Here’s a Thought About . . . First-Level Leadership Development

By Tom Roth, Michael Leimbach, PhD

This is the first installment in Wilson Learning’s “Here’s a Thought About . . .” leadership development series. These brief explorations look at challenges faced by L&D professionals and offer thoughts, trends, and tips for preparing well-equipped leaders to lead organizations forward from a new workplace.

An HR Priorities Survey conducted by Gartner, a global research and advisory firm, identified “Developing current and future leadership bench strength” among the top five initiatives HR leaders selected as most important for their organizations to address in 2020. However, a recent study by Wilson Learning Worldwide and Training magazine indicates that less than half of these organizations are confident that they have this needed bench strength.

If employees are not skilled for the future and organizations are struggling to develop critical talent segments, including our current and future leaders, we are not going to get where we need to go in today’s tumultuously changing times. This is even more acute when people are moving into first-level leadership roles and need skills just to survive.

The Challenge: When Doer Is Promoted to Leader

“Here’s a thought about” the unique needs of first-level leaders. When new leaders are promoted, they leave work one day having been responsible for only their own performance, and then return the next day suddenly responsible for others’ performance.

If new leaders are not prepared for this transition, what is their response? They fix problems through their own job knowledge; they train by “let me show you how it’s done.” This then becomes a habit—fixing problems by stepping in, being heroic, and failing to advance the skills of their employees.

In other words, they lead with their Technical Expertise, not their Leadership Credibility.

Thus, even “experienced” first-level leaders may be on shaky ground because they never received any formal leadership development; rather, they’re on their own, learning by observation and lots of trial and error.

An Insight: When Doer Needs to Become a Leader

First-level leaders without the needed preparation resort to “leading with their technical expertise.” Why? Because transitioning to leadership can mean navigating uncomfortable new territory that may not come naturally. New leaders are under stress and do whatever they can to get by. They revert back to their strengths and what’s worked in the past, relying on what they are most comfortable with—their technical expertise.

The First-Level Leader’s Dilemma

So, this is the first-level leader’s dilemma: How do I keep performance high, while at the same time supporting the learning curve of my employees by not stepping in to “fix things”? We have found there are two critical components:

  1. Adopt a leadership attitude that their job is not to do, but to help others do.
  2. Develop the leadership skills needed to guide, engage, and direct the actions of others.

The challenge for new leaders is to rely less on their functional credibility from their technical expertise and instead begin to establish their credibility as a leader. From the perspective of developing leadership character, new first-level leaders require the wisdom to make leadership their source of credibility.

leadership and technical expertise


Necessary Skills for First-Level Leaders

If we are going to help first-level leaders make that shift, we need to better equip them with the necessary skills to succeed as managers and supervisors of individual contributors—what we refer to as Leadership Survival Skills.

Leadership Survival Skills

  • Motivating employees
  • Communicating effectively
  • Defining tasks and goals
  • Delegating with confidence
  • Observing behavior
  • Providing feedback and coaching
  • Resolving conflict
  • Helping others solve problems

These basic one-to-one survival skills provide first-level leaders with the foundation to move past doing the work themselves to getting the work done through others.

Go Slow to Go Fast

Some organizations assume the best approach is expediency and train their new leaders on the “what to do” and “how to do it,” neglecting to show their leaders “why it is important.”

We do need to be quick. There is an urgency to arm first-level leaders with survival skills. But, if we hurry in an effort to accelerate “speed to proficiency,” we can threaten the quality of their learning.

There is a saying in Greece, loosely translated as, “I am going slowly, because I am in a hurry.” That same sentiment applies to leadership development. If rushed, costly mistakes are made.

Be quick, but don’t hurry.

— John Wooden, Legendary UCLA Basketball Coach

Tom Roth

Tom Roth is Chief Operating Officer of Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc. (U.S.) and President of Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc. (Japan). With more than 40 years of experience developing and implementing human performance improvement solutions, Mr. Roth is responsible for the strategic direction and business performance of Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc. operations. In addition, he leads the global marketing services and R&D solutions group, which is responsible for the research and development of all solutions and position papers. Mr. Roth assists global executive leadership teams with issues related to employee engagement, leadership development, strategy alignment, and business transformation. Before assuming his current role, he was President of the global R&D and solution development groups and also served as President of Wilson Learning Corporation.

Mr. Roth has extensive experience developing and implementing human performance improvement solutions. He is coauthor of the book Unplugged: How Organizations Lose Their Energy and How to Get It Back, coauthor of the book Creating the High-Performance Team, and is published in numerous business publications. Mr. Roth is a frequent speaker at national and international conferences and client events, presenting on a wide variety of issues including leadership, employee engagement, change, and strategy implementation.

Michael Leimbach, PhD

Michael Leimbach, PhD, is a globally recognized expert in instructional design and leadership development. As Vice President of Global Research and Development for Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc., he has worked with numerous Global 1000 organizations in Australia, England, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and throughout the United States. Over more than 30 years, Dr. Leimbach had developed Wilson Learning’s diagnostic, learning, and performance improvement capabilities, published over 100 professional articles, coauthored four books, been Editor-in-Chief for the highly acclaimed ADHR research journal, and is a frequent speaker at national and global conferences. He also serves on the ISO Technical Committee (TC232) on Quality Standards for Learning Service Providers and on the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development Dean’s Advisory Board.