3 Skills New Managers Need to Succeed
Skip to content
Leadership Nov 1, 2021

3 Skills New Managers Need to Succeed

To start, recognize that entire teams—and not just individuals—require clear feedback.

woman in blue suit ascending green staircase

Lisa Röper

Based on insights from

Stephen Dale King

Making the leap from individual contributor to manager can be fraught: for the new manager, their direct reports, and the organization as a whole. New managers tend to rise into their position based on past success. But few have the experience or training to effectively manage a high-performing team.

This is a huge problem for organizations large and small, according Steve King, an adjunct professor of executive education at Kellogg and former Executive Vice President of Human Resources at Hewitt Associates, where he oversaw HR for the firm’s 25,000 associates.

“Senior executives count on frontline managers to make things happen,” King says. After all, the vast majority of a firm’s employees report into frontline or middle managers, not those at the top of the organization. Yet, executives often overlook frontline managers’ need for clear guidance and direction about change efforts.

Leaders often mistakenly presume that managers are already trained and proficient at rolling out changes with their teams—and that the benefits of the changes they are proposing are self-evident—so there is little need to explain or clarify things to managers and teams.

In King’s view, new managers need to master three critical skills to succeed in their roles.

Know What Kind of Team You Are Leading

Frontline managers need to understand whether their team is comprised primarily of individual contributors or whether it is highly collaborative. And then, they need to set goals accordingly.

“For example, a wrestling team and a football team have a very different kind of team dynamics,” King says. “They’re both teams; they just need to be managed differently.”

Some sales leaders set revenue goals for each salesperson and offer financial incentives for their individual efforts. Others set team revenue goals and reward the team when they collectively hit their target. Neither approach is inherently more effective, but the team approach drives greater collaboration.

Early in the pandemic, teams comprised of individual contributors were more nimble than highly collaborative teams because they had already established processes to work independently, come together as a group, and share information. Interdependent teams that relied on face-to-face interactions had to establish new ways to collaborate.

But individualized teams require special attention, too. Many frontline managers fail to articulate what King calls “metagoals,” or the shared goals among individual contributors. If individual contributors don’t see their work in the context of the company’s larger goals, it’s easy for conflict to arise. It may also be a sign that the team … isn’t really a team.

“More often than not, what presents as a relationship problem—people blaming one another, bad group dynamics in meetings—is the result of the manager failing to clarify the team’s goals.”

— Steve King

King recalls a manager tasked with coordinating three groups to work together on a project. After a lot of pushback from the groups, the manager realized they had failed to define their common goal. This led to a robust conversation where all the parties concluded that there was no common goal.

“In the end, the groups needed to act independently on three different goals,” King says. “They were, in fact, three separate teams. We’re trained to think ‘one organization, one goal,’ but that isn’t always true.”

Know How to Establish Clear Goals

The promotion from individual contributor to manager often comes with a reality check: managing teams means dealing with tough interpersonal dynamics, from trust issues to personality clashes to competing ambitions.

“Many managers mistake these conflicts for personality clashes,” King says. “But more often than not, what presents as a relationship problem—people blaming one another, bad group dynamics in meetings—is the result of the manager failing to clarify the team’s goals.”

Managers also have to ensure that team members understand the process for achieving these goals—and especially which team members are empowered to make which decisions. By clearly stating which team members can decide on a course of action ahead of time, managers preempt disagreements.

Say, for example, two team members are tasked with handling a company’s marketing initiative. If both people think they have the right to make decisions about the tone of the outreach emails, their manager has set up a situation where conflict can easily arise. Being clear about who holds the “decision right” will decrease the likelihood of conflict.

King stresses that such alignment is especially key when the team’s goals shift. Managers should explicitly state what has changed and the ways these changes will impact the team, as well as individuals.

“Teams have learned this lesson as we’ve grappled with Covid,” King says. “Supply-chain issues have prompted changes in goals, which has meant changes in work processes and team-performance expectations.”

For example, if a revenue target shifts from $500K to $300K, the manager can say, “‘We have a new goal here. Let’s talk as a group about how we’re going to achieve it and what roles everyone is going to play in getting that done.’”

With goals in flux and work processes being revisited, frontline managers need to dedicate time to identifying any stressors that might bubble up under the surface and disrupt team dynamics.

Teams Need Feedback, Too

As customary as it is for managers to set clear, appropriate goals for their team members, those same managers often fail to provide regular, clear feedback to the team as a group. This is a missed opportunity for ensuring and advancing broader company goals—and for coaching the team on how it can achieve those goals.

King recommends bringing your team members together quarterly to give them feedback on areas including how they are progressing toward their goals, how well they are handling changes to work processes, or how they might have more successfully collaborated on a project.

“When I managed teams, I used those moments to let team members share their feedback on team performance as well as feedback to me about my management of the team,” King says. “The same parameters about giving good feedback apply to groups as to individuals: Be clear, concise, and specific with your comments. And make sure to come prepared with examples and plans for improvement.”

Incorporating team feedback into routines is a straightforward way for managers to improve their effectiveness and keep their teams engaged. At a time of high employee turnover, keeping your team on the same page can help prevent the frustrations that may lead to individuals heading for the exits.

“Frontline managers are the foot soldiers of talent management in organizations,” King says. “When managers get team management right, it’s to both employees’ and the organization’s benefit.”

About the Writer

Susan Margolin is a freelance writer based in Boston.

Most Popular This Week
  1. One Key to a Happy Marriage? A Joint Bank Account.
    Merging finances helps newlyweds align their financial goals and avoid scorekeeping.
    married couple standing at bank teller's window
  2. Take 5: Yikes! When Unintended Consequences Strike
    Good intentions don’t always mean good results. Here’s why humility, and a lot of monitoring, are so important when making big changes.
    People pass an e-cigarette billboard
  3. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  4. Will AI Eventually Replace Doctors?
    Maybe not entirely. But the doctor–patient relationship is likely to change dramatically.
    doctors offices in small nodules
  5. Entrepreneurship Through Acquisition Is Still Entrepreneurship
    ETA is one of the fastest-growing paths to entrepreneurship. Here's how to think about it.
    An entrepreneur strides toward a business for sale.
  6. Take 5: Research-Backed Tips for Scheduling Your Day
    Kellogg faculty offer ideas for working smarter and not harder.
    A to-do list with easy and hard tasks
  7. How to Manage a Disengaged Employee—and Get Them Excited about Work Again
    Don’t give up on checked-out team members. Try these strategies instead.
    CEO cheering on team with pom-poms
  8. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  9. What Went Wrong at AIG?
    Unpacking the insurance giant's collapse during the 2008 financial crisis.
    What went wrong during the AIG financial crisis?
  10. The Appeal of Handmade in an Era of Automation
    This excerpt from the book “The Power of Human" explains why we continue to equate human effort with value.
    person, robot, and elephant make still life drawing.
  11. 2 Factors Will Determine How Much AI Transforms Our Economy
    They’ll also dictate how workers stand to fare.
    robot waiter serves couple in restaurant
  12. When Do Open Borders Make Economic Sense?
    A new study provides a window into the logic behind various immigration policies.
    How immigration affects the economy depends on taxation and worker skills.
  13. Why Do Some People Succeed after Failing, While Others Continue to Flounder?
    A new study dispels some of the mystery behind success after failure.
    Scientists build a staircase from paper
  14. Sitting Near a High-Performer Can Make You Better at Your Job
    “Spillover” from certain coworkers can boost our productivity—or jeopardize our employment.
    The spillover effect in offices impacts workers in close physical proximity.
  15. How the Wormhole Decade (2000–2010) Changed the World
    Five implications no one can afford to ignore.
    The rise of the internet resulted in a global culture shift that changed the world.
  16. What’s at Stake in the Debt-Ceiling Standoff?
    Defaulting would be an unmitigated disaster, quickly felt by ordinary Americans.
    two groups of politicians negotiate while dangling upside down from the ceiling of a room
  17. What Happens to Worker Productivity after a Minimum Wage Increase?
    A pay raise boosts productivity for some—but the impact on the bottom line is more complicated.
    employees unload pallets from a truck using hand carts
  18. Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They Take
    A new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
    Immigrant CEO welcomes new hires
  19. How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?
    Phil Kotler’s groundbreaking textbook came out 55 years ago. Sixteen editions later, he and coauthor Alexander Chernev discuss how big data, social media, and purpose-driven branding are moving the field forward.
    people in 1967 and 2022 react to advertising
  20. 3 Traits of Successful Market-Creating Entrepreneurs
    Creating a market isn’t for the faint of heart. But a dose of humility can go a long way.
    man standing on hilltop overlooking city
More in Leadership