Coaching First-Time Leaders

by Risto M. Koskinen (Finland)

Starting as a leader is not a single event but a process where the odds are not in your favor: four out of ten newly promoted managers and executives fail within 18 months of taking on the role.[i] In this article, I will outline a coaching process targeted especially to young first-time leaders to improve their odds.

Age-related challenges

The average age for first-time managers is under 30 years and seems to decrease further. One reason for this is that many start-ups have their CEOs in their mid-twenties or even younger. These Gen Z leaders are short on experience but long on ambition.

As these leaders lack life experience they are also still to build up their identities, enhance their self-awareness, and reinforce their self-esteem. These processes are still in more or less early stages: theories on transformations of adult development (Gould, Super, Levinson) name among others exploration, role-confusion, and self-questioning as relevant themes at this stage of life. Developing independence means also being accountable: young leaders may have difficulties making effective decisions or tough calls, as well as dealing with moral dilemmas.

Taking a leadership role – especially if one is promoted from an expert role – means not only the identity transformation but giving up the former reference group and immersing into a new one. At the same time, they may need to fight for their credibility in the eyes of several stakeholders: subordinates, suppliers, partners, financiers, etc. There’s also a demand for understanding office politics, dealing with competition and feelings of envy, and patching the skill gaps – all these make the yellow brick road a bumpy one.

Three phases, three approaches

It seems to me that almost all coaching is limited to the actual transition phase: you have entered the leadership position, and coaching is to support your survival for the first months. But coaching should be seen as a developmental process, not as a sequence of separate Band-Aid meetings. In the graphic, I describe my understanding of how this process can be structured.

The pre-transition phase starts at the latest when the leader is selected for the new role, at least a few weeks before taking the rudder. The coach’s role is more or less consultative: a coach is not to give answers but raise the coachee’s awareness in various dimensions and guide the coachee to create his/her solutions.

The key themes here are in three buckets: adopting a new mindset, anticipating challenges and learning new skills, and starting to connect with key stakeholders. Typical tools used here include e.g.

  1. Frameworks (like a shift from operational to strategic thinking) and the role maps (to chart for example new constellations, expectations, or leadership presence) to help mindset to change;
  2. Scenario work (to anticipate challenges) and learning tasks (to catch up on skill gaps); and
  3. Stakeholder maps or other tools like e.g. Power/Interest Grid (to gain an understanding of the stakeholder demands).

[i] Why new leaders fail. ProvetusHR, 2022.

Source: iCN Issue 41  (Leadership Coaching); pages 51-53

About Risto M. Koskinen

Risto M. Koskinen, MBA, CPC, is a certified Finnish coach and supervisor. He has made a long career in career coaching and career counseling as well as in teaching and social work. Today, as semi-retired, he is active on LinkedIn, with his weekly career-related posts. You can follow him at #CoachRisto.