May 24, 2024

7 tips for upskilling your first-time managers

Max Kurton
- New managers often face imposter syndrome, communication breakdowns, and burnout

- Effective management requires skills like delegation, prioritization, and giving constructive feedback

- Companies should implement mentoring, coaching programs, and virtual peer groups to support new managers

- Developing soft skills such as communication and time management is crucial for managerial success

- Providing clear policies and structured performance management frameworks helps managers navigate their roles effectively

Your talented individual contributors (ICs) have countless skills that make them amazing at their jobs. But when they get promoted, it’s easy for them to face imposter syndrome, communication breakdowns, and burnout.

It’s understandable: They go from focusing solely on their own output to suddenly being responsible for the deliverables of an entire team. Often, they’re having difficult conversations around pay, performance, and promotions with people they considered peers until five minutes ago.

Empowered managers are essential to an organization’s success. And yet, only 25% of workers feel their company’s leaders are engaged, passionate, and capable of inspiring. People teams have the power to remedy this—by supporting ICs to get upskilled before they even get promoted.

In this article, we’ll break down the challenges first-time managers face. Then, you’ll find seven tips to help you support first-time managers at your organization.


  • The challenges of being a first-time manager
  • 7 ways people teams can support first-time managers
  • Empowering first-time managers impacts everyone
  • Learnerbly recommended resources

The challenges of being a first-time manager

“If you’re not supporting first-time managers or giving them the right tools, it’s likely going to start impacting morale,” says Gianna Driver, Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) at Exabeam. “It’ll impact engagement. And, ultimately, this is going to impact productivity. When you start impacting productivity, then you start impacting the bottom line.”

To protect morale (and that bottom line) people leaders have a key role to play in onboarding for first-time managers. The first step in getting this right is understanding the challenges first-time managers face. Here are the common ones:

Building the right skillset 

“In one’s career, the biggest jump in terms of developmental need comes when you’re an IC who then becomes a first-time people manager,” Gianna observes. That’s because managing people requires a whole new set of skills than those  that made them such fantastic ICs.

For example, a recent report found that extroverted people were the most likely to receive promotions (25%), indicating that introverted people are getting overlooked for managerial positions. It could be down to a perception that introverts don’t have the people skills to manage a team effectively. But being outgoing isn’t necessarily a management skill. 

Managers need skills like delegation, prioritization, communication, and giving effective feedback (as we’ll discuss below)—all of which are skills both introverts and extroverts can master with the right support.

Giving effective feedback

The best feedback isn’t simply criticism or praise. It involves telling people what they need to hear in a way that’s direct, compassionate, and constructive. First-time managers often lack experience giving feedback in a way that has the intended impact and supports their direct report’s development.

On top of that, these new leaders might be managing people who were once their peers, resulting in a new power dynamic that’s tricky to navigate. “The very nature of that relationship has to shift,” explains Gianna. “They need to understand that it’s okay to engage with their direct reports in a different way.”

Knowing when to get involved… and when not to

Gianna recalls a time when she worked with a high-performing IC who became a people manager. She says, “He tried to continue doing all the things that made him a fabulous IC. That was actually disempowering for his team because he didn’t know how to delegate.”

It’s not an uncommon scenario. The best ICs often have qualities like high standards or good attention to detail. In some cases, these can be good managerial qualities—but it’s easy for that to lead to micromanagement if left unchecked. 

The best managers empower their direct reports to complete their work independently and make their own decisions. Otherwise, they end up limiting their direct reports’ development and can end up taking on too much work themselves. Gianna saw that exact scenario happen to her colleague: “He ended up being very burnt out because he was trying to do the work of the entire team.”

Managing their own output alongside the team’s

When ICs become managers, they’re often required to balance their own full-time jobs with managing a team. Organizations tend to overlook the fact that managing a team can become a full-time job in itself.

Pretty much overnight, managers become responsible for an entire team’s output rather than just their own. Suddenly, they need to evaluate the workload, delegate according to their team’s skills and capacity, and help the team prioritize their deliverables. These are all big responsibilities for a first-time manager.

Supporting employees with a lot on their mind

47% of American workers are experiencing burnout on the job and 39% say they have sought out mental health resources to manage their work-related stress. People need support managing their mental health at work, especially considering the pressures of the cost-of-living crisis.

However, inexperienced managers might not be equipped to provide that support (not to mention the fact that they might be dealing with their own stress too). “I see first-time managers struggle with having hard conversations,” says Gianna. ”[They need] human skills like creating trust and safety with their team. That’s something that doesn’t come naturally to many people.”

How remote work adds to those challenges

Many organizations have adopted hybrid or remote working arrangements, which can offer huge benefits and freedoms to employees. However, there are also a few challenges this brings for first-time managers. We’ll discuss the challenges below, and cover solutions later.

It’s more difficult to learn from your peers

We know from the 70-20-10 model that people gain 70% of their knowledge “on the job” and 20% from interactions with others. That’s easier to facilitate when managers work on-site with their leaders and peers because so much learning happens simply by seeing how those around you operate.

You make fewer personal relationships

How often have you read a message or in-doc comment that instantly annoys you—only to feel far less defensive when you follow up with the same person face-to-face? It can be harder for people to recognize good intentions and form bonds when they only communicate via written messages.

Work happens asynchronously

Remote workers are often dispersed around the world and working from different time zones. First-time managers of remote teams may need additional support developing their time management and communication skills so that they can deliver useful briefings, respond to urgent queries in a timely way, and set time aside to check in with direct reports in different time zones.

7 tips for people teams supporting first-time managers

All the challenges we’ve discussed can have a genuine impact on your employees and the overall success of your organization. But, as Gianna points out, “it’s all preventable by spending some time and energy empowering and training these first-time managers.” 

Here are our top tips for people teams supporting new managers.

1. Identify a pipeline of potential managers before they get promoted 

“First and foremost, it’s important for the HR Business Partner team to have strong relationships with leaders and to engage them in conversations during the promotion process,” says Gianna. That way, they  can identify areas of support and provide resources before the  IC gets promoted. 

Identifying potential first-time managers in advance gives you the opportunity to proactively develop their skills by giving them training courses and individual projects to manage—before they actually take on the formal promotion.

Pro tip: An L&D marketplace like Learnerbly can help employees identify the specific skills they need to become an effective manager and choose learning resources according to their goals and preferences.

2. Implement mentoring and coaching programs 

34% of Americans say a lack of mentorship (or support from a professional network) has held them back in their careers. Mentorship is a fundamental support system for ICs, giving them a safe space to voice their fears and questions without worrying about what their own managers will think of them. 

Meanwhile, most organizations expect managers to coach their direct reports (86%)—but not even 2 in 10 of those companies require managers to be formally trained to set goals, coach direct reports, or conduct bias-free reviews. There’s a huge opportunity for future managers to get trained, receive mentorship themselves, and become better leaders who influence the success of the company.

If it’s not possible to match people with more experienced mentors internally, you might consider setting up an external mentorship program—or using a multimodal learning platform like Learnerbly that provides access to vetted coaches. This can also remedy a lack of interpersonal learning opportunities in a remote workplace, as managers can learn from their mentor’s experiences.

3. Set up virtual peer groups 

It can be difficult for first-time managers to proactively ask for support because they want to prove they've got the skills to deliver on the new role they've been given. That’s why peer groups can be such an important resource. 

At Learnerbly, managers get access to a forum to discuss their challenges and learnings. Establishing a regular meeting or channel that’s just for new managers can give them a space to share tips and questions—and ultimately feel less alone.

Ultimately, this is a space for managers to use independently. However, in the beginning, it may help to provide some prompts or a meeting structure. You could encourage the group to elect a spokesperson or leader who directs discussions and raises issues or ideas with the wider leadership team.

4. Provide opportunities to develop  soft skills

Soft skills are the building blocks of amazing managers. At Gianna’s company, Exabeam, employees can log into their development portal and see the competencies they need for every potential role in their chosen career paths. 

It’s important to Gianna that this view includes “human” skills, as she calls them, like time management and communication, as well as technical skills like coding with Python or working with AWS, GCP, and Azure. Without soft skills, even the most talented ICs will struggle to succeed as managers. 

With Learnerbly, your people can develop technical skills with resources from platforms like Gumroad, Pluralsight, and Codecademy. But they’ll also have access to books, courses, articles, and audiobooks designed to develop the soft skills they need most.

5. Write clear policies for managers to follow 

Particularly in remote settings, it’s helpful to provide clear policies to support company rituals and develop the right culture at your organization. Rather than expecting managers to make the rules up from scratch, you can give them policies to fall back on, covering everything from working hours and onboarding to assigning tasks and managing workloads. 

To get buy-in on policy documents, it helps to align them to employee priorities as well as company goals. Use employee data from surveys and listening tours to formulate policies that actually resonate with your people, including current and potential managers. It’s a good idea, Gianna advises, to “have one-on-one conversations with those directs, understanding what matters to them, what’s on their minds.”

6. Create a structured performance management framework 

It can be tough for first-time managers to have difficult conversations, including those around salaries, promotions, and performance. Unless people leaders set the standard for what good performance management looks like, it'll be up to every manager to define their own process. 

When people leaders provide performance management frameworks, good feedback and progression opportunities because more widely available to ICs across the company—rather than only benefiting the few with very experienced managers.

Giving managers a clear performance management framework will ensure a strong company-wide culture of feedback and improvement while keeping career conversations frequent. Meanwhile, it can enhance business performance too. Lattice found that when growth paths exist and employees understand them, teams are more likely to exceed their goals (58%).

Within this structure, there should still be flexibility. Employees will be more engaged with their learning if it’s collaborative, rather than prescriptive. Glenn Brace, Head of Studio at Elevation, advises speaking to teams about how achievable their development goals are and formalizing a way to get their input when objectives are set. 

By engaging employees in self-directed learning, you give them the autonomy to feel empowered in their roles and make independent decisions about their development. 

People teams can also support managers to:

  • Collaborate with employees to review strengths and weaknesses 
  • Source 360° feedback from other team members or peers from different functions
  • Set clear performance targets that align with the goals of the business 
  • Link targets to compensation, bonuses, and progression opportunities
  • Keep thorough documentation of reviews, including feedback and targets

💡Save months of time and effort building your own career framework with this ready-to-use template.

7. Communicate clear business goals and targets

For teams to thrive, managers need a clear understanding of what their specific targets are (both as a manager and for the wider team). That way, they can relate bigger-picture business goals like revenue, expansion, or customer acquisition to their employees’ day-to-day work and KPIs

People teams can support this by:

  • Communicating wider business objectives like growth, sales, revenue
  • Relating these to the specific KPIs of individual departments
  • Being transparent in the messaging around company strategy
  • Facilitating communications training to support managers to convey that messaging accurately and compassionately 
  • Showing managers how to align bonuses and incentives to company targets

Pro tip: The way updates are shared can have a big impact on morale. By engaging in regular conversations with your people, you’ll understand what their motivators, fears, and priorities are, which will help tailor your messaging more sensitively.

“Be compassionate, empathetic, and open in your communication with employees”—Elena Grigoryan, SEO of MY.GAMES.

Empowering first-time managers impacts everyone

In this article, we’ve discussed the major challenges first-time managers face, such as never having the opportunity to learn the skills that leaders really need—or managing diverse teams across different time zones. 

To support first-time managers in remote companies, try the following strategies:

  1. Encourage peer-to-peer learning with dedicated virtual peer groups
  2. Write clear policies for managers to follow, including career development frameworks
  3. Develop new and future manager’s soft skills through self-directed learning and mentorship opportunities
  4. Support managers to align individual goals to business targets

Most importantly, people leaders can focus on identifying potential managers in advance and providing upskilling and mentoring opportunities. In particular, ICs should have access to learning resources that will develop their soft skills.

For example, people leaders can empower first-time managers with a multimodal L&D marketplace like Learnerbly. Our platform provides access to content from over 250 vetted learning providers. Whether your people need soft or technical skills, they’ll get recommendations tailored to their learning goals and preferences. 

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Learnerbly recommends

At Learnerbly, we understand the learning curve that first-time managers are embarking on. In our L&D marketplace, new managers can find a range of opportunities for technical upskilling as well as soft skills resources, so they feel supported and empowered. 

Here’s a curated selection of resources to get them started:

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