It’s a stormy spring morning here in the greater Chicago-area and I confess to brewing my second pot of a dark Guatemalan roast to help spur some energy.

This week’s topic focuses on the plight of the first time leader and a call to action for experienced leaders everywhere to step up and do a better job mentoring and coaching.

For the past three years, I’ve been formally and informally polling leaders at all levels and in all industries on their first-time leadership experiences.  The feedback is frightening.

  • A majority of individuals indicate that they became a leader for the first time by accident not by design.  There was a gap, someone left and the manager at the time made a battlefield promotion.
  • A majority of the individuals that I’ve spoken with indicate that as a first-time leader they received little support or mentoring from their immediate manager.  Many indicated that their best support and source of feedback came from a peer or another manager, but not from the person that they directly reported to. 
  • A surprising number of those that lived through this ad hoc promotion to leadership report engaging in the same practices of promoting upon need and leaving people to sink or swim.  While no one comes out and says this directly, I get the impression that it is almost a rite of passage. “Hey, no one helped me out and I did OK.”

With practices like those described above, it’s no surprise that a fair number of first-time leaders fail and end up leaving their organizations.  Imagine the collateral damage that they create in the process of failing. 

As my teenager might say, “This is messed up.”

Take Initiative-Don’t Wait for Senior Management to Figure this Out:

Instead of the traditional path of attack that I take on this issue—start at the top, convince management that creating a culture of leadership development will pay dividends for years to come etc., my suggestion is for those of us that have gained some experience in this experience-driven profession make the time to help out an early career leader.

While we’re all waiting for the message to sink in with top management, there are ample opportunities to make a difference now.

Become a mentor.  Some suggestions and feel free to add your own:

  • If there are new leaders on your own team, focus here first.  Break the “sink or swim” cycle on your own team and focus on engaging with, observing and providing feedback to these first time leaders.
  • Depending upon your organization’s dynamics, approach HR and ask for their help  If you are working around an old-school HR function, you might get shot done, but I’m willing to bet that in the majority of the cases, you will find someone that would love to support this idea and even get involved.
  • Some inexpensive but effective programs for first time leaders can include Book Clubs, moderated round tables and other forms of peer networking.  If you/HR are taking a semi-formal role in the process, provide support for improvement ideas and suggestions emanating from the first-time leaders.
  • If HR is not much help, talk with your peers and see if they are open to the idea of an informal mentoring program.  Identify those in need and assign them to someone other than their manager to gain a slightly more objective view and level of support.

After a period of time, the individuals that once were first-timers become experienced.   Introduce them into the mentoring process by having them take leadership roles in the various programs.  Instead of perpetuating “sink or swim,” you perpetuate good practices in developing others.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

More often than not, we have the power and ability to solve many of the problems that we complain about.  It’s time to step-up, reconfigure your calendar just a bit and put some effort forth in developing the next generation of leaders in your workplace. 

If you don’t, chances are no one will.  Start a mentoring revolution today!