What first time leaders need to know

Becoming a leader for the first time can be overwhelming and, without the right support, can leave you feeling full of selfdoubt

Many new leaders only receive development support months or years after they have already stepped into the role with only half of all new leaders receiving any formal development. Which means many are thrown into the deep end trying to figure out for themselves how to be a good leader without any help.

It’s not something that organisations can leave to chance when you consider research by Gallup that 70% of how a person feels about their organisation and their job is a direct result of how they feel the person leading them. It affects the entire employee experience, from how engaged and productive they are to whether they choose to stay in their current jobAnd that doesn’t take into account the impact poor leadership can have on an organisation’s culture.

It can be hard to know what development to give first time leaders. So we asked people in our network what they wished they’d known when they became a leader for the first time. Here is what they said.

Know your strengths and your blind spots

Leadership is a highly personal journey and it starts with you and your selfawareness, If you don’t have a good handle on who you are, you won’t have a handle on how best to lead and support your team. No matter what obstacles are being faced, you need to know yourself your strengths, values, comfort zones, blind spots, preferences and biases. When leaders fully understand themselves, they can confidently move forwards in the right direction.

I wish I’d known the impact of my strengths in being my superpower and sometimes my super villain. In identifying and owning my difference earlier I would’ve known how to use these strengths more effectively.Samantha Woolven, Director of People, Communications
and Sustainability Shoreham Port


As a leader, knowing our strengths teaches us how to better respond rather than react to the people and the situation around us. And when we use strengths as a leadership approach, we are over 80% more likely to have higher levels of performance than those that don’t. Which just goes to show how unique we all are and how powerful it can be when we all work together and honour and contribute what we do best.

“Knowing my strengths would have allowed me to focus my energy on this rather than worry so much about not exposing my weaknesses. I would have been a more honest leader in the early years.” Daniel Short, Managing Director, Greenacre Group

We are all motivated by different things

In the same way that we all have our own unique set of strengths, we are all motivated by different things. Yet on 2 in 10 employees strongly agree that their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work.

Leaders need to understand what individuals want and need because these will be different for everyone. Whenever we ask a group of people in a room what motivates them, there are rarely two answers the same, so it’s not straight forward and it can shift as needs are met and situations change.

As human beings we all have interests, family and friends. Leaders need to take the time to understand these things and what drives people.

Unless you take the time to listen and understand people, what lights them up and energises and engages them, as well as what drains and frustrates them, you will never be able to motivate them.

Understanding that everyone is motivated in different ways and by different things would have helped me tap into their potential quicker and easier, and give me less headaches and stress.”Barry Forsythe, Greenacre Recruitment

I wish I’d understood earlier what motivates and energises me. It would have helped me avoid some situations where I became unmotivated and disengaged! It also helps me to understand those around me.” Nadine Tapp, Head of Group Academy, Flagship Group

You don’t need to have all the answers

We can’t know everything and the pressure we put on ourselves to know it all as leader is huge. We worry that if we don’t know we’ll look like we don’t have the knowledge or the ability to do the job of a leader.

Throughout my own career, some of the best leaders I’ve worked with are the ones that don’t know anything about the area they’re working in. Why? Because they’ve had no choice but to be vulnerable. Because they don’t know what they don’t know they ask rather than tell and rely on the expertise and contributions of the people around them.


As the leader you are part of a team of people who have something to contribute and if you can get out of the mindset of “I need to be the one who has all the answers and the right way to do this’ and instead step into curiosity both with yourself and others, it makes a massive difference.


For me, I wish I’d known that I didn’t need to have all the answers. Later in my career, I took on an IT department, so I rarely knew the answers. It forced me to take a coaching approach, empowering my team. Their confidence rapidly developed as they knew that I
valued them, recognising and believing in their strengths.”Deborah Deyner, Executive Coach

Speak less, listen more

Listening is one of the most powerful tools a leader can have to build trust and loyalty in a team. It lets others know that they are important to you and that you value what they have to say. There is, of course, a big difference between listening with intention and listening for your turn to speak and share your knowledge, advice or ideas!

There is real power in asking a question and then staying quiet to let the other person speak and fill the silence so they can discover the answer for themselves. As leadership expert Simon Sinek say, as a leader the skill of holding your opinions to yourself until everyone else has spoken does two things. Firstly, it gives everybody else the feeling they have been heard and the ability to feel they have contributed. Secondly, you get the benefit of hearing what everyone else thinks before you give your opinion.

I wish I had known to speak less and listen more. I had great teams but sometimes I went into the “fix it” mode (maybe to prove I was good enough) but now I know they nearly always had the answer themselves and my role was to listen, add to what they were suggesting.” Pamela Leonce, CEO, Stowhill Careers

Positively listen to others and build a conversation around them bringing in others to achieve a group dynamic rather than stepping in too early with my ideas.” Alan Lewin, NonExecutive Director, Greenacre Consult.

Empathy is a super power, not a weakness

Empathy has always been an important skill for leaders which has intensified as a result of the pandemic. When we experience difficult times, burnout or struggle to find happiness at work, empathy can be a power way of contributing more positive experiences for individuals and teams.

Research shows that empathy drives positive results for organisation’s from productivity and creativity to engagement and employee retention.When people feel their leaders are more empathetic they are 86% more able to navigate the demands of their work and life. And a study by Qualtrics found that when leaders were perceived as more empathetic, people reported greater levels of mental health.

I wish I’d known the importance of developing soft skills. Empathy is a superpower, not a weakness.”Dale Wordley, Operations Director, NCLS

Share learning and knowledge

One of the most important jobs of any leader is to create an environment where people can feel safe in sharing their knowledge and ideas, without fear of negative consequences. And when this happens, people are more willing to take risks, admit mistakes and collaborate with others.

Ideas can come from anywhere and organisation’s and teams are full of diverse perspectives, strengths and experiences. A leaders job is to make the space for others to collaborate, share their ideas and perspectives and learn together.

Sharing our learning and understanding so everyone can benefit from it. We’ve made mistakes along the way, but some of our best achievements have come off the back of those mistakes.” Trish Worden, Head of Cyclical Works, Flagship Group

Create a compelling vision

When people know ‘why’ they are being asked to do something and how it contributes to a larger vision, they do it a lot better. Bestselling author Daniel Pink says it’s one of the cheapest performance enhancers any organisation has, yet it’s a tool leaders can often leave in the toolbox.

It’s easy to do the tactical and skip right to tools, working agreements, accountabilities and who is going to do what. If we don’t stop to ask what it is in service of, it becomes really difficult to prioritise what it is you are doing. And in difficult and uncertain times, having a clear vision reminds people of why they do what they do.

Those who believe they are working toward something larger and more important than themselves are often the hardest working, productive and engaged. Encouraging them to find purpose in their work and connect to their personal goals can help a leader to win hearts and minds.

“It was less about me being the leader and more about creating a compelling vision for a great team to be inspired, equipped and passionate about delivering it.” Lisa Collen, Director of People and Workplaces, Flagship Group.

Be you

Selfawareness is everything and inward feelings become outward behaviour. Research tells us that when we know ourselves and our strengths we build stronger relationships and communicate more successfully. It makes us more effective leaders and increases engagement not just for ourselves, but for those we lead.

There is no one set of strengths that makes a good leader because we are all brilliantly unique. We lead in the way in which we are gifted and when we know ourselves, we are able to do it with greater clarity and confidence.

It’s OK to forge your own leadership style. Knowing my strengths helped me understand what I can add to the team rather than feeling I needed to be like everyone else.”  Sarah Cawley, Head of PR and Communications, Arthur Rank Hospice Charity.

How are you supporting your future leaders?

The Learning to Lead programme is designed to support and guide your future leaders with the skills and behaviours they need to be able to make an impact and step into their new positions with clarity and confidence. We equip them with the tools and resources they need to have the right conversations at the right time and help them build relationships with their teams, their leaders, their peers and your stakeholders. It will enable them to step out of the operational ‘doing’ and to work on the skills they need in a stretching and supportive environment.

We provide practical support in the areas where they need it most, growing their confidence and capability in adapting and being able to lead your organisation and your people forward.
What makes this programme different is it provides an experiential rather than standard ‘training’ approach underpinned by a coaching methodology which participants will practice and develop. We share insights and case studies developed through our research and the atest leadership thinking from across different sectors to bring in new and creative ideas.
Participants will develop a community with other first time or new people leaders to learn, share, grow and develop the confidence they need in their roles both now and long after the programme has finished.

To find out more about our programme for individuals about to begin or in the first 6 months of their first leadership role visit Learning to Lead.

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