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It’s a well-known fact that quality leadership is one of the most important factors in the success of any organization.

Companies are often encouraged to create a leadership culture that identifies, nurtures and promotes employees from within. This way, they have a pool of homegrown talent with great leadership skills – and existing internal expertise – ready to guide their company into the future. 

However, transitioning to leadership roles are often quite challenging for newly promoted employees. Facing changes in social dynamics, in workload distribution and in responsibility checklists is a lot to take in and adopt, but it’s not impossible; they just need guidance.

Why transitioning to leadership is challenging

Transitioning from employee to manager carries challenges, but with some support and guidance, these can be overcome.Employees often struggle to transition into a leadership role because the skills that make a great employee don’t always necessarily make a great leader. For example, as an employee, hard skills – the tangible things like technical skills or domain expertise – were likely the skills that made them thrive and earned them their promotion. But as a manager, those hard skills take a backseat to their soft skills – their ability to communicate, resolve conflict, plan ahead, lead and inspire. As a big part of workforce management, leadership roles require one to carefully juggle the sub-roles of supervisor, coach, decision maker and visionary.

Supervisory tasks include delegation, communication and coordination of tasks, as well monitoring of work performance and deadlines. Coaching, on the other hand, entails familiarizing employees with the workplace and developing their skills so they consistently deliver optimal work.

As a decision maker, a leader must establish the direction of the company and effectively make sound critical decisions to implement it, even under pressure. And finally, as a visionary, a leader is tasked with creating a vision and developing a strong organizational culture that motivates employees to follow it.

3 common challenges when transitioning to a leadership role

1. Learning the difference between leading and managing

Leaders need to inspire, guide and share purpose with their team, not just manage the assigned budget and hit goals. It’s only part task delegation; the rest is providing direction and feedback and – critically – gaining mutual trust with their team members.

The ability to lead is more valuable to your team members than your ability to manage. Guide and inspire, don't take over.The differences between leadership and management can also be quite subtle. For example, for tasks that can be completed in a variety of ways, allow the employees who perform said tasks to determine their best path through it, rather than dictating a rigid process that suits your work style. You can provide guidance and support, as well as confer about pros and cons to each method, but this step back offers employees the autonomy they crave and frees up some stress and time crunch for the manager.

2. Navigating new social dynamics with former colleagues

Leaders often struggle to manage those who they used to consider their peers. Provide new managers with guidance in this venue. You could also establish a mentorship program to pair more seasoned managers with the fresh recruits to facilitate relationships and spread the tips and tricks that keep things working. Consider adding training to the L&D program for things like presentation skills, public speaking, conflict resolution and even time management skills to help in this arena.

3. Letting go of your previous role

Out of habit, new leaders often try to continue doing all their previous work instead of delegating the appropriate tasks to the appropriate people.

Learn to let go and hand off former responsibilities to ensure you don't saddle yourself with two jobs.There are many reasons for this: It might be that they don’t think anyone else knows how to perform the tasks, they don’t know who (or how) to train or possibly that they have developed a feeling of possessiveness over the work that got them promoted in the first place. Whatever the reason is, new managers may need help or training to let go and move on, to retrain other people and, respectfully, relinquish control while remaining available to answer questions – without taking over.

Furthermore, despite best intentions, companies don’t always have the right support structures in place to help employees transition smoothly into their new leadership roles. What leaders really want is personalized learning experiences, coaching from external mentors and access to formal workshops, training courses and seminars. New manager training is an important element of the L&D programming – and, if possible, consider opening this training to non-managers, as well. Very often, people have a managerial role in their career roadmap and will take opportunities to prepare. With this investment, you set up your company for talent and domain knowledge retention long term.

8 ways to ease a leadership transition

1. Delegate more responsibility in current roles.

It’s important to ensure that employees are empowered to take full responsibility for solving the day-to-day problems that arise in their current roles, rather than looking to their managers for solutions. This builds confidence, knowledge and problem-solving skills that will become essential when the employee takes on a leadership role.

Editor’s note: Recent research shows that 24% of all employees experience burnout frequently or very frequently. Concurrently, when employees were asked what they wanted most from their employers, “set realistic expectations for roles and responsibilities” made the top five. If combined with the #2 desire to “encourage a strong work-life balance,” it actually jumps to the #1 ask from managers at a combined 67%. So when you are looking to increase your employees’ responsibilities, be careful to balance which “responsibilities” are tasks and which are autonomy.

Dive into our latest research to learn five key areas of focus for your  organization to improve employee wellbeing in 2024.

While some situations will require the employee to ask for help, they also need to develop the discretion to tell when they can solve the problem on their own versus when they need to seek help.

2. Create low-risk leadership opportunities.

Allow opportunities for managers to learn and grow – and understand that learning and growth may sometimes include mistakes and failures.Leading others is a frightening burden to throw on the shoulders of someone who has never done anything like it before. This is why it’s important to create entry-level opportunities where employees can practice leadership without too much pressure to perform before transitioning into bigger roles.

This can be as simple as letting an employee schedule and lead a meeting or having employees take turns as shift manager for a day. Staff events such as volunteer days and team-building retreats are also great opportunities for employees to experiment with leadership.

By leading such events, employees can build vital confidence and get critical feedback about their leadership capabilities without the risk of inflicting serious damage to the company’s performance.

3. Create a mentorship/coaching program for leadership roles

Despite the great organizational benefits they offer, internal promotions can be challenging. Designating a mentor/coach for the employee to talk to helps transition newly promoted employees into their roles. In an ideal situation, this person should be someone who has secured an internal promotion in the same organization before and has real experience with making this transition.

However, as highlighted above, organizations should also look into matching employees with mentors from outside the company. Ensure your company provides someone who can offer clear answers and support throughout the transition. Knowing they have someone in their corner at any time can greatly help the employee make the transition much easier and more efficient.

Soft skills aren't developed out of thin air – create training opportunities for new managers to help them develop and strengthen them.4. Provide training on soft skills

Managing people requires unique leadership skills beyond just technical skills. Soft skills are necessary to be a quality manager, yet these are not innate for everyone.

A newly promoted employee needs to be trained on skills such as:

    • Goal setting
    • Conflict management and resolution
    • Conducting performance appraisals
    • Communication styles
    • Empathy
    • Good listening
    • Negotiation
    • Problem-solving
    • Time management
    • Organization
    • Delegation & shift scheduling

5. Help them network, both inside and outside the company

Having a strong professional network is beneficial for anyone in a leadership role because it helps them know who they can call for any problem, strengthens their interpersonal skills and builds their creative capacity by exposing them to a variety of ideas and viewpoints.

When encouraging a newly promoted employee to network, start within your own company at events like potlucks, after-work events, or holiday parties. Encourage newly promoted leaders to connect with other employees in the company outside their team or department. Then, as they grow more comfortable with networking, you can start to take them along to industry events such as exhibitions and conferences.

Although it may be awkward at first, they will learn how to forge genuine connections, confidently start conversations and ask for what they need while offering something mutually beneficial to the other party. These skills are critical for leaders at any level.

6. Give them enough room to fail

No one is perfect at every part of a brand new role or set of responsibilities. Provide low-stakes opportunities for safe learning opportunities.Leadership can be a daunting responsibility to take on, and the pressure to be perfect is often extremely common, despite the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect leader. This is why it’s vital for any company to communicate this to an employee transitioning into a leadership role. Ensure this new leader is given enough leeway to fail in their new position without being sheltered or hindered.

Leaders need to be pushed to figure out how to get results on their own, implement strategies and see their work to the end. Tempting as it may be, spoon feeding them along the way can do more harm than good, seeing as they need to develop the self-learning skills necessary to survive in today’s competitive business world.

7. Reward and recognize small achievements in the new role

We’ve said it many times before, and we’re not done saying it yet:

If we wait for the knock-us-off-our-seat examples of recognition moments to happen, we probably won’t be recognizing enough to make a difference to culture or results.

 Leadership is not an easy role because it requires the careful juggling of many different responsibilities. It’s important to reward and recognize whatever achievements a newly promoted employee makes in their new role to help them build the confidence to keep growing.

This can be as simple as a standing ovation at the next all-company meeting, an employee-of-the-month certificate or tickets for an after-work event (like a sports match or a movie). The key is to ensure your employee feels seen and appreciated for their new efforts.

8. Lead by example

The easiest way to help new managers learn the ropes is to model good management practices.Lastly, nothing works quite like leading by example. The easiest and possibly most powerful way to ease an employee’s transition into a leadership role is to be an exceptional leader yourself. Remember, newly promoted employees look to those above them for cues on how to go about handling various situations and will often start by mirroring them before finding their own style.

Make sure to show them the importance of key values, such as honesty and fairness, by practicing what you preach. Having a great role model to look up to for inspiration and direction makes the transition into leadership easier to navigate.

Leadership has always been — and continues to be — one of the biggest HR challenges faced by businesses of all sizes, in all industries.

Notice that all of the steps center around boosting employee engagement. Employee engagement is not only the key to increasing employee productivity, but to nurturing new leaders, too.

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Kaitlin Howes

Kaitlin Howes is an HR Business Partner at Reward Gateway. Kaitlin loves the dynamic nature of her job and that she gets to wear many hats, but is especially happy when creating a welcoming, fun and supportive experience for RGers. When she isn’t wearing her RG hat, you can find her repelling her sticky-fingered toddler from grabbing her laptop or chasing sunshine that provides the perfect setting for a picnic.

HR Business Partner

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