How Can You Better Prepare First-Line Managers to Be Effective?

By Jessica Johnson | March 19, 2024

Key Takeaways: 

  • Newly promoted first-line managers often lack training, leading to organizational challenges and high turnover with direct reports.
  • Effective goal setting is vital for engagement and aligning work with organizational objectives.
  • Targeted training in goal-setting skills can bridge the gap, fostering leadership capabilities and improving performance.

As we’ve worked with organizations in a variety of industries around the world, too often we find newly promoted first-line managers are unprepared for their shifting responsibilities. By and large, it’s not their fault – we haven’t taught first-line managers how to transition from being stellar individual contributors to impactful leaders in their organizations where their work should be getting done through others. The truth is that they are rarely instructed how to manage—aside from some onboarding basics—let alone how to lead.

Paraphrasing the immortal words of Scotty Smalls from The Sandlot, “We’ve been going about this all wrong, we should blame ourselves.”

We might all take some responsibility for the lack of readiness among first-line managers. Research1 done by Zenger Folkman suggests that on average, employees get their first management position in their early 30s. And it isn’t until their early 40s that they receive their first leadership training. That leaves nearly a decade where managers are operating under a complete lack of practical training, and solidifying poor habits they may have picked up by watching other poor-performing managers. It’s no wonder that one out of every two employees have left a job to get away from their manager, according to Gallup2.

Compelling research recently published by The RBL Group shares what we’ve found are the new, post-pandemic expectations of first-line leaders. Leslie Kawai, Erin Burns, and Dave Ulrich highlight key shifts post-COVID in first-line leadership behaviors that have the strongest impact on organizations.

The good news is that there are organizations that prepare their first-line managers, even before promotion, on some key areas outlined below.

The Significant Difference Between Performance Goals and Development Goals 

Let’s delve into two areas of increasing importance that the research outlines: retaining people with the competencies required for success, and helping employees understand what is required at each stage in their development. HR professionals, senior managers, and leaders of leaders have opportunity to help first-line managers be better prepared to lead in these areas by helping them set goals with their direct reports that lead to engagement and growth and that power organizational results. If you lead or support first-line managers, here are some thoughts on focused development efforts to help them grow into the leaders your organization needs today and in the future.

Teach first-line managers to personalize goal setting so that their direct reports understand:

  1. How the work they do contributes to the strategic direction of the organization (performance goals)
  2. How to connect what they are expected to deliver to development opportunities for growth and to their longer-term career aspirations (development goals)

There’s been significant research conducted on goal setting and what leads to increased employee commitment. Leaders continue to search for what is going to help them keep their best employees, and holistic goal setting is one solution.

Organizations are generally consistent at yearly performance goal setting. Many times, these goals are cascaded from higher levels of management down to individual contributors who have no say in whether the goals are compelling to them or achievable. And performance goals are rarely compelling to individual employees. Instead, development opportunities will increase performance far more than a performance goal that is designed to benefit the organization.

Performance Goals Development Goals
  • Goals are framed so the focus is on the outcome, and the benefit to the organization
  • Specific performance goals limit an employee’s choice about what to focus on
  • Employees may choose to utilize known ways to quickly implement knowledge and skills that have already been mastered
  • Rarely are employees involved in the co-creation of the goal
  • Goals are framed to increase personal knowledge or skill acquisition 
  • Development goals that are employee-led and manager-supported often inspire employees to generate solutions to a roadblock, implement them, and monitor their effectiveness 
  • Challenging development goals are likely to be far more effective for discovering out-of-the-box ideas or action plans that will enable organizations to (re)gain a competitive edge 


A significant challenge in the goal-setting process is our systems. Performance goals and development goals are usually housed in two different places. OKRs, KPIs, and quarterly goals are generally tracked in a vastly different part of an ERP system than personal development goals, which can be hidden in an individual development plan. 

Consider training your first-line managers to be more successful with their teams by connecting both types of goal setting—performance and development—to the results they are expected to deliver. One simple way to have a manager do this is to have them co-create a realistic stretch performance goal with their direct report, and then ask, “How do you need to grow to be able to achieve this goal?” The areas for growth—whether that be through training, a mentor, access to senior leadership, etc.—are what engage employees in their work. If they can’t come up with a developmental growth area connected to their goal, it probably isn’t stretching them enough.

As C. K. Prahalad taught, “Your aspirations should exceed your resources, but not too much.” A recent article with Dave Ulrich outlines some additional ideas around effective goal setting.

Focused Effort to Develop Goal-Setting Skills Among Managers

A multinational energy company recognized that their first-line managers had very little experience in goal setting—though they had been given templates to complete, and check-ins were scheduled at specific intervals. They also had an alarming rate of voluntary departures from the organization with employees reporting a lack of growth. This organization partnered with us to create a development opportunity for all managers—not just first-line managers—around improving the goal-setting process and outcomes.

A two-hour, interactive, virtual session was designed to help all 2,000 of their “people leaders” improve the goal-setting process, and make sure both performance and development goals were connected and aligned to the strategy of the organization. They created a step-by-step formula for writing an impactful goal and practiced having better check-in conversations to see if progress toward the goals was being made. 

One impactful solution came as the virtual sessions began. The organization received pushback from first-line managers who worked with technicians—some of those technicians had been doing the same job for 20 years—with the managers saying, “How do I even go about setting a stretch goal with those employees?” We discussed how in 1:1s or even in team conversation, they could ask their employee, “What elements of the processes you follow really bother you? What do you complain about regularly?” and then suggest their goal could be to come up with three solutions to fix that process problem. Next, they could put a package together to present to management of recommended solutions. 

Identifying development growth goals in areas such as innovating, collaborating, and persuading not only advances first-line leaders’ professional and leadership development but also helps improve the outcomes they achieve for the organization. The employees at our client company who set and achieved development goals clearly set themselves apart to show performance achievement, and the company gained efficiencies in the process. 

The organization experienced a decrease in voluntary turnover and improved their calibration process around year-end performance evaluations. Year-over-year financial impacts were also seen as employee productivity and engagement increased.


If you’re considering how to prepare first-line managers to be successful in the organization, helping them know how to co-create goals with their direct reports is a strong way to achieve organizational impact. RBL has in-person and virtual development options that can help set your leaders on a path to increasing their strong leadership capabilities and benefiting the organization in the meantime.

What is needed of our leaders is shifting, and capturing growth opportunities—like this one—that will upgrade leadership across your organization. 

To explore more of RBL’s evidence-based leadership research, we invite you to read more: 

To discuss how this research can help first-line leadership in your organization, contact us to connect with any of our leadership consultants.

1Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2019). Leadership Development – Are You Starting Too Late? [White paper]. Retrieved from

2Gallup. (n.d.). State of the American Manager. Retrieved from

Jessica Johnson is a Principal with The RBL Group. She has worked with organizations around the world as an executive coach, teacher, and facilitator and has published widely on the topics of leadership, HR, and talent management. 

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