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The Metamorphosis of a New Manager

How do I deal with a manager at my organization who is… ineffective? A bully? New to management and floundering in this new role? Unable to affect change when change is needed? Students ask these questions all the time in the courses I teach. Usually when we are discussing topics related to, but not specifically about, leadership and management. For example, a class on talent management will inevitably lead to a discussion about an inept manager who is driving away hard-won super talent due to an abrasive managerial style. Or, in a class on workforce planning, a student will complain that technicians are being promoted to supervisory roles and then struggling to manage employees who were peers only yesterday.


"New leaders may need more than training to fully utilize the skills we offer them. The change from technician to manager is more of a metamorphosis than an expansion."

--Heather Cluley, Ph.D.


These are questions that trip me up. I have a PhD in Management, I should be able to answer these questions. In my defense, it’s hard to answer definitively any “what should I do” question without a more nuanced understanding of the problem and the context in which the problem is taking place. The general advice usually has to do with taking steps toward documenting problematic behavior on the road to dismissal and/or creating a development plans involving training or coaching. From a management perspective, we know that leadership involves task-orient behaviors such as planning, monitoring, and clarifying work and relationship-oriented behaviors such as supporting, developing, and empowering subordinates. Leadership roles may also involve change-oriented behaviors such as envisioning and advocating change and facilitating innovation as well as externally-oriented behaviors such as networking and monitoring the business environment. Different behaviors and skills will be needed in different situations, organizational contexts, and levels of management. Naturally, the coaching or developing approach would hope to infuse these trainable skills – after assessing which ones are called for in the particular case. It’s sound advice, if a little generic. However, I inevitably lie awake at night thinking about this recurring theme.

I recently read an article that ignited a bit of a paradigm shift for me. In the article, Stanford University researchers Beth Benjamin and Charles O’Reilly describe the challenges faced by managers early in their careers. Through interviews with MBA graduates, they learned that emergent leaders go through three transitions, often simultaneously.

First, they are transitioning from a technical role to a managerial role. Despite their MBA training, they are often under prepared and start out with the belief that their technical skills will serve them in the new role.

Secondly, adding insult to injury, they often experience organizational development or changes in strategic direction soon after their ascent to management. It can be disorienting when the familiar becomes unfamiliar, tacit organizational knowledge no longer applies, and new managers are now responsible for planning and clarifying tasks in a strange new world.

Lastly, new managers experience personal transitions related to values conflicts during these role changes. They try to stay true to themselves while navigating the new territory of strategic disagreements, ethical dilemmas, work-family conflicts, and professional setbacks.

When met with the realization that most or all of what helped them succeed in the past is not going to work anymore, managers are forced to reexamine fundamental assumptions, working models, and practices. Those who succeed in this shift, come to understand and accept that employees and other managers have different values, motives, priorities, and goals. They recognize that success in their new role rests on building and maintaining relationships with people across all levels of the organization. They also learn the importance of managing oneself in terms of cultivating a leadership mindset, regulating one’s emotions, developing effective coping responses in the face of setbacks, and living one’s values in the face of competing demands.

What struck me when I read this research is that new leaders may need more than training to fully utilize the skills we offer them. The change from technician to manager is more of a metamorphosis than an expansion. Some new managers may be unable or unwilling to make this shift in mindset, particularly if they do not see it coming. Also, we train them for the role change, but not for the personal transition – and this may be the most critical and difficult transition of all. These are some reasons why higher performers do not always make the best managers.

How can we do better by first time managers and help them with this metamorphosis? First, we can design selection and promotion practices so that we can differentiate leadership potential from technical performance. Adding to classical management training, we can help them understand this transitional period, what the transition experience might feel like for them, and add to training some strategies they can use for handling the challenges they will face (e.g. coping skills, self-reflection, active listening). Also, unlike business schools, organizations are in a strategic position to making training specific and relevant to the context where the skills will be used. This means training can be developed based on actual problems that are faced by managers in the organization and the application of trainable skills for solving them. The authors offer video training vignettes to illustrate how this can be done at As their HR business partners, we can work closely with new managers as they move through a new experience for the first time (e.g. plan to council them more extensively the first time they hire or fire an employee).


Heather Cluley, Ph.D. is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Learn more about her here!

Photo Credit: Mark & Sid Mosdell

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