January 6, 2022

New to Leadership: A Survival Guide for Those Brand-New Leaders


Phil Morehead

Full disclosure: You will notice that I don’t use the word “manager” in this post. While I could drone on endlessly about the difference between the two, know that Leaders pull from the front and managers push from the back.

Some workdays are more eventful than others, but nothing will ever compare to that feeling you get when you receive an email from your manager asking you to attend an "urgent meeting" with them and the HR team.

With no context or meeting agenda, you anxiously and nervously join the meeting, hoping you still have a job.

To your surprise, the goal of this meeting was nothing but to give you some of the best news you can ever get: You're being promoted to a leadership position!

That’s when a flush of excitement races through you for an instant, only to be replaced by a resounding voice inside your head that reminds you about the single most unwelcome fact you want to hear at that moment: "Wait, you've never led anyone before!"

That, my friends, is a story that’s often told in corporate America. It was my story seven years ago. And today, it probably is the story of many other young leaders who find themselves scrambling on how to start leading and inspiring teams.

If you’re part of this group of brand-new leaders, please know that there is nothing wrong with being on this side of the board. Everyone has to start somewhere, and leadership is naturally a tricky thing. It requires an entirely different point of view compared to that of an individual contributor. And that change in mindset is not obvious to many people.

The lack of good guidance and content that speaks directly to young leaders in efforts to help them in this transitional journey doesn’t help the situation either.

So, I really hope I can help you at least a little by providing some insights that, to me, were the core habits that helped me a lot when I first became a leader.

Please adopt these insights and make them your own as you see fit in your journey.

Congratulations! Let’s get to work now

Celebrations are called for! You’re seen as a leader now, and you’ve likely received a promotion that includes a new title and pay raise – so you may pause and enjoy this moment. It’s genuine proof that your hard work is paying off.

However, a word of caution here: You haven’t arrived at your ultimate destination. You’ve merely taken a single step on a long, challenging journey. So, be proud, yet humble.

With time, you’ll see that one of (if not the most) important aspects of leadership is your mindset and how it influences the way your team sees you.

Understand the full picture

Leadership, like many other vital soft skills, is one that can be honed and mastered over time. Maybe things won’t click right away because, let’s be honest, all of this takes time. But you have to make it your goal to keep working until you find a good leadership style that works for you.

Think of the process of developing a leadership style as the Sword of Gryffindor: “It only takes in that which makes it stronger.”

In other words, for those who’ve never watched Harry Potter: You have to keep trying, deal with the difficult situations and failure, and make sure you pick up anything that will help you become a stronger leader.

It’s also really important to know that developing a leadership style is more of a process of lifelong learning. Yes, there is something we all can collectively interpret as mastery because there are truly great leaders out there that are perhaps seen as masters.

However, it’s the professional and personal experiences that you pick up along the way what make you into a great leader, and you’ll never run out of those. There will always be crucible moments that help shape your leadership journey, so you’ll never stop evolving your leadership style.

Communicate everything

In software development, there’s a theory called Conway’s Law.  This law states that the structure of software will mirror the communication structure of the team. If you have teams that work in silos and are not aligned with other teams working in the same domain, you’ll find large swathes of disparate systems under the hood of your software.

So, with communication being a crucial element to effectively lead your team to success – I advise you to keep these two things in mind as a new leader:

  1. Ensure that all your messages come from a place of reason and are supported by solid business logic that is clear, consistent, specific, and accurate.

  1. Not only pay attention to how you communicate but also pay extra attention to how your message meets the needs of the team, addresses their concerns, and adds value to their work.

Change the way you view “work”

If you are going from being a contributor who was considered the subject matter expert to being the team leader, be ready to change how you understand your job.

Of course, this all depends on the organization and team you’re on, but in most cases, when you’re an individual contributor — you likely have deep knowledge of the latest trends, have current and sharp skills, and are heavily involved in the day-to-day tactical work in your field.

However, once you become the team leader, you’ll have the senior stakeholders vying for your time, which will give you less bandwidth to maintain those skills or even get involved in the day-to-day work.

Trust me, the temptation to dive in and start fixing things as a newly minted leader will be very constant. And this is where young leaders typically struggle because they can’t find the balance between day-to-day and long-term.

Avoid the mistake I made in my 20s, and don’t go deep diving back into the weeds.

In my case, I made it a priority to “focus on the forest instead of the trees.” Be sure to evangelize the reason why you are all working together and what outcome you are trying to achieve. Do this loudly and often.

It’s also important to remember that a big part of being a leader is to equip your team with the “why” and let them figure out the “how.”

Promote psychological safety

You’ve likely heard this concept thrown around while reading about leadership.

Psychological safety refers to the team members’ perception of risk. In other words, it’s the level of safety any team member feels when taking a risk to not be seen as incompetent, ignorant, or disruptive.

In my teams, I make it a point to hold a kickoff meeting where I make myself vulnerable by letting them know that I don’t know everything and that I’m a work in progress

I’m also the first to call out when I communicate something poorly and the first to elicit direct, candid feedback on how I approach problems. This exercise creates trust within the team, and I regularly reinforce that there are no wrong or dumb questions, only those that go unasked.

You should also allow your team to lean on you as a pillar of support when times are challenging. And don’t forget to celebrate all the wins, no matter how small, when times are good.

Over time, the team will come to know that you’ve got their back, ultimately solidifying the synergy in the group and creating an environment where everyone feels valued and supported.

I really hope this advice helps you in your journey. Moving into leadership was the best decision I made in my career, so no matter how intimidating and challenging things might seem in the beginning – do your best and become the best leader you can be.

This is a very fulfilling and motivating profession, so I hope you enjoy it as much as you can.

Oh, and here are a few other small tips that might seem simple but will truly help you create those foundational layers of a strong team.

  • Try to incorporate as much fun as possible into work. I’ve found success in holding virtual happy hours every week, where the only rule is that you can’t talk about work.

  • Don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things out as you find your unique leadership style. Make sure you honestly inspect and adapt your style frequently and allow yourself to be wrong often. The idea is that you learn from any missteps and move on.

  • Finally, and this is super crucial, constantly ask for opinions and feedback on how you’re doing, and be sure you don’t take criticism personally. It’s easy to fall into that trap, and receiving feedback maybe is not the easiest thing at times – but it will help you now and in the long run.

Good luck, leader. I am rooting for you!

The Latest from Nexient

We're hiring

Design cutting-edge software and digital experiences for America’s most admired brands with Nexient.

Join Our Team