

2. How to prioritize 

New leaders in the building service contractor (BSC) industry often go from being individual performers — where they have a similar set of tasks to complete every day over a certain period of hours — to being salaried and having a plethora of different tasks each day, such as complaints requiring follow-up, work orders, building inspections, training new employees, scheduling and processing payroll. New leaders need to learn how to get this all done and schedule their days appropriately, so they aren’t missing anything crucial or working nonstop and getting burnt out.  

Organizations can help teach new leaders how to prioritize tasks by providing coaching. An experienced leader can walk a new leader through his or her tasks and help assign those duties in order of importance and urgency, such as with the Eisenhower method.  

For new leaders, it may not be obvious what is most important, so they need guidance. Organizations can take this even further by making it clear what the top priority is for the organization. When organizations send a clear and consistent message about what is most important, first-time leaders have an easier job of aligning their tasks with the organization’s priorities.  

3. How to deal with ambiguity 

Individual performance, especially in the building service contractors’ space, provides immediate and positive feedback — cleaners can literally see the positive results of their work as the facility is cleaned. But leadership has delayed feedback, if any at all. Leaders might have to wait weeks, months, and sometimes indefinitely to know if they did something well or made the right decision.  

It takes time for individuals to adjust from a life of daily results as an individual contributor to dealing with constant ambiguity. Leaders have to make the best decisions they can with the information they have at the time, which is usually incomplete. This can be upsetting, especially for first-time leaders, who can develop “analysis paralysis” or avoid taking action because they are worried about making a mistake.  

Organizations can help to prevent the “analysis paralysis” by creating room for mistakes. All employees — and especially employees new to their roles — will inevitably make mistakes. Organizations can use mistakes as learning opportunities and coaching moments, rather than punishing or reprimanding the new leader, potentially discouraging the leader and instilling a bias for inaction.  

Organizations should also provide positive feedback for effort and clearly define for leaders what success looks like in their role. It might not be the same immediate reinforcement they received as an individual performer, but it will still provide them with validation that they are doing what they need to be doing and doing it well. Organizations can also assign first-time leaders a seasoned leader as a mentor or coach so that they have someone to talk to when they are feeling the burden of ambiguity so that they don’t feel alone.  

Training and coaching are essential for first-time leaders to feel more competent and capable as they make the transition into leadership. A 2021 study by DDI found that more than a third of leaders found the transition into their leadership role either overwhelming or very stressful. The study showed that this had compounding effects that influenced the whole organization, as well as negatively impacting the leader’s own engagement and wellbeing. But by supporting first-time leaders through mentoring or coaching programs and giving them practical, applicable leadership skills early on in their leadership careers, organizations can create a positive transition experience and set up the leaders and the organization itself for success.  

Peter Cain is a building service contractors executive at Marsden Services with over 30 years of industry experience. He is a Certified Building Services Executive and is currently pursuing his Doctorate of Business Administration at Grand Canyon University. His dissertation proposal is focused on the relationship between frontline leadership and its influence on employee engagement.