New Role: New Leader

Ultimate Guide to Leadership Development

Transforming People into Leaders

The moment someone becomes a new leader, everything changes. In fact, it’s one of the most difficult moments in a career. According to DDI’s Frontline Leader Project, about 90% of new leaders feel unprepared for the role. They often try to “fake it ‘til they make it.”

In many cases, that means leaders learn the hard way. But that can have long-term effects. DDI’s Leadership Transitions Report found that high stress during a role transition had long-term effects. Regardless of how long ago leaders transitioned into their role, leaders who said they had highly stressful transitions were more than three times more likely to feel the effects of burnout. And 45% of leaders with high-stress transitions rated themselves as only average or below average compared to their peers.

The same study found that leaders who required more time to transition into their new leadership role felt less accountable for being an effective leader. They also felt significantly less engaged and were less likely to find their jobs fulfilling.

line graph showing various sentiments, “I feel accountable for being an effective leader.”, “I am engaged with my role as a leader.”, and “I find my job full of meaning and purpose.” and the percentages of leaders who feel that way at the following time intervals: after fewer than 3 months on the job, between 4-11 months on the job, and after 12+ months on the job

Leaders can learn effectively from their failures. But it’s exhausting, time-consuming, and often embarrassing, both for the leader and their team. That’s why it’s so important to give leaders formal training as quickly as possible.

What Does a New Leader Need?

What can you do to support leaders through this critical moment? Start by asking three simple questions:

  1. What foundational skills do new leaders need?
  2. What are the best ways for new leaders to learn these skills?
  3. How quickly can I provide this training?

We’ll answer all three.

What Foundational Skills Do New Leaders Need?

Our research and experience working with clients around the world tells us that the following skills not only prepare leaders for their first leadership job, but they also will support leaders through their leadership career:

Foundational Skills written up top beside an icon of the bottom corner of a brick wall, with different colored bricks underneath that include the foundational skills: Communication, Coaching, Delegating, Managing Conflict, Driving Change, and Inclusion
  • Communication Skills to Connect with Others: When we talk about communication as a leadership skill, we don’t mean writing better emails or giving great presentations. Rather, we’re talking about how to engage and address both the “head” (the practical outcome of the conversation) and the “heart” (the human connection) with emotional intelligence. This foundational skill can be applied to a wide range of workplace situations leaders will face throughout their career.
  • Coaching: While coaching can vary across situations, it always aims to help people improve. First-time managers need to differentiate between coaching for success and coaching for improvement.
  • Delegating: Every leader wants that "dream team" of happy, highly capable individuals who can achieve goals. Delegating work enables leaders to build team capacity and achieve results. Our research shows that highly effective leaders often struggle to let go of work when they move into a leadership role. 
  • Managing Conflict: For a new leader, it may be uncomfortable to address conflict. After all, in many cases they are managing former peers and friends. But it’s critical to teach them to recognize when and how to step in to ensure that conflicts don’t spin out of control.
  • Driving Change: As the direct supervisor for the vast majority of the workforce, frontline leaders are the primary drivers of change in an organization. First-time leaders need to understand how to turn resistance into commitment and inspire team members to take ownership of change.
  • Inclusion: Great leadership is inclusive leadership. Fostering an inclusive culture doesn’t require us to separate inclusion from other skills, but build it into the core skills leaders practice every day.

What Are the Best Ways for New Leaders to Learn These Skills?

It’s no secret that leaders—especially new leaders—learn best together. In fact, 78% of new leaders said they made valuable connections with leaders with whom they shared training courses. Additionally, our research shows formal, in-person training is still a top learning modality for first-time leaders.  

This is especially true for younger learners, which is more likely to include new leaders. Young learners strongly prefer formal learning and learning with others over other learning modalities.

New leaders also prefer modalities where they can get insights about themselves, such as assessment. Assessment provides leaders with objective data to know what skills they need to improve to develop into better leaders. New leaders also like developmental assignments that enable them to apply what they learned to on-the-job challenges.

The bottom line? Give new leaders opportunities to learn skills in formal group settings with the support of assessment and real-life application afterward.

Classroom is King written with a crown to the left, below it this stat from DDI's Frontline Leader Project (2019): 65% of Millennials want more formal learning

How Quickly Can I Provide New Leaders with Training?

If you can’t bring your new leaders together for a live, face-to-face program quickly, leverage the virtual classroom to conduct cohort-based connected learning. DDI found that virtual classroom, when done right, leads to the same success rate of behavior change and business impact as face-to-face training.

If you can’t organize the virtual classroom experience quickly either, don’t underestimate the benefits of digital, on-demand solutions for new leaders. In fact, leaders’ preference to learn online increased at the height of the pandemic and remains part of today’s new normal. On-demand learning gives you the advantage of training potential leaders as they accelerate toward their first leadership role instead of waiting months (or years!) when the cohort is ready.

There’s just one caveat to consider. If you use digital learning for new leaders, make sure to provide guidance on the best way to move through topics and learning resources. In many cases, first-time leaders don’t know what they don’t know.

At DDI, we recommend the best of both worlds: You can blend live classroom sessions (virtual or in-person) with digital learning. Remember: It’s not only important that you train new leaders quickly, but that it meets their needs with the right design principles.​

An Example New Leader Program

What could a program look like for a new leader? Here’s a sample learning journey with a mix of elements to help first-time leaders build, practice, and apply new skills. This blended approach can span several months. You can determine the sequence of events and duration of the journey based on how you plan to roll it out.

Sample Learning Journey Elements written up top, and below it four relevant icons showing the four elements: Self-Insight Tools, Courses to Build Skills, Microcourses to Boost Learning, and On-Demand Development Tools

Let’s take a closer look at this learning journey:

  • Self-Insight Tools: Help your leaders develop self-awareness with assessments or insight tools that reveal their strengths and gaps. For new leaders, we recommend examining their own and others’ emotions. Plus, it’s important for new leaders to gain insight into their natural talents as a leader.
  • Courses to Build Skills: The heart of leadership development is in skill building through live onsite or virtual classroom sessions. Self-paced and online courses are good alternatives if it’s impossible to get leaders together. New leaders can benefit from a solid foundation of essential skills in Leading Self, Communication, Coaching, and Delegation. Our course Your Leadership Journey eases the transition for individual contributors into their first formal leadership role.
  • Microcourses to Boost Learning: Bite-sized digital content can provide a burst of microlearning in approximately 10 minutes on a specific topic or skill. To boost their foundation, new leaders need course work to build their skills in inclusion, change, prioritizing, and setting goals. We typically recommend several microcourses as part of a learning journey. We also recommend allowing leaders to browse a full library of topics with the opportunity to complete other courses based on interest and need.
  • On-Demand Development Tools: Leaders can practice, sustain, and apply their skills with a variety of support tools. These range from practical job aids to interactive chatbots, along with application planners and inspiring podcasts.

In addition to these priority topics and modalities, we’ve worked with organizations to design kickoff sessions, integrate manager support, and incorporate program measurement to demonstrate leader and business impact.

Build a Strong Foundation for Success

By preparing new leaders for success, you can accelerate their capability to engage their teams, drive results, and improve your bottom line. And we have evidence to support this: Companies that have transition programs for new leaders are two times more likely to be in the top 20% of organizations in financial performance. So don’t let new leaders sink or swim; set them up for success with a leadership development program.