These 5 Essential Behaviors Will Help All First Time Leaders

Develop these key skills to drive employee engagement and thrive in a new leadership role

Congratulations on your new role. You obviously earned it. You’ve gone from being a team member to a first time leader.

That’s quite a leap, isn’t it? But really, how difficult can it be?

Well, our job here is to give you some perspective and tools to help navigate in both calm and choppy waters. Because leadership isn’t plain sailing.

As you look over your new team and wonder what the future brings, you will almost certainly be armed with hours of reading McKinsey leadership articles, CEO LinkedIn posts or watching Russel Crowe in Gladiator. How else do you find out what good leadership is? 

In reality, most leaders learn by doing. And by making mistakes. Often.

In many cases, people who step into leadership roles either quickly adapt and become a success story or they struggle and revert back to a previous role, acknowledging that they are better at working in a team rather than managing one. 

We humans are not all built the same way: some people like to lead by example — the doers — while others focus on empowering the people beneath them. There are many leadership styles and approaches that will work for you.

And it’s natural for all first time leaders to ask themselves certain questions:
How do I quickly stamp my mark on my team and the organization?
What do I need to prioritise first?
How do I stay at the top?

What will make me a leader that I want to work for?

In this article we are going to map out the 5 key behaviors that can support you in this role and ensure that you engage your people, drive productivity and succeed. Many of the key traits we discuss here are well known, as many have become core to all first time leaders: the power of communication, the role of empathy and the importance of always being inclusive.

#1 Learn to embrace change

It’s hard to avoid the pressure that new leaders are under today. So, let’s be very blunt about this:

For the first time leader, the post-2020 workplace presents many new leadership and management challenges. The global pandemic has changed many of the traditional notions of work, possibly forever, and tackling today’s new challenges may be the key to preparing for the future of work.

Many of the old challenges remain, but in addition to these, new ones have emerged.

For example, new hybrid models of work, where employees can work remotely are becoming more common, requiring trust building between leaders and employees.

As a first time leader, you will need to quickly build strong ties with your team and understand what drives your employees. What do they want from their work? How do you keep them engaged, motivated and productive?  

When you lay all of the workplace changes out, it can appear to be a daunting challenge. But this is also an opportunity to be grasped by first time leaders with both hands. 

What no one tells you when you first become a leader is that the skills which helped you get here are not the same ones that will keep you here.

We believe a new start as a first time leader requires a fresh mindset. This means acquiring a new set of tools to help you thrive in your new role and drive the performance of your team. 

A first time leader has to be able to meet new and emerging challenges in the workplace. On the one hand you need to be flexible and adaptable, to navigate digital change. But on the other hand, you need to inspire and motivate a diverse range of employees.

#2 Start to let go

Handing over responsibilities is a vital behavior for first time leaders in cultivating their team, developing trust and improving morale.

Dr. David Brendel, a psychiatrist and executive coach, pinpoints this challenge in the Harvard Business Review: “Many newly appointed managers, as they assume unfamiliar roles, cling to a belief system that emphasises “hard skills” and a “nose to the grindstone” mentality,” he says. 

“But this mindset can constitute a set of limiting beliefs for a manager whose “soft skills” will actually determine whether he or she thrives. Some managers struggle to adapt their belief system, in part because they fear they will lose their edge in their area of technical expertise.”

We’ve explored the tension between being hands on and standing back and putting trust in your team in previous blog posts.

It’s a topic that never gets old, because our innate behavior as humans is to revert to what we know best, or, how we acted before. There are many reasons why a first time leader will likely battle against this impulse.

Another thing first time leaders should know is that you are at the helm of a team.

The impulse you will have might be the same one that you had as a high-achieving employee - I’ll do it myself, that’s the best way. But you can’t do everything alone anymore. You have to remember you’re no longer responsible only for your personal goals, but the collective goals of your team.

That is how your manager will assess your work. So, instead of doing, learn to delegate. 

We understand the pressure is on to get ‘quick wins’ when you step into a leadership role. But this is a bit of a trap. Because, as well as putting undue pressure on your own shoulders, you end up depriving your team of their chance to shine.  

Instead, focus on cultivating a team that can quickly deliver on its goals. As a leader, it is your role to pass on your knowledge and help others grow and succeed, which means handing over responsibilities.

We know, it doesn’t come naturally… Why else do you think we have selected this as our first key behavior for first time leaders!

Ultimately, it will be essential for you to resist the urge to take charge. The sooner you pass on your knowledge and technical skills to your team and guide them to succeed, the more empowered they will feel as a result. You won’t be able to perform every task, every process and every duty every time. You are responsible for others now. 

Also, try to remember that right now a lot of employees are looking for opportunities to develop their skill sets and grow. People are looking for a sense of fulfillment — they are  ambitious to see their careers develop too — and this rests with you.

If they feel that you are cutting in on their opportunities to learn and grow, because you haven’t shaken off the ghosts of your previous role, it will almost certainly impact their sense of purpose. So, in short, let go.

#3 Always be inclusive 

When employees feel that they are treated fairly, that their personal uniqueness is seen, heard, and appreciated, they will gain a sense of belonging to the team and the organization.

If you are inclusive, you recognize everyone in your decision making, and in turn they feel included.

According to the company Deloitte highly inclusive leaders demonstrate six signature behaviors which govern the way they think and what they do. We see these all closely interlinked and it is useful to familiarize yourself with them. 

As a first time leader you can’t perfect or hone all of these at the same time. However, understanding their importance and finding opportunities to practise and develop these will go a long way to building an inclusive mindset. 

Deloitte says that leaders who build these traits “operate more effectively within diverse markets, better connect with diverse customers, access a more diverse spectrum of ideas, and enable diverse individuals in the workforce to reach their full potential”.

6 key inclusive behaviors

  1. Collaborative: You empower individuals on your team and drive them to succeed; at the same time you mine and harness their diverse ideas and thinking.

  2. Conscious of bias: You acknowledge that ingrained biases exist across systems and organizational thinking. This is reflected through your ability to see the weak points in the organization that could lead to employees falling through the gaps and feeling disenfranchized.

  3. Open minded: The inclusive leader understands that they are not a finished product and that there is much to learn from other people’s views. You ask questions and are willing to have your own views challenged by others.

  4. Committed: An inclusive leader is aware of the value in diversity and inclusion as a business prerogative. This means you don’t believe it is a corporate necessity or an obligation but a fundamental plank in achieving business success.
  5. Awareness: Being humble and honest about your own strengths and weaknesses will help you connect with your team. Humans are fallible, and so are all leaders. And your team knows this. Don’t be afraid to speak up and challenge orthodoxy if it is holding people back.

  6. Culturally sensitive: An inclusive leader will not need to work hard to bridge cultural divides in the team or the organization, but rather they will be confident and attuned to differences between team members and their backgrounds. 

#4 Be an effective communicator

The effectiveness of the way you communicate as a first time leader has huge ramifications on your future success, and your teams’ performances too. All good leaders are good communicators, but it is not widely understood precisely why they invest so much in this key skill.

In fact, research points to our human desire for narrative structure — or storytelling — as a preferred means to digest information.

“Character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of these points weeks later,”writes Paul J. Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and a professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University, and the CEO of Immersion Neuroscience. 

There’s a reason The Godfather is widely acknowledged as the greatest film of all time. Or why Disney’s Finding Nemo captivates adults and children alike. In each of us there is an innate human desire to engage with a story. 

Why does this matter to the first time leader? 

Well, we believe that understanding this will help you in moments when you need to communicate.

And while we’re not suggesting you sit everyone down and tell them a three-act story, showing your fears and weaknesses, your goals and objectives and the obstacles that lie in the way— and how you will overcome them—is the foundation of every decent story.

According to Paul Smith author of ‘Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire’ building this capability will help you manage many of the challenges we discussed earlier in this post. 

“Storytelling is useful when heavy influence is required like leading change, or making recommendations to the boss,” he writes. “But it’s also good for delicate issues like managing diversity and inclusion, or giving people coaching and feedback in a way that will be received as a welcome gift. It can help bring out more of people’s creativity, or help them rekindle the passion for their work.”

The communicator’s almanack

Aside from the power of storytelling there are other ways to refine your fundamental communication skills to support your leadership goals. 

Firstly, it’s good to acknowledge what kind of communicator you want to be. Many organizations have a mechanical approach to communication and storytelling: develop a message and then repeat, repeat, repeat. 

In all honesty, your brand of leadership will depend on how you connect and communicate with your team. For first time leaders, you will face the pressure to tow the line, but will also want to forge your own way as a communicator.

There are golden rules that can help you succeed and be a better communicator, and help get your message across and avoid complexity. 

  • Be real, authentic

Don’t regurgitate corporate messages or rehash old communications as new, because it will be quickly recognized by your team. Also, don’t waste a communications opportunity — a speech, email or video — on something that your team can look at and recognize as insincere.

  • Be balanced, honest and transparent

The connection you build with your team will decide their performance and desire to achieve for you. Therefore, it is important to build trust through the way you communicate. When big decisions are rolled out, speak honestly and openly about what they mean to your team, good or bad. Don’t overshare, but also don’t undershare. If there are challenges on the horizon, let them know.

  • Consistent, clear and concise

Make every piece of communication interaction you have with a team member valuable and meaningful. Don’t waste words. As a first time leader, you can build a reputation for yourself through being thorough, unambiguous and clear in your communication. If you leave an interaction with everyone clear on your objectives and goals, with no lingering questions, that’s a win. 

#5 Try to cultivate empathy

The role of emotional intelligence for first time leaders can’t be overstated.

Many of you may think this is a passing fad, or that empathy is just the current management buzzword. But there is much to support the premise that empathy, and kindness, are valuable leadership attributes. And it is something we think hard about at Krauthammer. 

The fact is that around 20% of employers now offer empathy training, which is up substantially from 10 years ago.

Research has shown that empathy makes people better managers and workers, as well as better family members and friends.

Daniel Goleman, author of the 1995 book Emotional Intelligence, who coined the phrase believes empathy is a core leadership trait and that the best leaders understand intimately its value in the workplace.

On the role of emotional intelligence and empathy in leadership Goleman wrote this: 

“…my research along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence [empathy] is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.” 

He goes on to say, “…emotional intelligence play[s] an increasingly important role at the highest levels of the company, where differences in technical skills are of negligible importance.”

One of the most commonly cited reasons for people leaving an organization is the lack of trust in, and appreciation from, those that they report to, as discussed in previous sections.

A way to combat this is empathy, which increases trust and a sense that staff are valued and cared about. Whether in our personal relationships or part of an organization, we will be more likely to stay when we feel like we are heard, appreciated, and cared about.

An empathy roadmap 

Some people are naturally more empathetic than others, but there are ways to develop empathy.

Empathy is about understanding and sharing someone else’s feelings. Many people confuse this with sympathy, which is about having the same feelings as someone else or feeling compassion for the way another person feels.

Empathy is important to life experience and how we work together when feelings are involved in getting work done. And there are ways to become more empathetic and channel this core skill in your everyday work. 

  • Embrace your own vulnerabilities

    It doesn’t help the first time leader to project an image of being a finished product, when they are still learning and making mistakes.

    You may think that a sense of vulnerability is not viewed in the workplace as a strength, but rather it is stigmatized as showing your weaknesses. But the very act of showing both your strengths and weaknesses at the same time conveys to your team that occasionally you will need them just as much as they will need you.

  • Talk about empathy

    It will help you to talk about empathy in the context of creating an environment of openness and understanding among employees. We’re not suggesting you literally get up and do a talk about how much you admire empathy. The objective isn’t to promote empathy in itself, but to create an environment where all feedback is welcome.

  • Encourage new perspectives

    We talked about navigating biases in an earlier section of this blog post, but we feel there is so much to gain from bringing new — and different — perspectives into your team.

    Often leaders think their job is to instruct, guide, set goals and then give feedback to their employees.

    But listening to what your employees have to say, and taking a genuine interest in who they are, what they want and where they plan to go, is a real power in itself. Listen and ask questions.

    This is often under-used by first time leaders who may feel more comfortable with the tried and tested formula. Is there a better way of doing this? Can we learn something from a team member’s previous experience? Encourage new perspectives and get your employees to bring new ideas to the table.

  • Always be kind

    Old management thinking promoted the idea that new leaders should be firm, commanding and unwavering in the way they conduct themselves.

    But there is now a new kid in town: kindness. There is much to gain by taking a softer approach to your colleagues. In the old days this may have been perceived as a weakness, or like your ability to be kind meant you couldn’t make tough decisions when necessary.

    Not true. Kindness will be appreciated in all theatres of work. And it will go a long way to getting your team to perform. In 2022, kindness will always win.

Leadership is something you grow into, it isn’t something you refine and perfect before you walk into your first day on the job.

All of the best leaders will attest that their skills, and many of the attributes that we have discussed here, have been honed through years and years of mistakes, practise and learning from real world experiences. And from watching other leaders, too.

As you embark on this journey, we are alongside you and we support you every step of the way. 

Learn more about how we do so? 

Manage your mindset