Coaching the new team leader

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February 14, 2018
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Coaching the new team leader

First published in InPsych, August 2017

A coaching assignment with an emerging leader is coveted by psychologists who enjoy this kind of work. Coaching is a prime opportunity to help others to increase their effectiveness and satisfaction as leaders. As behavioural scientists we use a toolkit of proven approaches from a variety of discipline areas that result in sustained learning, growth and self-mastery (Skiffington & Zeus, 2003).

Every coaching journey is unique to the individual. The organisational environments they occupy vary widely and each person comes to the coaching experience with their own set of hopes and expectations. They also differ in terms of their position in the organisational hierarchy and degree of experience as a leader. They can occupy any level in a range that includes CEO, member of the senior leadership team, middle manager, leading professional, and first-level or frontline leader.

My focus in this article is on people who are new to team leadership and those who have been in their positions for some time but have yet to become comfortable in the role. In general, new leaders sit on the first rung of the leadership ladder. They can be found in all occupations and professions, in business, government and not-for-profit organisations. More numerous than managers in middle and top management, they include nursing unit managers, legal practice managers, head teachers, supervisors of various kinds and other professionals with seniority over more junior colleagues.

The new leader

Becoming a team leader for the first time is an exciting moment in the career of a person eager to progress. As an instant leader, they are responsible for directing the work of others and most are keen to share their vision and zeal. However, it can be quite a shock to discover that leadership is not at all easy and how difficult it can be to stay on top of the additional job demands. Consider the situation of a new leader in Matthew’s case (see box below).

Matthew’s experience is not unusual. Juggling the many demands of team leadership is harder than most of us realise or care to remember from our own experience. As a consequence, early enthusiasm can quickly fade into confusion, self-doubt and in some cases, derailment or resignation.

The coaching role

Coaching psychologists need to appreciate the particular challenges facing new leaders, and to be aware of their changing mindsets as they grapple with their leadership role and identity. Over many years of coaching, research and assessing leadership capabilities, I have identified two competency clusters specific to new leaders (Chapman, 2016). These are over and above the sets of skills and knowledge that all leaders need to develop.

Transition to leadership

The first competency cluster focuses on the way an individual makes the transition to a leadership position. It has three components:

  • prioritising leadership as a time commitment
  • leaving the technical or operational comfort zone, building trust in the capabilities of the team and harnessing their skill and expertise
  • evolving from a colleague on the same level as others to a manager and leader in the more senior position.

Team leaders are often promoted because of their technical ability and many make the mistake of trying to fit leadership in around their old role. Others are unaware that a shift in focus is needed. In either case, it can be hard to move away from everyday problem-solving and develop organisational, time management and planning skills. Relationships can also be problematic, especially if the person was promoted from within the same team.

As coaching psychologists, our role is to assist the client towards greater self-awareness of their work patterns and attitudes. It is important for clients to recognise the difference between doing and planning, and the line between encouraging a team member and taking over. Similarly, it is important to offer support for the client, as their relationships with people who were previously friends when working at the same level may evolve into something different once they assume a leadership position.

To the extent that we educate and reassure our clients, the key learning is that the quality of leadership is defined by behaviour and action, and the things leaders do consistently and on a daily basis to build team capability and performance. We should debunk the popular misconception that leadership is about having certain personality characteristics, like magnetism or drive, fixed attributes that some have and others don’t. We should explain that leadership is unique to each person and that, over time, most people can establish their credibility as a leader with the right knowledge, support and guidance. As Peter Drucker (1954) noted, “leaders grow; they are not made”.

Case study: Matthew

Matthew dropped into his chair, relieved to be back at his desk. He felt drained. Was it just five weeks since he had stepped into his new role as manager? Back then he was so excited and idealistic. His CEO was counting on him to bring forward the changes planned for the aged care facility, things that would allow his team to do so much more for the residents.

But now he was wracked with doubt. With so many extra responsibilities to sort through he felt overwhelmed. There were rosters to organise, budgets to plan, emails to answer and meetings to attend.

Matthew now realised that leading people was not as easy as he had assumed, either. Staff don’t always do what you say just because you ask them to. One in particular was downright demanding. And here she was now, peering in at Matthew through the glass partition, no doubt expecting to take leave over the long weekend. Again. With a sigh Matthew turned away from the patient safety protocol that needed to be done, and motioned the staff member inside.

Self-invention as a leader

The second competency cluster concerns the process of self-invention. Its three components are:

  • building positive self-regard as a leader
  • internalising leadership as a part of one’s identity
  • developing a leadership style that fosters collaborative relationships and trust.

Bennis & Townsend (1995) described becoming a leader as a journey of self-discovery where leaders invent themselves. They understood that new leaders sometimes feel like imposters and wonder if they were wrong to step-up at all. To overcome this they suggested leaders work actively and consciously to build positive self-regard by bringing out the best in themselves. This happens when leaders use their strengths to good effect, challenge themselves with stretch goals, and seek feedback on their progress. Coaching psychologists are ideally suited to providing a safe and supportive environment for all of these things to occur.

New leaders have a choice about how to view their role. They can see it as just another step on the career ladder, or they can take on the mantle of leadership, making it an integral part of their professional identity. In my view, the latter path is more rewarding for clients, and better positions them to foster trusting, collaborative and productive relationships within their teams. Guided reflection with clients on the qualities that make them unique and the values or guiding principles that give direction to their leadership will help bolster confidence and sense of purpose. Coaching questions could include: “What qualities do you bring to your leadership?”, “Who do you strive to be as a leader?” and “What difference do you want to make as a leader with your team or organisation?”

The manner in which leaders connect and interact with others defines their leadership style. Style is important because of its impact on the extent to which team members are engaged in their work. We now have ample evidence that employee engagement is the key to better results across criteria including profitability, customer loyalty, quality, safety, wellbeing and discretionary effort.

What causes team members to become engaged? The neuroscience informs us that people’s basic needs have to be met so that they feel accepted and included, safe and supported, in control of their work situation and optimistic (Henson & Rossouw, 2013). Two other key factors, well established in the organisational literature, are organisational support, where employee wellbeing is high on the agenda and people are valued for their contributions, and shared vision, which lays the foundation for meaningful work. Our role as coaching psychologists is to use our understanding of the behavioural sciences to guide new leaders towards inclusive and affirming modes of interaction.

The way forward

At present, the coaching budget in most organisations is directed primarily towards the middle and senior levels. As organisational psychologists, what can we do to broaden the service base and bring the benefits of coaching to new leaders like Matthew? Surely there are alternative models to one-to-one coaching that would work very well with this group of leaders. They could include group coaching, online chat rooms, problem-solving platforms and peer coaching. It is simply a matter of devising delivery models for new leaders that are targeted, relevant and cost-effective.


  • Bennis, W. & Townsend, R. (1995). Reinventing leadership: Strategies to empower the organization. New York: Quill.
  • Chapman, J. (2016). You can lead: Your complete guide to managing people and teams. Sydney: ES-Press.
  • Drucker, P. (1954). The practice of management. New York: Harper.
  • Henson, C. & Rossouw, P. (2013). Brain wise leadership: Practical neuroscience to survive and thrive at work. Sydney: Learning Quest.
  • Skiffington, S. & Zeus, P. (2003). Behavioral coaching: How to build sustainable personal and organizational strength. Sydney: McGraw-Hill.